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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 2, November/December 2003

On being well: The urgency for teacher wellness

by Julia Johnson

On August 26, 2002, The Vancouver Sun ran an article related to government cutbacks. Many things were said, but the most poignant statements were "Canada’s nurses, doctors, and teachers are the most maligned workers in the country. They are also the most committed, overworked, and stressed. The health and education professions have been so badly devalued by years of job cuts and poor relations that the country’s schools and hospitals can’t keep or attract workers. They are in crisis. The health problems they’ll experience, along with the age of the workforce and the way they’ve been devalued, will make it very hard to attract people into the professions. And how do you get people to keep working when their mental and physical health are deteriorating?" These conclusions and reflective statements were the result of a massive federal study of nearly 31,500 people, conducted by Linda Duxbury, professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University, and Chris Higgins of the University of Western Ontario, in London.

One year later, not much has changed. Throughout the province, limited funding continues to stress the system with school closures, teacher layoffs, teaching reassignments, increased class sizes, overcrowding of schools, increased use of portables, limited teaching resources, deteriorating curriculum texts, decreasing support for teachers working with students who have special needs or who are ESL, changes to the graduation program, the bumping process, etc. The effects of those daily stressors become evident when one examines the increased number of teachers on extended medical leave, and when one hears conversations among colleagues related to pending retirements. The common question shared is "How long before you retire?"

The more important question is "How do you keep well enough to do the job of teaching, well enough to avoid becoming an extended-medical-leave statistic, well enough to enter today’s classrooms with peace and joy instead of living in the future vision of retirement, well enough to inspire our youth to become life-long learners?" The answer may be found through the Training Department of the BCTF’s school and teacher leadership development workshops.

During the third week of August, teacher workshop leaders, known as associates, met on the UBC campus for a Summer Associate Institute entitled "Teacher Leadership for Learning." The purposes were:

  1. To create a common focus for teacher leadership by networking with associates from all workshop areas.
  2. To involve the associates in the design and delivery of workshops for Aboriginal education, performance standards, school culture, teacher wellness, teachers on call, social justice, safe and caring schools, and student behaviour/anti-bullying.
  3. To strengthen and renew facilitation skills of workshop leaders.
  4. To celebrate 25 years of teachers teaching teachers.

Each of the BCTF workshops uses teachers’ experiences as a foundation to build new ideas and strategies from existing practices. In the workshops on teacher wellness, for example, stressors in the system are acknowledged; participants are then invited to assess their level of wellness in each area of their lives (physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual) relative to their stresses and encouraged to make choices that help them live a healthy balance. In this way, a teacher’s worklife is validated, and teachers are supported in the professional choices they make.

One belief system about workshops is that they also provide teachers with skills—skills that will make it easier for them to manage a classroom, teach their curriculum in a more effective manner, be inspired and motivated, be informed, keep current on educational trends, improve communication with colleagues, parents, and management, learn strategies for teaching specialized students, implement strategies for improving student performance, and so on. Even though the workshops are all worthwhile, the issue for me with this belief system is the underlying message that teachers are functioning from a deficit skill base. When I look around at the teaching population in my district, I see teachers who have extensive experience, who are committed, dedicated, and are highly motivated. What interferes with their ability to teach is not their lack of skill, but the stressors that occur daily within and without the educational system. From the perspective of an already overwhelmed teacher, participating in workshops where the expectation is that the business of teaching will be done differently in the classroom is just one more thing on the saturated to-do list.

The time has come to take a different perspective on the way we do the job of teaching, and that perspective is to value the need for personal wellness. When teachers are well and feeling great, they can respond to issues with greater resilience. As you gather in the staffroom to share your stories about the first two months of school and discuss the job of teaching that is still before you, may you do so from a store of well-being that radiates the message "I’m feeling great!" If this is not the case for you, perhaps the time has come to make wellness a priority in your life. The time has come for you to value the significance of the body you have been given; for with proper care, the gifts and talents with which you have been blessed will have greater opportunity to effect change on those around you.

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

To book a BCTF workshop, call 1-800-663-9163 (local 1857) or 604-871-1857, or check the web site www.bctf.ca.

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