Teachers say stress, burnout rampant in schools

Teachers in Winnipeg say they are stressed out, overworked and on the verge of burnout — and they don’t see an end in sight.

“I feel like we’re running a marathon and there’s no finish line,” said one elementary school teacher.

“We are feeling walked on, beat down and destroyed,” said a middle school teacher.

CBC spoke to several teachers about how they are coping with increased workloads during the pandemic and agreed not to name them because they fear they could be disciplined for speaking out.

Since entering the orange level on the province’s pandemic response system last month, some teachers say an already excessive workload doubled as classes were split up to allow for more spacing between desks, and many students switched to remote learning.

“I am literally working from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. at night with a break from 4:30 to 8,” said a middle years teacher, who said his only downtime was spent caring for his family.

He said on top of teaching between two or three classrooms, teachers at his school are also expected to attend to students working remotely at the same time. He’s also expected to produce videos and packages for students to access from home.

“Teachers are malleable by nature, we move, we shift, we’re able to adapt … but there comes a point where the ability to adapt and to change is lost,” he said.

An elementary teacher said even though schools are in level orange on the province’s pandemic response system they have not been able to reach two metres of distance in her school. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

The middle years teacher said he’s taking advantage of mental health supports to cope with the stress, but worries other teachers may not be able to handle it much longer, especially those with stresses outside of their job.

“Any of those teachers that have anything pressing outside of school, they are the ones who you can see on their face, you can see in their actions, they are near the edge, they are near collapse.”

‘No one is speaking up for us’

The elementary school teacher said the addition of remote learning to teachers’ plates is not sustainable.

 “We were always told from the beginning that there would be a different teacher doing the remote learning, and that hasn’t happened, not consistently.”

She said another factor that’s adding to teachers’ stress is feeling like no one is working toward a solution.

“No one is speaking up for us, teachers are extremely frustrated with the union because we don’t hear them or see them doing anything at all, we don’t feel like we’re being listened to and we definitely don’t feel like we are being advocated for.”

Teachers say added duties like helping students wash their hands or cleaning surfaces, books, and equipment takes away time they used to spend on teaching and preparing lessons. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC )

While the workload has increased after moving to the orange level, the elementary teacher said her school still hasn’t been able to reach the goal of having students spaced out two metres apart.

“That makes me feel frustrated … it’s hard to go to work and feel safe when you’re working in a closed crowded classroom, where children don’t have two metres of space and depending on your grade level, many of the children are not wearing masks.”

She also said with younger students, much of her time is spent cleaning surfaces and helping students with handwashing — time she would normally spend on prepping for lessons or marking assignments.

“We spend almost 45 minutes of our day washing our hands.”

‘An absolute gong show’

A high school teacher said even though going to level orange didn’t change anything in her school, she feels like she’s been working two full-time jobs since the school year began and is physically exhausted.

“We just had a two-day weekend, I slept ten hours each night, took three-hour naps each day and when I was awake all I did was mark essays,” the high school teacher said.

She’s been teaching both in-class and online since September, and says having to be in two places at once leaves little time in her day for anything else.

“In some ways it feels really empty [in the school] because there are so few students, but at the same time, every day is an absolute gong show,” she said of trying to juggle the two teaching formats.

The high school teacher said she wakes up each day hoping for what most would consider bad news.

“I’m desperately hoping that we will have a complete shutdown for high schools and that we will go 100 per cent remote, that would be way easier, because then I’m at least only doing one job.”

‘Not just physical exhaustion’

The teachers all said that changing policies and shifting plans have continued to add to their workloads. Many teachers aren’t taking breaks because of extra duties that have been assigned to them, like monitoring students during recess or sanitizing books and equipment.

“You can only give so much, and then when your tank is empty and people keep asking more and more of you, you’re going to burn out,” said the elementary teacher.

The teachers said their biggest concern was burnout and the fear that there aren’t enough substitute teachers to cover them if they get sick, or if teachers go on stress leave.

“Teachers are mentally burnt out, it’s not just physical exhaustion,” said the elementary school teacher.

“I really believe that if we continue on this path we are going to have empty classrooms in the fall of 2021, because if this continues on till June, teachers are going to be looking for early retirement, career changes or stress leave, and I think that the stress leave will happen before June,” she said.

‘Where’s the money?’

The teachers all expressed concerns about funding for schools, because the need for more teachers and substitutes is there.

“We keep hearing there’s money,” said the elementary school teacher, referring to the $85.4 million earmarked by the federal government to help schools cope with the pandemic — money that hasn’t been spent by the province. 

That’s on top of the $100 million that was set aside for schools earlier in the pandemic, though only $15.5 million had been spent by the end of September for enhanced cleaning, transportation, technology and staffing, Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said Monday.

“I know for a fact that on multiple occasions we have asked for another teacher so that we can open a classroom and we’ve been told there’s no money,” said the elementary teacher.

“So where is the money?”

The province has said it wouldn’t tap into the federal allotment until it exhausted the existing $100 million, half of which is money the school divisions were asked to save last spring when schooling went remote.

Goertzen said the province would spend all the money in due time. “It wasn’t supposed to all be spent in September,” he told reporters after question period.

Still, teachers are feeling that investments will be needed sooner rather than later.

“This is a tipping point and if there are not interventions, if this government does not use the money allocated to them by the federal government to protect teachers and students, this system, this institution that we depend upon, that we value, that we invest in, I see it crumbling,” the middle school teacher said.

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