In the rush to get back to school, let’s not forget teachers’ mental health

Teachers in Ontario, Canada never imagined they would leave for March break and not return to finish the school year with their students. Many classrooms were frozen in time with Friday, March 12, 2020 still displayed on the walls.

Before COVID-19, the rotating strikes by Ontario teachers were the big news story in education in the province. Issues such as mandatory e-learning, securing funding to hire special education teachers, maintaining seniority hiring rules, and increasing class sizes became outstanding matters between the Ontario government and teachers.

Stress in teaching was prevalent prior to COVID-19. Increasing job demands, lack of administrative support, and violence in the classroom, are frequently cited sources of teacher stress. Work context and personal factors, as well as family context, contribute to teacher mental health, stress, and attrition, and can also impact temporary leaves of absence.

Teaching during a pandemic has meant teacher stress is at a whole other level.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have had a steep learning curve trying to support their students from a distance. Most teachers have not trained for online teaching.  Moving content online in a short amount of time and worrying about the mental health and well-being of their students has also taken an emotional toll.

At the same time, teachers stand in a privileged position compared to many because they are fully employed during a period when countless others have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. How do we support teacher wellness when people are struggling to keep wellness in their own lives?

Teachers cannot meet the needs of their students if they are struggling and stressed out themselves.

Teachers are used to being compared to other teachers to a certain extent. However, this comparison has become heightened during COVID-19. Social media is filled with parents commenting on how well their teacher is connecting or not connecting with their children. The pressure teachers feel during the pandemic to ensure their students’ needs are being met likely increases stress. Their own isolation is also a factor.

Ontario’s Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce was quick to tell teachers what they should be doing for online learning instead of respecting the relationships teachers had built with students and their knowledge of students’ home situations prior to COVID-19. In a memo to school boards, Lecce called on teachers to increase virtual instruction and to embrace the use of synchronous learning during the school closure period. A focus on real-time classes makes learning prohibitive to some students because every child’s home situation is different.

Many teachers went above and beyond to connect with their students. There are heartwarming stories of teachers reading to students from sidewalks, dressing in costumes during video chats, and dropping off care packages to student households.

However, some teachers struggled to adjust to online learning for a variety of reasons; for example, they were caring for aging parents or young children.

It is clear when speaking with parents there was a wide variety of experiences — both positive and negative — with online instruction.

COVID-19 provides an opportunity to highlight the amazing qualities that teachers already possess, such as creativity, flexibility, perseverance, and compassion. Moving forward, it is clear that teacher mental health needs to be part of a teacher’s professional identity. Self-care and well-being are not just personal practices but something that should be taught to teacher candidates as a mandatory part of their journey in joining the teaching profession.

We also need to continue asking what can be done to improve teachers’ mental health and well-being as they support their students returning to the classroom in September. We’ll be doing just that with our cross-Canada study based at the Telfer School of Management that will collect data in order to understand teacher mental health, leaves of absences, and return to work.

When we embark on our new routine involving masks, hand sanitizer, and social distancing, let’s remember the importance of teacher mental health too.

Melissa Corrente is a teacher.

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