The Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) has been sounding the alarm about the effect of deteriorating and unhealthy teacher working conditions since at least 2014 (Froese-Germain, 2014). However, researchers have been documenting the phenomenon for more than three decades (Friesen. & Williams, 1986). The COVID-19 pandemic and Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) arrived in 2020-21. Pivoting to ERT, including virtual elementary school assignments (VES) and hybrid teaching, was challenging for many elementary school teachers and their principals. A July 2021 study of 244 Ontario elementary school educators found 59.82% were “at high risk” of workplace burnout and another 23.22% “at some risk” as measured by the BAT-12 burnout screening tool (Schroeter, CAP Journal, In Press). Two national CTF surveys on the mental health of Canadian teachers in 2020 had already determined that educators had reached a “breaking point.” They recommended providing educators with multiple layers of mental health support at the school, board, and Ministry of Education level, reducing workload and job demands, and clearly communicating these shifts in expectations (CTF, 2020).
This paper investigates whether any of the CTF recommendations for workplace burnout mitigation were implemented in Ontario during pandemic teaching, what coping strategies were used by educators, and whether any of their coping methods were associated with lower risk of burnout. It also seeks to capture the voices of educators about unmet mental health needs and to offer recommendations to principals and vice-principals for dealing with their fragile staffs in the near term. The results of the Ontario study can serve as a bellwether for teachers in other provinces who faced similar experiences.
Data Collection and Demographic Information
The survey was posted in early July 2021 in the private Facebook groups of a half dozen Ontario teacher and kindergarten early childhood educators (RECEs). Two hundred and twenty-four (224) elementary teachers and RECEs who pivoted and taught online in the spring of 2021 or taught all year in a virtual school or hybrid classroom completed the survey. The survey participants were asked to describe constraints of teaching online, coping methods, and the source of their burnout. They were also given a space to add their own comments.
Most of the teachers in the sample were women (92.86%), 5.36% of the respondents were men and 1.79% chose not to disclose their gender. Of the 224 participants, 81.25% had full-time contracts, 3.13% had part-time contracts, and 15.63% were Occasional Teachers or Occasional RECEs. Because most schools were closed during ERT, almost three quarters of the participants (70.54%) looked after their own children while also teaching remotely from home. The responses were relatively evenly distributed among early-career (33.48%), mid-career (36.61%), and late-career educators (29.91%) and grade assignments.
1. No New Support Apparent
Some noteworthy data emerged from an analysis of the optional, voluntary, write-in section of the survey. Although none of the respondents were asked directly, 14 educators (5.74% of the total study participants) felt it necessary to state that their employers and/or supervisors provided inadequate mental health support. None of them reported being provided with any new specific school-level, school district or provincial level mental health supports other than sick days and leaves of absence, as recommended by the 2020 CTF report. Those who sought counselling may have used existing Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs).
A full-time Grade 5 teacher in her 40s with 15 to 19 years of experience made a comment that echoed the sentiment of many of her colleagues that there was no mental health support for educators. “We were continuously told about “self-care” with no resources or true concern about how we were supposed to practice this self-care – so demoralizing to the profession.”
A full-time kindergarten teacher in her 40s with 20 to 24 years of experience criticized the approach taken. “The ministry [of education], the board and my own administration should be ashamed of how teachers and students were treated through this. There is no way many of us will feel prepared to be back in school at the end of August .”
2. Coping Strategies
Of the 244 study participants, 231 (94.67%%) listed their coping strategies for stress or moral distress. Some study participants reported using multiple strategies. In the study, 149 educators (61.07%) reported using what can be categorized as healthy coping strategies and 36 (14.75%) relied on unhealthy strategies. Of the 149 who used healthy strategies, seven indicated that they also used unhealthy strategies. Meanwhile, 39 educators or 15.98% did not use any coping strategies, weren’t sure how they coped, or provided an unclear or no response.
Several themes emerged from the qualitative data. Many of the 149 educators who employed positive techniques reported using up to four different strategies for a total of 199 approaches. The following were the most frequently reported approaches:
- venting to family members, friends and colleagues or working collaboratively with their workmates (73 reported uses or 36.68%),
- exercise/yoga/gardening (37 reported uses or 18.59%),
- setting healthy work boundaries and limits (26 uses or 13.07%),
- positive self-talk/meditation/prayer/calming techniques (16 or 8.04%),
- taking time off work (sick days, leaves of absence, medical leaves, retired early, changing teaching assignments, or refusing substitute teaching work) (23 or 11.56%),
- pursuing counselling (12 or 6.03%), and/or,
- taking prescription medication and/or consulting with a doctor (12 or 6.03%).
The 36 survey participants who used unhealthy coping methods also reported using multiple techniques. In fact, those educators reported using 115 approaches. They were:
- just “grin and bear it” (37 reported uses or 32.17%),
- work harder and longer hours (42 uses or 36.52%), and/or,
- compartmentalize the situation or ignore it (36 or 31.30%).
Less than 10% (23) of the educators (9.43%) reported that the experience did not stress them and therefore they did not use any coping methods.
3. Coping Strategies Associated with Lower Risk of Burnout
The coping methods of 38 educators whose scores put them “at no risk” of burnout were examined in the hope of discovering statistically successful coping strategies that could be reproduced by others. The teachers used a combination of 42 different approaches. Examining them provided no clear insight into effectiveness, possibly due to the small sample size and because slightly more than one quarter (26.19%) reported using no coping strategy whatsoever or did not respond.
The most frequently employed coping strategy for job stress and burnout reported by teachers (21.43%) at no risk of burnout consisted of venting, discussion, problem-solving and collaboration with family members, friends, colleagues and administrators. The next two most commonly deployed strategies were setting clear, defined work boundaries (11.90%) followed by working harder and longer hours (9.52%). The former strategy seems as if it would be effective, but the latter, working harder, would seem to be an unhealthy and unsustainable approach to preventing burnout.
Less frequent coping strategies included:
- More sleep, self-care, crying
- Positive self-talk, meditation, prayer
- Time off, reduction in teaching time
- Exercise, yoga, gardening
- Ignore the problem, let it go, tried not to think about it
- Counselling, therapy, doctor, medication
Despite the need for increased educator support and reduced job demands documented previously by research, this paper did not find evidence that new policies and procedures to mitigate teacher workplace burnout were put into place for Ontario elementary teachers during 2020-21. For the most part, educators were left to cope on their own using personal resources. The study could not identify any specific coping methods strongly associated with a statistically reduced risk of burnout. Although one quarter of the teachers who showed no risk of burnout leaned on their family, colleagues, and administrators, the finding is confounded by the fact that slightly more than one quarter used no coping methods, weren’t sure how they coped, or did provide an answer. The November 2020 CTF recommendations that support teacher workload reduction should be implemented as soon as possible. Further research into effective coping methods for workplace burnout is also suggested.References
Canadian Teachers’ Federation (2020). Pandemic Research Report: Teacher Mental Health Check-in Survey, November 26. https://vox.ctf-fce.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Doc-13-1-Pandemic-Research-Report-Teacher-Mental-Health-Check-in-Survey.pdf
Duxbury, L. & Higgins, C. (2013). The 2011/12 National Study on Balancing Work, Life and Caregiving in Canada: The Situation for Alberta Teachers. Alberta Teachers’ Association. www.teachers.ab.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/ATA/Publications/Research/COOR-94%20National%20Study%20on%20Balancing%20Work%20-Duxbury.pdf
Friesen, D. & Williams, M-J. (1986). Organizational Stress among Teachers. Canadian Journal of Education (10), 1, 13-34. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1494827?origin=JSTOR-pdf
Froese-Germain, B. (2014). Work-Life Balance and the Canadian Teaching Profession. Canadian Teachers’ Federation. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED546884.pdf
Schroeter, Edward. (In Press). Almost 60% of Ontario Elementary Educators in Sample at “High Risk” of Workplace Burnout. CAP Journal. Ottawa: Canadian Association of Principals.
Edward Schroeter, B.J., B.Ed., OCT, ETFO, is a former newspaper reporter and retired elementary school teacher with 30 years of experience. His education research has been published in the CAP Journal, the Ontario Mathematics Gazette, and Education Canada Magazine. He was the Grade 1 Lead Writer for the Ontario Mathematics Curriculum Resource Project (2020-21).