Educator mental health beyond resources: We need to address our work culture
As we write this post in January 2022, many teachers and education workers across Canada have returned to emergency remote and online teaching, or are in a state of pedagogical limbo, back to in-person teaching but fearing the next turn of events. After two years of a global pandemic, with its parade of abrupt shifts, ever-changing mandates, and frustrations, we continue to collectively face public health challenges. The tumultuousness of the past two years cannot be ignored when understanding the current state of education workers’ mental health and well-being.
Since spring 2020, our research on teachers and education workers’ mental health has focused on changes in workload, pedagogy, the status of the profession, and their effects on educators. As part of this work, the CTF/FCE Research and Professional Learning team conducted 32 education worker interviews with the goal of better understand their experiences in the 2020-2021 school year. The narratives in the ensuing “But at what cost?” research report paint a picture of worsening mental health and well-being that has been largely unmitigated and unaddressed. Although mental health resources have been made available to teachers, including a push for greater self-care, such resources and suggestions do very little to quell underlying systemic issues that contribute to ongoing mental health crises in public education.
Listening to participants’ everyday experiences through our interviews highlighted the paradox of self-care. On the one hand, education workers discussed how they wanted to have more time dedicated to maintaining their mental, physical, and emotional well-being. While some teachers were able to fit this time into their week, it was most often only a few hours with their family on a weekend morning, as they needed to schedule preparation and assessment time into their weekends as well. On the other hand, the amount of work they needed to complete in a day, along with additional stressors such as increased demands from online teaching, continually shifting contexts, and prolonged exposure to acute (now chronic) stressors, made the thought of adding another task overwhelming.
In this way, instead of fitting work into their life, their well-being needed to fit around their work. Not only did teachers have little time and energy in their day to take care of basic necessities like cooking and tending to their families and relationships outside of work, the thought of making time for their own mental health paradoxically amplified feelings of anxiety as they navigated increased workloads and pandemic stress. Although messaging around the importance of self-care practices increased, and resources were made available, teachers felt that their mental health was an individual issue that rested entirely on their shoulders without any structural supports to lessen stress and anxiety. As such, self-care was another item that many teachers felt they were not able to work hard enough on, or able to attain, which deepened feelings of guilt and shame around work and their personal lives.
For almost all the interviewees, such working conditions and attempts at maintaining a sense of personal well-being have proven to be unsustainable and unachievable. One of the many factors that keeps these conditions in place is workplace culture. An undercurrent ran through the teachers’ experiences, and that was how the culture of work in publicly funded public education was contributing to the deterioration of education workers’ mental health and well-being.
Teachers and education workers told us that all too often, across Canada, the current work culture has been one where teachers: work most or all evenings and weekends, make themselves available through online platforms and emails at all times of the day, feel personally responsible to keep the system going at the expense of their own health, and carry a massive weight when they cannot live up to these unrealistic standards. Although teachers and education workers are not contractually obligated to do so, their jobs simply cannot be completed in the hours they are paid, but for the sake of their students, they continue to work above their capacity. This culture of work is upheld by informal norms and expectations, including through complex relationships between teachers, parents/guardians, administrators, school boards, Ministries of Education, and through public perceptions. In some cases, institutional inertia has kept educators bound to historically gendered patterns of self-sacrifice for the sake of their work – these patterns have brought teachers to a crescendo of imbalance in the pandemic and have laid bare a damaging work culture at the heart of public education.
Moving forward, we need to acknowledge all layers of the system as playing a role in the overall well-being of teachers and education workers, and by extension, students. It also means mental health and well-being are not “solved” through positivity, hero narratives, or one-day workshops. Changing and repairing this work culture involves navigating relationships with multiple layers of stakeholders, building a nuanced understanding of educators’ everyday realities, and the complex, often emotionally tenuous work culture teachers exist within, to advocate for systemic, sustainable change for the profession.
Read But at what cost? for a glimpse of the professional and personal challenges faced by teachers and education workers throughout the pandemic and to learn why Canada’s publicly funded public education systems are teetering on edge.
To address work culture in public education, we need a national conversation. This is why the CTF/FCE is calling on the federal government to create a national education advisory table to strengthen publicly funded public education across Canada. To find out how you can encourage provincial and territorial governments to take action, please visit www.voteeducation.ca.