Teachers losing battle with change

Education has been overhauled. Teachers say they’ve been left on their own to cope.
By David Brown
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/04/2003

It is perhaps a case study in how not to manage change.

Or at least a revealing look at the unintended ways changes impact employees on the front line.

“The truth is that teaching is getting harder and harder all the time,” says Brian Ardern, vice-president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. “But there is little ever done to help teachers manage their jobs.”

It is a common lament from teachers across the country. They insist it is no coincidence that sweeping overhauls of the education system have coincided with marked increases in disability and workers’ compensation claims. A disconcerting number have left the profession altogether, unable to cope anymore.

When it comes to stress, the message that emerges from teachers is that while education systems are being dramatically changed it is being done with little thought to the effects on the people living the changes in the classrooms everyday.

“We have a long-term disability (LTD) plan and in 1996 we had 118 of 282 cases that were related to stress and anxiety so that year we put together a primary prevention team,” says Ardern. The goal was to educate teachers about wellness and stress management to reduce the number of stress-related cases. Since then the number of stress cases has gone up 38 per cent, while the number of teachers in Manitoba has actually dropped by more than 700. Today 163 of 385 LTD cases are tied to stress and anxiety.

The pace of change has just been too much, says Ardern. New curricula are being introduced at a dizzying pace, and teachers can’t keep up. On top of this, new responsibilities are being put on teachers’ plates without any sort of accommodation. In Manitoba, new Grade 3 assessments were introduced that have added an average of 48 hours of work, for some it was well over 60, he says. “A lot of teachers don’t even want to teach Grade 3 anymore.”

Employers simply aren’t doing enough to help, he says. The long-term disability fund, for example, is entirely funded by the employees.

In Ontario, teachers have been fighting pitched battles with school boards and the provincial government for years now.

“Certainly we’re hearing anecdotal evidence that teachers and principals are under a great deal of stress,” says Liz Sandals, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association

“We’re seeing costs of LTD programs increasing and that’s probably related to stress, as well as increases in drug program costs and that is probably also related to stress.”

She agrees a lot the problem is related to change. Curricula have changed and teachers have heavier workloads. That is provincial policy and boards can’t change that, she says.

But she disagrees with the claim that employers aren’t trying to help teachers cope with the change, at least in Ontario.

“I’m not sure that’s fair. Most boards have some sort of employee assistance program in place that teachers can access.”

In part, the unions themselves are to blame. “Unions are constantly giving teachers the message ‘the sky is falling.’ That’s helping to keep angst at a high level. It’s not useful for boards and unions to be pointing fingers at each other.”

“The essence of the problem is that public education has been chronically underfunded for the past decade or so,” says Brian Forbes, president of the Nova Scotia Teachers Union. And decisions, which at first blush may seem good, cause more problems than they solve because teachers aren’t given the support they need to implement changes.

A policy of including students with special needs in regular classrooms may sound great in theory and most teachers think it is a good thing, he says. But without additional funding for support and professional development to help teachers cope with the extra responsibility the policy hurts more people then it helps.

In British Columbia, WCB claims have been on the rise for teachers, a trend that runs counter to other occupations in the province. About 34,700 workdays were lost from teachers on short-term or long-term disability in 1996. By 1999, the number had risen to more than 59,500. The British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF) claims there are a number of contributing factors, among them increased violence against teachers, poor air quality in the schools, as well as rising stress levels that wear down the teachers.

The BCTF believes that, based on WCB numbers, as much as $30 million was taken out of the education budget to cover the uninsured costs — hiring replacements or making changes to buildings — of an unhealthy workforce.

Lynne Sinclair, the health and safety officer for the BCTF, says that part of the problem is a misconception amongst school managers about the value of spending money to help teachers cope with the change. “Prevention is viewed as costing money and they haven’t figured out what the private sector figured out a long time ago, which is that prevention saves money.”

Aside from cumulative stresses of day-to-day workload increases, teachers increasingly find themselves dealing with issues that fall well outside the old job description, says Sinclair. Teachers are filling impromptu roles of social workers and family counsellors to solve problems that troubled students bring to school.

And like most workplaces, violence has become a fact of life in schools. One student handed a B.C. teacher a picture of a gun telling her, “This is my baby and I know how to use it and I know where you and your family live.”

At one time, parent-teacher interviews were held behind closed doors in the classroom but now out of a fear of abusive parents, interviews are conducted in the relative safety of the school gym.

Teachers are obligated to report concerns about abuse, another potentially volatile situation where teachers may find themselves mixed up in domestic problems. There have been cases of teachers being stalked and even assaulted by parents. But teachers aren’t getting the kinds of supports that people in other occupations are receiving, says Sinclair.

In one case where a teacher reported a suspected case of child abuse the mother came to the school and attacked her in the hallway but Sinclair didn’t hear about it for months. In B.C., all workplace related violent incidents are supposed to be reported and the victim is supposed to seek help immediately. But none of that happened in this instance.

“I should have been helping right away, but I heard about it nine months after the fact.” Meanwhile the teacher struggled with post-traumatic stress, she had trouble sleeping and her performance at work was suffering.

The problem is that teaching, unlike other professions, has been slow to realize that when teachers have problems coping with work, it is often through an unhealthy work environment and not through the fault of the individual. “I think there is denial, we’ve been slow to recognize these problems exist,” says Sinclair. Until quite recently, and still at many school boards, the approach is about fixing the person rather than the system. “There has to be movement to fixing the workplace,” she adds.

So far in B.C. there has not been any concerted effort at the provincial level to right the flaws that seem to be harming the health of teachers though some of the school districts have taken on the problem on their own.

The BCTF entered into partnerships with school districts to help people who feel they are struggling to cope with the pressures of work and have reduced the number of absences through early intervention measures such as worker accommodations, a change of assignment and even massage therapy.

A further complicating factor — the struggle is being waged under close public scrutiny, with an often unfriendly media spotlight shining on teachers, says Sinclair. “It has become almost a sport to attack teachers in the press.”

There is the perception that they only work from nine to three and they get lots of holidays. But the rising cases of stress and burnout would indicate teachers are working more than they can handle. And as for the holidays, Sinclair says teachers need that time to recover from the stress they absorb during the school year. If they didn’t have that time there would be far more people going on disability, she says.

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