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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 4, March 2004

On being well: Making healthy choices

by Julia Johnson

At a local gym during the Christmas break, I encountered one of the part-time librarians from my school. She and her partner librarian would be going into the school over the holiday to catalogue books. Going into school to work when school is not in session is not unusual. Many teachers use their personal time on weekends to plan units of study, prepare tests, mark papers and projects, write student reports, sponsor extra-curricular activities, organize lessons, and coach. Spending extra time at school or taking school work home is considered part of the job, Working overtime comes with the territory.

The librarians believed that going to school during the Christmas break was necessary because they no longer have administration time for the countless duties for which a librarian is responsible. Not to go in would mean they would be unable to do their jobs properly. Listening to my colleague, I sensed the frustration over having to take time out of one’s personal life to do work-related tasks that used to be part of the work day. That situation epitomizes the working conditions of today’s teachers.

We teach in uncertain and complex times, where rapid change and the external demands on teachers are greater than in any other period in our educational history. Since the educational cuts began, the message we hear regularly from our educational leaders and colleagues is that teaching cannot proceed as usual. How can it, when there are fewer resources for those requiring counselling, learning assistance, ESL, or individual programming? when there are fewer student support workers, less secretarial and janitorial time? when class sizes have increased and class composition is given no consideration? when science equipment is scarce, curriculum texts are falling apart, and fine arts programs are eliminated? Yet somehow teaching does seem to be continuing as usual, and the changing working conditions teachers have been forced to accept seem to be having little impact on their daily work. As a profession, we strive to achieve the same quality performance of yesteryear with the decreased funds and resources of today.

Daily in the teaching profession, we guide and counsel children to make wise and appropriate choices. We want young people to consider their safety and well-being in all they do, and we teach lessons to foster that message. In the context of educational cutbacks I wonder about the choices teachers are making in their professional lives. Will the additional time teachers spend performing the multitude of teaching tasks actually make it easier for them when they face their classes each day?

Teaching is an endless job, and we could be engaged in schoolwork 24/7 if we had the motivation and the energy. So, just how much does one need to do to get the job done? As a group, teachers are characteristically perfectionists, with high expectations for their students and for their profession as well. With these qualities, are teachers able to recognize when they have done enough? Do they understand the importance of letting go of some of their expectations so they can develop other areas in their lives? Do they have the strength and the courage to establish boundaries and set limits to the work they do so the choices they make will foster their health and wellbeing and bring balance to their lives?

The time has come for teachers to reflect on these questions and the professional choices they make. Given the context of reduced educational funding, teachers cannot be expected to do more with less. If they do, they risk their health and become their own worst enemy. It is time for teachers to learn to walk the talk of the "smart choice" lessons they teach to the young. It is time for teachers to choose personal wellness as a way of life over the workaholic life that teaching can be.

Julia Johnson, a learning resource teacher at Red Bluff School, in Quesnel, is a BCTF PD wellness associate.

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