By Maggie Macintosh
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Manitoba teachers say their workforce is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic’s “shadow effect’,’ both a surge of mental health concerns and limited services to address them, following the height of virus-related lockdowns and remote learning.
“My anxiety levels about everything are out of this world. I definitely am experiencing anxiety about what I think might be trivial things; it kind of pops up out of the blue,” said Richelle North Star Scott, a Winnipeg teacher.
In the early days of the pandemic, North Star Scott delivered remote lessons and later co-taught classrooms filled with masked students. In her personal life, she took care of her anxious children and worried about her personal and family well-being.
The teacher, employed as an Indigenous co-ordinator in city schools, said she could not help but stress about the worst-case scenario when her daughter, who has asthma, contracted the novel coronavirus before immunizations were available.
The isolation workers and their families have experienced has in and of itself caused trauma and brought up intergenerational trauma, especially for Indigenous people, said the Anishinaabe and Metis educator.
While noting teachers were excited for a back-to-school season with traditional gatherings and fewer restrictions in place this fall, North Star Scott said everything has caught up with them and they are exhausted, perhaps more than ever before.
Ninety-seven per cent of teachers in a 2020-21 survey conducted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, in partnership with provincial associations, indicated they had an increased physical, mental and emotional workload that school year.
Growing concerns about workplace well-being prompted the Manitoba Teachers’ Society to switch from providing in-house counselling services to contracting with HumanaCare, an employee assistance program provider, to make more resources available at the start of 2022.
“The adrenaline’s pumping during the (height of the) pandemic, everybody’s feeling that they’re part of a team and they’re working really hard. It’s when it’s all over that members start assessing the impacts. They recognize what a toll it’s taken. They recognize how their lives and their work have changed and that’s when we expected to see the most serious mental health issues,” union leader James Bedford said in an interview this week.
Classroom teachers, principals and other staff who make up the union’s upwards of 16,000 members can now receive short-term, intensive triaged counselling through the external provider. The service, paid for entirely by teachers, is also available to eligible immediate family members.
Approximately 3,200 individuals reached out to HumanaCare through the contract between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30; 1,400 alone made contact throughout the summer.
Bedford said the society’s in-house team, a group of five permanent counsellors that was overwhelmed with work prior to the change, had rarely heard from members during their annual holidays.
“(1,400 contacts) is enormous. That speaks to there being a significant problem because summer is usually supposed to be the time that you can relax, you can recharge, you can get some rest,” he said.
Sixty-five per cent of individuals who have accessed services this year indicated they were in need of support related to one or more of the following categories: anxiety and panic attacks; stress management; personal and emotional issues; marital and relationship issues; and depression and family conflict.
While Bedford acknowledged some clients may be teacher spouses or children, he said any issues in a member’s household inevitably put a strain on their personal well-being.
Multiple teachers told the Free Press ongoing concerns about contracting COVID-19 and the substitute shortage are weighing on the workforce, in addition to anxieties around academic and social-emotional learning gaps.
“Our students are struggling with their identities. They don’t know where they fit into classrooms,” said North Star Scott.
For the teacher, self-care comes in the form of visiting sweat lodges, attending sun dances and sharing her passions and personal experiences. North Star Scott is among the local experts who contributed to a new guide on teacher well-being and workplace wellness.
Jennifer Lawson, senior editor of Teacher, Take Care, ran professional development sessions on well-being early on in the pandemic. But Lawson, a former principal working as a school trustee and sessional instructor at the University of Manitoba’s education faculty amid ever-changing COVID-19 protocols, said she quickly realized friends and colleagues needed more help.
The guide, created by teachers for teachers, includes self-care tips, strategies to spot burnout warning signs and support colleagues, and ideas on implementing “psychologically safe work environments” based on national standards. Each chapter starts with a teacher’s personal story about their well-being challenges.
“Five years ago, a teacher would never phone-in sick and say they needed a mental health day. They would just say they were sick,” said Lawson, when reached by phone in Edmonton, where she and North Star Scott are attending the Pan-Canadian Summit on K-12 Workplace Well-being.
“People are being given more permission to acknowledge when they’re not well (today) and they are getting more supports than ever.”
At the same time, Lawson said, there is a long way to go.
Maggie Macintosh is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with the
WINNIPEG FREE PRESS. The LJI program is federally funded. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI funding.