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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 17, Number 5, March 2005

On being well: The changing classroom

by Julia Johnson

At the Northern zone meeting in October 2004, participants wrote scenarios of their teaching experiences as a result of the B.C. Liberal education policy. Increased class sizes; inaccessible libraries; dirty classrooms; insufficient teaching resources; decreased support from counsellors; student support workers; speech and language pathologists; reduced time for teachers of ESL, music, and special education; and increased expectation for accountability through student assessment had all contributed to their frustrations.

Their significance as stressors in the workplace and their impact on our health become minimized by their repetition—until one hears someone say, "I am not able to meet the needs of the children in my classroom." To openly admit to others that one is not able to meet the needs of one’s students regardless of the working and learning conditions is not something a teacher is willing to do.

This is not a teacher who is without teaching and classroom-management skills, lacks experience, or is uncreative. This is a teacher who has the courage to admit that what she is being asked to do is unrealistic. In this classroom are six children who come to school hungry and need to be fed before they can be taught; seven children require the services of a counsellor because they have anxiety disorders, self-esteem issues, bullying behaviours, suffer from emotional trauma, or lack social skills; five children are on adapted programs and need the support of a student-support worker for core subjects; one student has special needs and requires an IEP with a full-time support worker; three students are medically diagnosed with ADHD; five children require an Aboriginal curriculum; and two children have religious beliefs that require the preparation of alternate learning material. Classrooms of today are not the same as classrooms of yesteryear and nothing says this more clearly than this teacher’s story.

This teacher’s story is not unique, and this teacher is not alone in the work she is being asked to do. If the expectation is that the individual needs of these diverse students are to be met within one classroom by one teacher, teachers must acknowledge that they can no longer be the super heroes who continue to do more with less. Today’s teachers are being pulled in all directions, are experiencing untold anxiety, and are vulnerable to ill health because of the demands of changing classrooms.

The World Health Organization, after conducting several surveys on stress and illness has concluded that stress is a global epidemic. "Research now indicates that between 70 and 80% of all disease and illness is stress-related, most notably coronary heart disease, cancer, the common cold, migraine headaches, warts, some cases of female infertility, ulcers, insomnia, and hypertension." "Stress is the inability to cope with perceived or real (or imagined) threat to one’s mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing which results in a series of physiological responses and adaptation." It is evident, "that stress is a very complex phenomenon that affects the whole person and not just the physical body" (Seward 1999).

If teaching is to be more than the daily-survival ritual it now is, teachers must take a stand and collectively challenge those who underfund education and undermine the work teachers do. Not to do so threatens our health and the future of our children.

Most of us chose teaching because we wanted to make a difference. As the May provincial election draws near, make a difference by taking action. Be a spokesperson for education and support those who support education.

Julia Johnson, a learning resource teacher at Red Bluff School, in Quesnel, is a BCTF PD wellness associate. johnsonj@abccom.bc.ca

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