N.W.T. teachers struggle with mental health during pandemic

·4 min read
Corey Stroeder and Amanda Reynolds, teachers in small communities in the N.W.T., say teaching over the pandemic was difficult for their mental health. (Submitted by Corey Stroeder/Amanda Reynolds - image credit)
Corey Stroeder and Amanda Reynolds, teachers in small communities in the N.W.T., say teaching over the pandemic was difficult for their mental health. (Submitted by Corey Stroeder/Amanda Reynolds - image credit)

For teacher Corey Stroeder, nothing is more powerful and transformative than teaching. But, during the pandemic, teaching in a remote Northwest Territories community weighed on his mental health.

"It's been hard," said Stroeder, who was teaching in Colville Lake, N.W.T. "From last year being shut down earlier, to certain restrictions in the classroom which made the teaching job harder and having more stress on that side, to not being able to see family over breaks."

Stroeder is one of many teachers in the N.W.T. who struggled to manage their mental health over the pandemic due to isolation, supporting students' mental health and other external factors.

Submitted by Corey Stroeder
Submitted by Corey Stroeder

According to Matthew Miller, president of the N.W.T. Teachers' Association, this has been common among educators over the pandemic.

"Towards the end of September, we were hearing from members that they were already 'June tired.' And in June, teachers are usually pretty worn out," said Miller.

An increased number of teachers have requested early resignation, sick leave and long-term disability over the pandemic, says Miller. Additionally, the N.W.T. is losing at least 137 teachers this year, with numbers expected to rise.

He says these decisions are influenced by declining mental health.

"A lot of our communities are isolated and with the restrictions, teachers were additionally isolated from their colleagues," he said. "It really became a situation where people were completely isolated from their loved ones and from any new friendships."

Self-isolation requirements were lifted for fully vaccinated N.W.T. residents late last month.

Submitted by Angela Gzowski
Submitted by Angela Gzowski

Broader issue across country

Shelley Morse, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, says this is a broader issue that affects teachers across the country.

Last October — at the beginning of the school year — the Canadian Teachers' Federation conducted a nation-wide mental health check-in survey to understand how teachers were managing their mental health. They received around 14,000 responses.

"The responses detailed unbearable levels of stress, anxiety and the struggle to cope with the demands of teaching during a pandemic. And those results showed that close to 70 per cent of the respondents were concerned about their own mental health and wellbeing," said Morse.

In the N.W.T., teachers who conducted the survey indicated that their stress levels were between 50 to 100 per cent on the stress scale.

Additionally, nearly 40 per cent of teachers said managing student behaviour and juggling multiple responsibilities was greatly affecting their emotional health.

Miller says he suspects the numbers would be just as high or even higher if teachers were surveyed again in June.

Morse agrees.

While isolation plays a large role in this, Miller says students often turn to their teachers when they're also struggling with their mental health. These conversations can include disclosures about suicidal thoughts, which he says not all educators are prepared for.

"When your life is already full of your own stressors, and then you get something like that from a student who you care about, you don't close the door, but you take more in."

Finding comfort through community

Amanda Reynolds moved from Toronto to Aklavik, N.W.T. — a hamlet of around 590, according to Statistics Canada's latest numbers — for her first year as a teacher.

"You never really truly believe you're doing the best job. [It's] just constantly second guessing and just a lot of anxiety resolving."

Submitted by Amanda Reynolds
Submitted by Amanda Reynolds

While the pandemic added stress to an already difficult year, Reynolds found comfort and healing through her colleagues and the wider Aklavik community.

"I felt really included and like I kind of have my own community that I was able to build there. So that really helped with that feeling of being cut off," said Reynolds.

Reynolds and Stroeder accessed counselling for their mental health, but didn't continue long-term. Counselling can be hard for some communities to come by, with some teachers experiencing a three to four week wait time, says Miller.

Both teachers will be returning to N.W.T. schools in the fall, though Stroeder will be relocating to a larger community.

Available supports

To ensure teachers aren't leaving the profession or retiring early, Morse says governments need to provide educators with more resources to alleviate stressors.

Additionally, "We need trauma-informed instruction for our students, and we need our teachers to be taken care of so that they can … take care of those students."

The N.W.T.'s Department of Education, Culture and Employment says they're recruiting and supporting new teachers through programs such as job fairs, an annual New to the NWT Teachers' Conference and the NWT Teacher Induction and Mentorship program.

Miller says there are a number of resources available from the N.W.T. Teachers' Association, which can be found on the association's website.

Schools across the territory are expected to reopen this fall with additional COVID-19 protocols in place.

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