New Brunswick teachers dealing with stress, higher workload during pandemic
Minister says teachers should be able to speak on policy, after only 29 teachers answered CBC questionnaire
TEACHERS UNDER STRAIN
CBC News journalists in Atlantic Canada and Eastern Ontario teamed up to send out questionnaires to thousands of teachers to ask how they're feeling two months into an extraordinary school year. More than 2,000 teachers replied.
Stressful. Scary. An unreasonable workload.
These are a few of the words that a handful of teachers used to describe their back-to-school experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They paint a picture of some teachers who are struggling with more demands than ever, all while trying to keep students healthy and engaged.
"The workload is greater than ever and there's not enough time," one teacher wrote in French.
"The mental health of teachers is in danger."
The glimpse inside New Brunswick's classrooms comes from a bilingual, anonymous questionnaire sent by CBC's Investigative Unit.
The invitation to fill out the questionnaire was sent on Oct. 8 to 1,382 publicly-available email addresses that were listed on New Brunswick public school websites. Only 29 teachers completed the questionnaire.
The goal was to get feedback from teachers who are on the front lines inside classrooms, in order to better understand the experience of educating children during a global pandemic. The questionnaire was sent to a variety of school staff throughout the province, but only teachers were able to complete the questionnaire.
Opinions contained in the CBC Investigates questionnaire should be treated differently from the results of a public opinion poll or survey. The sample of respondents is not necessarily representative of either the voting public or of all the elementary, middle and high-school teachers in the province.
Themes from the few who did answer — that teachers are feeling stressed and dealing with a higher workload — mirror what Education Minister Dominic Cardy has been hearing.
"Some of the things that you just listed I've heard absolutely from dozens of other teachers in different forms," Cardy said.
"Part of those are just a function of the fact that we're dealing with a pandemic. This sucks. All of this."
Teachers' associations, union sent warning about questionnaire
It's not clear why so few teachers answered the CBC Investigates questionnaire.
"I could only speculate, but it would certainly speak to the fact that the teacher workload that we've heard about and the sheer massive amount of emails that teachers are receiving," said Rick Cuming, president of the New Brunswick Teachers' Association.
"They really have been echoing with us that they're feeling swamped and they're feeling overwhelmed and they're feeling anxious."
The other question is whether teachers felt comfortable answering the questionnaire.
Shortly after CBC Investigates sent out the questionnaire, the teachers' associations and union sent out an email to educators, saying the questionnaire wasn't sanctioned.
"You should always be cautious about requests from the media," the email, which was obtained by CBC News through access to information, says.
"We would also like to remind you that the official spokespersons for the teachers are the [New Brunswick Teachers' Federation] Co-Presidents."
Cuming said the note wasn't intended to tell people not to fill out the CBC Investigates questionnaire, but to remind them to respect students' confidentiality and to "be cautious in terms of information they're giving that might paint their employer in a negative light in case it had pushed back on them."
"I think teachers in this province understand that in New Brunswick, they have lots of structures in place for them to express themselves within the professional organization and directly with their employer," Cuming said.
If you're a teacher and want to let us know about your experiences teaching in class or from home during COVID, please email us at this address: NBInvestigates@cbc.ca
Emails from within the Francophone South School District, obtained through access to information, show that one member of the teaching staff emailed others to thank them for not answering the CBC Investigates questionnaire, only a couple hours after the questionnaire invitations were sent. This part of the email was bolded, underlined and written in larger font. The exact recipients of that email were redacted.
The staff member, whose name is also redacted, is a member of the Association of Francophone Teachers of New Brunswick's executive and was "voicing the union's guideline," Ghislaine Arsenault, a spokesperson for the district, said.
She said the district didn't send any kind of directive to its staff on whether to answer the questionnaire.
"We had no reason to interfere in this matter or any intention to do so," Arsenault wrote in an email.
"We simply indicated that the teachers' union had expressed its position and that the district would not be giving any instructions whether to respond or not to this survey."
'A duty of loyalty'
The province's education minister believes teachers should be able to speak out on issues of policy, such as concerns with the province's back-to-school plan.
Hearing from teachers on the front lines could result in better-informed decisions from policymakers, Cardy said.
"I think there has been, again, a tradition of trying to discourage teachers from speaking out," the minister said.
"Which is why since I became minister, I have explicitly gone totally the opposite direction and said you need to speak out."
When asked if teachers actually can be disciplined for speaking out on issues that concern them, Cuming said teachers "have a duty of loyalty to their employer."
"And just like in any job, if you're saying things that are really negative in terms of people and decisions that they've made, there can be repercussions," Cuming said.
Cardy was not aware of any teachers who've been disciplined for speaking out against their employer.
He said he has heard of a couple of cases where teachers "spoke out on broader social issues," sometimes in ways that he "personally found bizarre and objectionable."
"But I hopped in to offer a defence because we have free speech rights in this country," the minister said.
Concerns from teachers
Of the 29 teachers who completed the CBC Investigates questionnaire, 13 teachers answered a question that asked if they had something they wanted to share about teaching during a pandemic.
One teacher said they felt like teachers don't have a voice, while another said they felt they were being "muzzled."
"The employer has already notified us by email that some teachers PLANNED to participate in protests or write letters and that by our agreements we cannot criticize or give our opinion about our employer (the ministry of education)," one teacher wrote in French.
"So even as New Brunswick citizens, we cannot exercise our freedom of opinion."
Others talked about juggling their teaching responsibilities with enforcing new rules and dealing with technology.
"The level of demands on teachers right now are unreasonable between sanitization, COVID plans, preparing for online learning, expectations to teach students at home who have compromised immune systems, and no extra time to plan!" one teacher wrote.
Another said that smaller class sizes was a positive change they hoped would stick around.
More mental health support for teachers
The school system has more mental health support available for teachers this year, recognizing that they're dealing with a lot, the minister said.
Before the pandemic, Cardy heard from teachers who were already feeling exhausted.
Dumping COVID-19 on top of that has only made it worse, he said, and the school system will have to deal with "long-term consequences" once the pandemic ends.
"I can't say or do anything to make that better, except say that we are trying our best to make sure that within the framework of properly protecting our school system from COVID-19, that we are very, very cognizant of the weight and the load this is imposing on teachers."
The teachers' associations have also presented some solutions to reduce the burden on teachers' time, from relaxing deadlines to reducing assessments.
Cuming said Cardy, along with teachers and department officials, would be meeting this week to talk more about the proposal.
"It's so important that we try and give teachers the time that they need to adapt their instruction," Cuming said.
"Really, the biggest resource you can give teachers is time."
With files from Roberto Rocha and Joseph Loiero