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BC teachers report deteriorated mental health during pandemic

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A physical distancing sign on display at a Vancouver elementary school. Hastings Elementary school in Vancouver. Courtesy THE CANADIAN PRESS.

In between his woodwork and metalwork classes, it took Qualicum Beach high school teacher Rob Gibbs more than 40 minutes to clean every piece of equipment and surface his students touched. That’s several classes a day, multiplied by every school day this past year. On top of that, with only a half hour for lunch, the 34-year veteran teacher ended up spending his ‘break’ sanitizing. “It has been a difficult year with many uncertainties and changes creating challenges along the way. This amounted to a 50 per cent increase in workload over that of a typical year.”

For elementary school counsellor Sarah Bourdon, walking into a building of 500 people each day when everyone was being told to stay at home was extremely stressful. “I found it very difficult to balance the normal challenges of my job and home life as a parent of young children with the overwhelming fear that I, or a member of my family, would get sick. I know that this anxiety impacted my wellness.”

Gibbs and Bourdon are clearly not alone. According to a new study conducted by a team of researchers from the UBC Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), the Centre for Health Evaluation and Outcome Sciences (CHÉOS), in partnership with the BC Ministry of Education and the BC Teachers’ Federation, two-thirds of teachers surveyed reported a greater workload than before the pandemic. On top of that, four out of five teachers reported worse mental health this school year. (Infographic available HERE.)

Dr. Anne Gadermann

Co-led by Dr. Anne Gadermann, CHÉOS Scientist and Assistant Professor at HELP, School of Population and Public Health (SPPH), and Dr. Eva Oberle, Assistant Professor, HELP and SPPH, the goal of the study was to learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted teachers.

Study’s goal to understand how BC teachers are doing during the COVID-19 pandemic

“Key decision-makers and stakeholders in the education system have been tasked, and will continue to be tasked, with supporting the well-being of teachers and students through the pandemic and beyond,” explains Dr. Gadermann. “What we have attempted to do with this research is provide a sense of where teachers are at in terms of their mental health and well-being, and what supports are likely to be effective in responding to their needs.”

More than 1,200 teachers across BC responded to the survey in February 2021. On average, respondents reported just over 15 years of teaching experience, with about half of them elementary school teachers and a quarter of them secondary school teachers.

Around the world, COVID-19 has led to school closures in 165 countries, impacting approximately 63 million teachers and hundreds of millions of children. In BC, schools were closed for in-classroom learning for three months at the end of the last school year. But unlike many other jurisdictions, the doors remained open this entire school year in BC. And that came with a whole new set of challenges as teachers worked to navigate changing public health guidelines.

One public health guideline in classrooms was to maintain physical distancing where possible. Courtesy Surrey Schools.

Gibbs points out reduced in-classroom time was one of his biggest issues. “All the junior classes had half the amount of usual time and this required new and special preparations for each class, along with new projects and planning.”

“The trends that we identified for teachers were clear,” emphasizes Dr. Oberle. “The BC teachers who responded to the survey generally reported deteriorated mental health 11 months into the pandemic. They also tended to report fewer opportunities to connect with students, parents, and colleagues, and unmet needs for students.”

“It has been a challenging year for teachers,” adds Dr. Gadermann. “Two out of five teachers reported being now more likely to seek to leave the profession than before the pandemic.”

Understanding potential supports for teachers

The study team also looked into how support within schools and communities, from the union and from the Ministry of Education impacted teachers’ well-being. Dr. Monique Gagné, Research Associate at HELP and CHÉOS, remarked, “We found that more avenues of support were associated with higher well-being. For example, teachers who reported feeling more supported were more likely to report better mental health.”

“We can think of these supports as protective for teachers and an important area to focus on as we look forward,” elaborates Dr. Kimberly Thomson, Postdoctoral Researcher at HELP and CHÉOS. “Focusing on teacher support could be a critical first step for school boards and the Ministry of Education as they work to improve teacher well-being in the long-term.”

Sarah Bourdon is hopeful September will bring calm and consistency to schools. She wants to go back to feeling safe at work. But even through the stress and anxiety of this unprecedented pandemic school year, the Victoria teacher has found one big positive. “The resilience of the kids was so inspiring. They really rolled with the constant changes and disappointments of this year. I am inspired by their ability to adapt and learn, in spite of uncertainty.”

This report was produced and published by the University of British Columbia’s Human Early Learning Partnership (HELP), June 2021. It was funded by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) COVID-19 Partnership Engagement Grant, which was received in partnership with the BC Ministry of Education. This research informed by the partnership with the BC Ministry of Education as well as a partnership with the BC Teachers’ Federation.



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