June-Tired: Boosting Morale When a Pandemic Drags On
Originally published in TEACH Magazine, January/February 2021 Issue
By Meagan Gillmore
Eva Tsang’s plans for the winter holiday break were simple: she was going to end 2020 by making individual coding kits for her Grade 3 students and watch Netflix—lots of it, along with some Hallmark movies. “Netflix is my new best friend,” she says, noting many of her teacher colleagues spend their off-work hours with the streaming service.
It’s been a challenging school year. After nearly 20 years of teaching junior grades, she was moved to Grade 3 in September 2020. Along with learning a new curriculum, she has had to adjust to the new rules of teaching in-person during a pandemic. The school is divided into cohorts so periods are longer and she rarely sees colleagues.
She spends two or three hours a week, after school, getting materials ready for students. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, her students can’t share anything, including markers for the class whiteboard. Books she gives them to read are stored in their desks. Sports teams and trips are cancelled.
“A lot of the fun has been taken out of teaching,” she says. There are some positives, however. “The kids are still sweet at this stage,” she says, reflecting on the differences between teaching primary as opposed to junior grades. “They want to please you.”
The greater struggle can be pleasing herself. “Sometimes I feel that maybe I’m not doing enough, or maybe I need to do a little bit more to reach one particular student. But at the end of the day, we’re doing the best that we can during these COVID-19 times.” That offers little consolation. “I’m burnt out,” she admits, a few days before winter break. Tsang isn’t alone.
In November, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) released the results of a survey of 13,770 teachers across the country, which asked them about their mental and physical health. The survey, conducted in October, was a follow-up to one in June that sought to determine a baseline measure of how the pandemic has influenced teacher health. “It is clear that there is a need for timely, wide-reaching, and continued support to alleviate the reported deteriorating mental health of Canadian public school educators,” the report says.
The federation found an increasing level of unhappiness among teachers. Less than 20% of teachers surveyed in October said they felt happy, and almost 46% reported some degree of unhappiness. Just over 17% said they were coping well with job stress, while 32.7% of teachers said they were “barely coping,” and another 4.4% reported “not coping at all.” Teachers also said they were struggling to maintain physical health: more than 80% reported some difficulty getting quality sleep every night, and around 60% said they struggled to eat regular and nutritious meals.
“[Teachers] were talking about being ‘June-tired’ in October,” says Shelley Morse, CTF president, and a former schoolteacher with more than 30 years experience teaching in Nova Scotia. “If you’re ‘June-tired’ in October, June is a long way away to try and maintain your mental health and do your job well.”
Teachers need to provide stability for students, while at the same time following public health guidance and learning new ways to do their jobs, often with little notice about those changes. (For example, during the winter break—the same time Eva Tsang planned to create coding kits for her class in Scarborough, ON—the Ontario government announced classes would not resume in-person as usual come January.)
“Teachers are dedicated,” says Morse. “They’re trying to do all that they can. They’re trying to go above and beyond. And they’re trying to make the best of this current context and the challenges that the pandemic is presenting. They’re trying to ensure that their children are doing well and learning as easily as possible, but the pandemic sometimes doesn’t allow that to happen.”
“The teacher level of stress and anxiety is almost two months ahead of what it should be,” says Dr. Andrew Miki, a psychologist in Vancouver, BC, who has worked with teachers across Canada for more than 10 years. This means more teachers than usual could experience burnout before the school year ends.
Teachers, explains Miki, are generally more conscientious than the average population. They’re likely to be goal-oriented and have high personal standards. They also like to have plans, so constant change can be particularly stressful for them. “COVID-19 infuses so much uncertainty into everybody’s lives, it drains [teachers’] batteries more,” he says.
Yet the same conscientiousness that can contribute to poor mental health can also help teachers find strategies to improve their well-being. In Miki’s experience, teachers are willing to take necessary steps to improve their mental health. He founded Starling Minds, a company that provides online cognitive behaviour therapy and mental health supports, including services specifically for educators. It’s not enough to just say that relaxing outside of work is important; there needs to be a plan about how to relax. It may take a while to find what works.
“If you’re going to do something relaxing, then you’ve got to test it out and see what’s the right [activity] for you,” says Miki. “Not everybody learns math in the same way; not everybody relaxes in the same way.”
Teachers need to evaluate their own mental health and energy levels, while remembering they are not the only ones experiencing stress because of COVID-19, he says. “When you hear that story about what happened in [someone’s] life and what the stressors were, and how their battery got drained over time, and how they experienced more and more symptoms over time, it always makes sense,” says Miki.
Sharing those stories with others is key—for teachers and students alike. For many teachers, one of the biggest struggles has been keeping students engaged and forming personal relationships with them while teaching online.
“The biggest trick is to build a community among the students,” says Michelle Watrin, a Grade 8 teacher in Abbotsford, BC, who is taking a graduate certificate in online education and taught online for four years when her children were younger. This past fall, she would gather students she was teaching online every morning for an activity she’d planned, and then they would go do their work.
Watrin’s school offered sessions at the start of the 2020-2021 school year about the importance of proper sleep, nutrition, and exercise for mental health. At the beginning of each month, Watrin asked her students what their monthly health goal was, and then would follow up with them a few weeks later. Her students, in turn, gave her suggestions about how she could meet her own goals. One suggested that blinking her eyes 200 times would help her fall asleep. “They were giving me advice and that was really sweet and just a really good connection,” she says.
Watrin prioritizes personal interactions with students, especially when teaching online. “Some kids are really going through trauma right now,” she says. “I’m trying to keep that in mind more than ever.… How can I help them know that I care about them as a person before I care about them as a student?”
She places students into breakout rooms—she’s allowed to do that—and joins them periodically. She tracks the number of meaningful conversations she has with students on her attendance sheet so she can see who needs an individual connection. “If I get in three [personal conversations] a day, I’m pretty happy,” she says. “Some days, it’s only one. Some days it’s five.… I’m really trying to make that a priority rather than ‘Did we make it through the Middle Ages in social studies?’”
The desire to connect with students has also helped create relationships between other teachers. In July, Heather Carlsen started a Facebook group to support teachers during COVID-19. (As of early January, it had 2,857 members.) The high school chemistry teacher from Fairfax County, VA wanted help engaging students online. “I felt really overwhelmed,” she says. “Finishing out the [2019-2020] year virtually showed me where a lot of weaknesses are in terms of my practice, and areas that I really could be growing and I don’t even know how. Either the books haven’t been written or I couldn’t find them.”
She synthesized the group’s many suggestions into a resource document that’s been used by schools in various states. For her, that advocacy has been a major positive that’s come from the pandemic. “The group is a big success,” says Carlsen. “I’m building bridges for people to connect with the people they need.”
Some needs are difficult to meet. Some group members have shared how they’re leaving teaching, or asked for advice about how to transfer teaching skills to other professions. “That’s been hard,” says Carlsen. “I don’t know how to proceed with that.… I love teaching and I believe in teachers, so to essentially hold somebody’s hand as they’re walking away from something that they want to do, is a bit like hospice, I guess.… There is a grief there, and I think that’s something that we socially haven’t processed yet.”
Watrin has also found support in teacher Facebook groups, but sometimes unplugs if reading the posts makes her too anxious. “This year, more than ever, if I have a bunch of things to mark, I make sure I do something physical before I sit down and mark. And then maybe I don’t mark that night—it gets put off. That’s OK. Have grace for yourself; it’s OK not to mark everything on a schedule. Get to it as soon as you can, but take care of yourself first.”
She can’t escape all reminders of pandemic anxiety though. Every morning, it still shocks her to see students depart the bus wearing masks. “I think those constant reminders every day really wear on you, and I do feel that there’s a level of exhaustion that I’ve never had before teaching,” Watrin says. She walks to and from school; the exercise helps.
“I truly love my job,” she says. “I find myself walking home happy [thinking], ‘I really had a good time today. I really enjoyed these kids. Yes, this was hard. Yes, this came up. I would definitely trade COVID-19, but I wouldn’t trade being a teacher.’”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto, ON.