British Columbia

Poverty hard on B.C. students and teachers, educator says

Surrey teacher Annie Ohana says children from low-income families have trouble concentrating in the class, and oftentimes teachers are working around the clock to help them excel.

Children from low-income families can't concentrate in the classroom and it takes a toll on teachers

Children who are anxious about money or go to school hungry can't concentrate on their education, according to B.C. teacher Annie Ohana. (iStock)

Secondary school teacher Annie Ohana can't just leave her work in the classroom.

The high school French and social studies teacher says she's concerned about the growing number of students from low-income families that struggle through their public education, something that is also taking a toll on her.

"You invest so much emotionally into your student," she told stand-in host Gloria Macarenko on CBC's On the Coast. "You want to see them succeed. You want to see them happy. [But] when they're struggling just to maintain a sense of happiness, let alone academic success ... you take that home with you."

Recent statistics show that one in five children in B.C. live in poverty. And Ohana says those numbers aren't just disastrous for students but for teachers as well.

A battle for students

The current child poverty rate in B.C. is above the national average. And Ohana says the adverse effect poverty has on education takes place long before students embark on expensive post-secondary educations.

"The reality is when you're hungry, when you're anxious about money ... you're not getting the best education you can. You're not making use of your full potential," she said.

Ohana says the issue isn't limited to B.C.'s inner cities. In fact, child poverty rates soar in many rural school districts, including the Central Coast, Alberni-Clayoquot, and Mount Waddington districts.

In the Lower Mainland, she says some students from middle class families are also adversely affected by rising costs of living.

"It's not just the abject poor — those that are living under the poverty line — but even middle class families where, even though there's one full time working parent, it's very hard for them to make ends meet. And money issues seem to dominate the learning process."

A toll on teachers

For teachers like Ohana, seeing a student's lack of progress can be troubling. She worries that it's pushing some workers out of the profession.

"Mental health and wellness is a serious issue. We see it as a very high turnover rate in teaching and the stress levels can be intense."

Ohana says many teachers at her school pay out of pocket to buy children snacks or school supplies. They also dedicate a lot of their extra time to running charitable events to alleviate some of the poverty in the community.

"We know that our own students use the food banks, and that middle class families are accessing the Surrey Food Bank. We just see that at every turn. We're having to step in and fill the gaps," she said.

B.C. is currently the only province in Canada without a poverty reduction plan. Ohana says as unaffordability mounts, the onus falls on teachers to invest their time in students in hopes that they will be able to succeed, once they finish their education.

"People are very much overworked ... and that absolutely gets downloaded onto the teacher, and administration and other people on the school site to try to help those students."

With files from CBC's On the Coast