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Q&A: Discussing teacher burnout with a psychologist and educator

With increased class sizes coming for Ontario teachers in the fall, and possible labour unrest as contracts come due, teachers are finding summer anything but restful. In fact, a psychologist who works with teachers, says summer is not the break you might think for educators.

'It's that sense of feeling so helpless that you aren't able to do and be the kind of teacher that you want'

Susan Rodger, a psychologist and assistant professor at the Faculty of Education at Western University says that teachers aren't having restful summer vacations as we might think.

With increased class sizes coming for Ontario teachers in the fall, and possible labour unrest as contracts come due, teachers are finding summer anything but restful.

In fact, a psychologist who works with teachers, says summer is not the break you might think for educators.

Susan Rodger is also assistant professor at the Faculty of Education at Western University. We caught up with her while she was at a conference about teacher wellness.

What does "teacher burnout" look like?

Burnout is essentially that feeling of being overwhelmed by stress and you don't have enough emotional resources to cope with that stress. It comes forward in a few different ways. One is the feeling of emotional exhaustion.. we just feel like we can't help anymore.. we feel helpless and start withdrawing emotionally.

It can come about as 'compassion fatigue..'  you just feel mentally and physically exhausted with the burden of caring. 
There can be emotional distancing,  when you just close yourself off because you feel the sense of not being able to do the things you feel and need to do.

We hear a lot about "compassion fatigue." What is that?

It's that sense of feeling so helpless that you aren't able to do and be the kind of teacher that you want. You try and try every day to do those things, but the workload is too high.. the demands of job too much .. too many students with demands you cannot meet. All of these things come together to give you that feeling of being too tired to go on.

What is "emotional labour?"

Emotional labour happens when we have to work in a system that doesn't reflect the values that we hold.
Most people get into caring professions because we want to make a difference in childrens' lives.. because we understand the importance of building good relationships with children .. and being that caring person in a room.

What's an example of when those needs aren't being met?

If you are transferred or made redundant, then you don't feel you have the job stability you need.. If your employer, or the system, says you're not allowed to spend time, or be the person who has a club for children because .. you need to be out looking after recess.

A lot of people assume that summer is a good time for teachers to recharge.. an important time to get away from the classroom and take care of themselves - is that necessarily true?

I don't think so. Teachers are still busy right now. It's not like you just close the door and go back in September.. Teachers are often spending time now getting ready for next fall, because they don't get a lot of paid time to get their classooms organized.

A lot of teachers will be looking for new items for their classroom..  often buying things out of their own pocketbook..  books and art materials..  because teachers get very little funding for that sort of thing.

So, what has to happen to prioritize the mental well-being of teachers?

Number one is respect for the teaching profession. There are a lot of myths out there about teaching.. that, for example, they get the summers off, when the fact of matter is most are taking teacher qualifying courses in the summer to be a better teacher. Most principals are taking more courses in the summer so they can be a better principals. 

Every single teacher I know is working at home after they get home from work.

So, recognition that they work hard year round.. that would go a long way to respect for teachers and how we look at teachers.

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