Nova Scotia·CBC Investigates

Teaching in the time of COVID: 3 teachers offer their perspectives

The pandemic has created extraordinary challenges for teachers. Three Nova Scotia teachers offer their perspectives.

Teachers share their thoughts on what's made this year unusual

From left to right: teachers Shelly Bembridge, Megan Coles and Jacqueline Levert. (Robert Short/Megan Coles/David Laughlin)

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.

Shelly Bembridge is used to getting messages from her students late into the evening, and the Grade 6 teacher tries to reply right away whenever she can.

"Let me just say, when my head hits the pillow, you know, I'm not lying awake," she said. "I'm pretty exhausted by the time I do get to bed."

She doesn't mind using new technologies to connect with her students virtually. In fact, before the school year began, Bembridge figured that due to the difficulty of physically distancing she'd probably be teaching half as many students in the classroom, as they switched between home and school on alternate days. 

"Based on what I was seeing elsewhere in Canada, I really thought we would be under a hybrid model, and nothing that I did over the summer in my professional development prepared me for working in a mask and the COVID restrictions," she said. 

When September rolled around, she had her full complement of 25 back in the classroom.

She said the "honeymoon" phase is over. There isn't much room to keep apart in her classroom, and she often has to enforce proper mask-wearing for students. 

Sitting at their desks most of the time hasn't been very engaging for her students, and Bembridge has struggled with how to bring creativity and fun back into her classroom. 

"It's not that it's not possible, it's that it takes time to develop those alternative means of delivering the curriculum in an engaging way," she said.

Shelly Bembridge is shown at work in her home office in Halifax. (Robert Short/CBC)

"The only way I'm able to give those engaging opportunities to my students is coming home every day and dedicating hours of my own personal time. But that comes at a cost. It comes at a cost to my family. It comes at a cost to my sleep, my mental health. And, you know, that can't go on forever."

Teachers respond to CBC questionnaire

Bembridge is one of more than 700 teachers in Nova Scotia who responded to a questionnaire from the CBC Investigative Unit asking teachers about their experiences so far in the 2020 school year. 

"We are exhausted — the stress and worry, having to teach in ways that don't reflect best practices, and physically tired from projecting our voices in masks," wrote one teacher. 

"The daily stress is having a physical toll on my body. For the first time in my career it feels like work every day, with all of the usual passion and joy sucked out," another responded. 

About a third of the respondents to the questionnaire said they were either considering retirement, or changing professions. 

"It's lovely to be back"

Some teachers who responded to the survey said they were happy to be back in the classroom and still enjoying their profession for the most part, although many said they had concerns at the same time.

One person wrote that they were not happy with student mask use and an inability to give input to the return to school plan.

However, the writer concluded: "I love my career, and wouldn't change it, and am absolutely thrilled to be back in school, face to face with my awesome students."

A distanced classroom at an Eastern Passage, N.S., high school (CBC)

Another teacher expressed some ideas for how to improve extra-curricular activities for students and ended by saying: "I really think my admin team is doing a phenomenal job balancing it all. No one knows what to expect, everyone — the students, staff and admin — are all doing their best. Parents are very appreciative. It's lovely to be back." 

Megan Coles teaches primary in the Annapolis Valley. Overall, she has been having a good year so far, although there are challenges this year that have never come up in her 10 years of teaching. 

"We have a really supportive staff, so we've all just come together to make the best of it. We have great parents, families in the community, so that's really helped," she said. 

Coles says she is in a slightly different position than many teachers: the youngest students do not wear masks all day and she job-shares with a teaching partner, which helped both of them share the work to prepare their classroom. 

As well, five of the 20 families in Coles's class decided to home-school their children for the year, leaving her with 15 students. Among the teachers who responded to CBC's questionnaire, only a handful of teachers said their class sizes had decreased from before the pandemic. 

"Being down to 15 just gives me so much more time to work with every child in the room," she said. "Primary, they can be a needy group — it's their first year in school, they need a lot of support, they're not very independent in lots of different ways. Having a smaller class size just gives me a chance to get to all of them." 

Coles is keeping positive and doesn't see the changes as a move that will last forever. 

"Overall, I can get past the tired and still enjoy going to work," she said. "I'm hoping that this is temporary, and I just keep that in mind. We're just doing what we can do to keep the kids in school, and to me that's absolutely the most important part." 

Retirement at the forefront

Jacqueline Levert is a mentor who works with primary, Grade 1 and Grade 2 students in the Conseil scolaire acadien provincial board. She has been teaching for 28 years and calls this the "toughest year" she's ever had in her career. 

Levert says in addition to the mental stress of teaching, she has noticed teachers taking fewer washroom breaks and shortening their lunches in order to fulfil prep time and supervisory time for classrooms.

Jacqueline Levert teaches in primary, Grade 1 and Grade 2 classes at the CSAP board. (David Laughlin/CBC)

"I hear from teachers that they're not eating as well, they're not taking time to have lunch, they're not taking time to drink their water, and I worry about them, because they're already exhausted," she said. 

Levert says she loves what she does but her thoughts are turning to the future.

"It does bring retirement to the forefront. Because I do not know if I could keep this pace for years," she said. 

"I'm going to do it one year at a time and decide at the end of June what I do, but at this point I don't think I would be able to keep up the pace that I saw at the beginning of this year." 

About the CBC questionnaire

On Oct. 8 the CBC's Investigative Unit sent a bilingual questionnaire to 7,135 publicly available email addresses that were listed on public school websites in Nova Scotia.

The questionnaire closed on Oct. 12 at 11 p.m. AT. The goal was to get feedback from teachers in order to better understand the experience of educating children during a global pandemic.

Opinions contained in the CBC 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 and high-school teachers in the province.

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