Burnout climbs among teachers at Quebec's English schools

Bigger class sizes, special-needs students and shrinking resources are taking an increasing toll in Quebec's English-language schools — with stress-related illnesses affecting nearly one-third of teachers who are on long-term leave.

Bigger class sizes, special-needs students and shrinking resources are taking an increasing toll in Quebec's English-language schools— with stress-related illnesses affecting nearly one-third of teachers who are on long-term leave.

CBC News has learned that 31 per cent of the teachers left the classroom due to stress and burnout, according to insurance claim figures released by the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers (QPAT).

There are8,000 teachers in the English-language system, but QPAT didn't specify how many are on long-term leave. However, it pointed out that such leaves have jumped from20 years ago, when no Quebec teacher was on long-term leave because of a stress-related illness.

Manyteachers sayburnout is the consequence of bigger workloads and more responsibilities that they're being asked to shoulderwithout extra resources to help meet the demands.

And while the Quebec government says it's doing what it can to address workload issues — Education Minister Jean-Marc Fournier has said the province is spending millions of dollars to help schools hire more teachers and teacher assistants this year — burnout continues to halt the careers of thousands of teachers, QPAT says.

There may be even more teachers suffering from work-related anxiety than what figures suggest, Alan Lombard, QPAT's executive director, told CBC News in reports aired on Wednesday.

"When I'm talking about 31 per cent of our members, that's 31 per cent who are permanently disabled. Underneath that, there are a lot of people who have been off for three months, six months, or a year," Lombard said.

'I didn't think it was going to happen to me'

The first symptoms were subtle but difficult to ignore, remembered Shelagh Glover, a teacher at Roslyn Elementary School in Montreal's tony Westmount neighbourhood. Throughout her 30 years' experience in the classroom, Glover felt she always had a knack for teaching. It came to her naturally — until last year.

"You know when something is going wrong when you start looking down. You become aware of yourself speaking," Glover recalled. "I was getting hot flashes that weren't the right kind of hot flashes, if you know what I mean."

Administrators at the school had added a handful of students with special needs to Glover's class that year, without providing an assistant or extra help.Glover's workload ballooned, and she started to dread the thought of facing her class. When she shared her experience with colleagues, they told her to go see a doctor.

"Sometimes there's no return. You eventually crawl out of the school and you're sick for months on end. I didn't want that happening to me," Glover said.

Her doctor diagnosed her with situational stress disorder and she was ordered to take the year off. Although it took her by surprise,she didn't protest the diagnosis. "It happened. It happened to me, and I didn't think it was going to happen to me," she said.

Administrators at the school promised to find additional help for Glover. She returned to her classroom this fall with new coping skills to keep stress at bay. But the extra help for her class — from a teacher assistant, for example — has yet to materialize.

Burnout hits younger teachers hardest

The system will start losing more teachers if the problem isn't taken seriously, warned QPAT executive director Alan Lombard. The stress of having to do more with less in the classroom is especially pernicious to younger teachers.

According to insurance claims filed to QPAT's coverage plan, most of its members on burnout leave are in their late thirties, many of them in their first decade of service. Some teachers who have difficulty coping with new demands in the classroom are opting to leave the profession altogether, said Lombard.

Marie-Catherine Derome is one of them. She landed a job teaching high school after she had long admired inspiring and intrepid teacher figures, such as John Keating, the sensitive character played by Robin Williams in the popular movie Dead Poets' Society.

Derome wanted to emulate that kind of teaching — but the reality of her classroom stopped her cold. "I was really, really frustrated because I was feeling like I didn't have enough [time and resources] to do what I wanted to do," she said.

It was impossible for Derome to give every student appropriate attention, she recalled. "It's frustrating when you have a kid, and you know you are going to lose him at the beginning of the year, because you have 30 others to think about."

She finished her days exhausted, and "feeling that something was missing," Derome said. After only 2½ years in the teaching profession, she gave up her chalk and decided to go back to school herself, to pursue a master's degree in geography.

In retrospect, Derome believes education policymakers at the provincial level are turning their backs on foot soldiers in the school system— in other words, the teachers. "I think the ministry is a bit disconnected from the reality," she mused. "They should come in the schools, and talk to the teachers and the people who are there."

Both the teachers' union representing QPAT members, and the Quebec English School Boards Association want the province to take swift action to hire more teachers, and review how special needs students are integrated into regular classrooms, issues that were pivotal during the last contract negotiation with the province.