Is it time for a teacher wellness strategy

You know, there is a bit of an ‘urban legend’, if you will, that surrounds former Halifax Regional School Board Superintendent, Carole Olsen.

The story goes that when Olsen first took over as Superintendent a few years back, she travelled to each and every school in HRSB, and asked principals two very interesting questions. These were “How is your school doing?” and “How do you know?”

Now, I can neither confirm nor deny these rumours, I am not now not ever have been a principal with HRSB. However, the general gist of the story, and the questions that were attached to it, was that Olsen was trying to make a point: Without data, it is almost impossible to know where a school “is” on the continuum of improvement, or if,indeed, any action taken by staff has an impact on that location.

Throughout the Olsen years, data collection became a key component to the improvement plans of schools. Data driven decision-making became a hallmark of educational policy. This ideology spread across the province, and before long, data became a four letter word. Teachers were being asked to collect so much data that it seemed, to some at least, more time was being spent on collecting data than was being spent on actual teaching, often seemingly without obvious purpose. Eventually, teachers began to push back, and, indeed, some of the key complaints that came to light during the Teachers strike of 2017 were around the collection of data.

Well, Carole Olsen has come and gone, as has the Teachers’ strike. (Data collection, of course, has not really gone anywhere, but that is a complaint for another day). Oddly enough, what has turned my mind to recollections of Ms. Olsen is not data, per se, but a glaring lack of it. Particularly when it comes to teachers.

It should be obvious to just about everyone that the key to having a successful education system is its teachers. Good teachers beget good education. It is also obvious to just about anyone who has been following along at home that the supply of good teachers, more specifically, good replacement teachers, is running dangerously low. Education Minister Zach Churchill has stated that this is an “unintended consequence” of Liberal party hiring practices, but regardless of the reason, schools are struggling to find “subs”.

Not having replacement workers puts a tremendous strain on our system. You see, the thing of it is, if a teacher gets sick, the kids show up anyway. That is usually not an issue, (at least, not much of one) if a substitute teacher can be found. However, if a sub can not be found, the kids show up anyway. Then it becomes an issue. If there are no extra bodies in the building, principals are expected to find ways to fill in the gaps, often with little notice. Frequently, this results in an “all hands on deck”, approach with everyone from teachers to the guidance department to the administration themselves filling in. Already over burdened staff are pushed to the breaking point, resulting in more teachers getting sick and thus requiring more subs where none can be found.

Picture a hospital ER with a consistent flow of patients everyday, all with very specific needs, and not enough doctors on duty to handle the situation. I believe they call that “code black.”

In way of fixing the problem, the Minister has indicated that school boards are expanding recruitment efforts, and that they are also looking to hire “competent people without education degrees” to provide coverage. These solutions may provide some initial relief, but, the concern I have is that these efforts only focus on increasing supply. I have to find myself asking why no one is trying to ascertain ways of reducing demand.

Now, I don’t mean to insinuate that we need more accountability practices for how teachers are doing their jobs. Heaven knows enough attention is focussed on that direction already. Rather, I wonder why more attention is not being paid to reasons why teachers may be off work in the first place.

The definition of what makes a workplace “healthy” has expanded over the past few years with  most models now recognizing that the employer’s responsibility goes far beyond offering sick time. These obviously include the physical environment (i.e. violence in the workplace) but also involve promoting healthy life choices such as smoking cessation workshops. A relatively new area in the conversation is organizational culture, which includes such considerations as helping employees strike a good work-life balance, staff involvement in decision-making, and staff morale.

Now, it may seem that I am wandering fairly far afield here when talking about staff morale, but such things can have a direct impact on the well-being of a workforce, particularly when it comes to mental health. For a number of years now, in fact, Canada has had National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace, which includes organizational culture as one of its key benchmarks. The cost of ignoring the psychological health of employees is staggering. According to a 2014 report from the CSA,  “Mental health conditions are the leading cause of disability, absence, and presenteeism, with an economic burden estimated at 51 billion dollars per
year in Canada”.

The thing about this is that the Nova Scotia Government is already surveying its employees to find out about overall job satisfaction and wellness. Since 2004, they have been gathering “employee feedback about the work environment and their employment experience” from across all its departments, presumably with an eye to looking for ways to improve the overall health of both the worker as well as the work place.

I would suggest that a similar survey of  teachers is long overdue.

I have written before (and will undoubtedly do so again) that the job action of last year was not a spontaneous outburst, but rather a culmination of years of pent-up frustration and anger around deteriorating conditions and increased demands. And certainly, it would not take a genius to predict that, after that massive struggle, teachers are not going to be feeling particularly rosy about their current working conditions. Morale amongst many teachers is at an all time low.

However, this may be exactly the right time to begin taking such metrics, particularly if the current shortage of teachers continues.

Yes, we must do everything we can to address the supply issue, but we also need to create conditions that ensure the teachers we currently have in the classrooms stay healthy enough to remain there.

Perhaps employers would be reluctant to gather this information for fear of what it might reveal. But with a nod to Olsen, we can’t know where we are going until we know where we are.

How are our teachers doing and how do we know?

It’s high time someone had the courage to find out.

Originally published in The Chronicle Herald in a somewhat edited form on November 25th, 2017. 







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