Some eastern Ontario teachers 'burnt out' by added stress of pandemic

A CBC Ottawa survey of educators across the region reveals mounting levels of stress that have many contemplating another career or early retirement.

CBC questionnaire canvassed nearly 10,000 staff about experiences in the classroom

'I always saw myself teaching till I was 65. I'm not feeling that way anymore,' said Brockville, Ont., teacher Mary McLaughlin. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

CBC News journalists in Atlantic Canada and eastern Ontario teamed up to send questionnaires to thousands of teachers to ask how they're feeling two months into an extraordinary school year.  More than 2,000 teachers replied.  

Mary McLaughlin doesn't want to take her eyes off the students in her class, not for a minute. 

Fourteen years ago, a child in her school died when a large table in the gymnasium fell on top of him. McLaughlin was called from her classroom to administer CPR, but she was unable to save the student. 

This September, when she started teaching her kindergarten class in Brockville, Ont., under the new COVID-19 protocols, the memory of that terrible day kept coming back to her. 

"When I look at those children, I would see the horror of that day many years ago," McLaughlin said.

I know my colleagues are burntout, and I don't see it getting any better.- Mary McLaughlin, UCDSB teacher

She's with the Upper Canada District School Board (UCDSB), where teachers have been tasked with simultaneously teaching in the classroom and live streaming to students at home, as well as preparing both online and paper course material for children who are learning remotely at their own pace.

"The demand that my attention be divided between the students I have in front of me and the students who are online, it became untenable," said McLaughlin. "I know what can happen."

'I don’t know if I’m going to make it:' The toll of teaching amid COVID-19

3 years ago
Duration 0:57
Featured VideoOttawa-Carleton District School Board teacher Lisa Levitan on the stress she and other educators are feeling amid the pandemic.

McLaughlin always believed she'd teach until 65, but now 58 and on stress leave, she's contemplating early retirement. She's not alone.

"I know my colleagues are burnt out, and I don't see it getting any better," McLaughlin said.

Leaving the profession

CBC Ottawa sent questionnaires to nearly 10,000 staff members of several different school boards across eastern Ontario, asking specifically for teachers to respond about their experiences since returning to school in September. More than 1,000 replied. 

Of those who answered the questionnaire, roughly one-third said they're considering leaving teaching based on their experiences this year: 21 per cent said they're considering a change of career, while 14 per cent said they're thinking of taking early retirement.

Fears about COVID-19 outbreaks and their own physical and mental health are among their top concerns. Slightly more than half of the respondents said they're more concerned now than before school started. 

More than 600 teachers chose to share additional comments with CBC about their personal experience of teaching this year. All responses were anonymous. 

Children in Grade 1 at Steve MacLean Public School in Ottawa sit behind protective barriers in the classroom. (Submitted by Lisa Levitan)

Some report that both they and their students are "thrilled" to be back in class after the spring lockdown.

"I am happier and healthier when I have a purpose and a job to do at school," responded one teacher. 

But others spoke about the overwhelming stress they've felt having to monitor students to make sure they're following public health guidelines, all while working long hours to adapt their teaching to new methods of instruction.

"I am beyond stressed and dread going to work every day as too much has been put on my shoulders," wrote one teacher. 

"Almost all of the teachers I know are on the verge of a nervous breakdown," wrote another. "This is completely unsustainable."

A francophone teacher simply wrote "L'enfer" — hell.

Grade 1 teacher Lisa Levitan says educators are struggling with the extra workload and health concerns of teaching during the pandemic. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Lisa Levitan is a Grade 1 teacher with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB). As her school's union steward, she said teachers are reporting the same kinds of concerns to her. 

"Teachers have been letting me know that they are extremely stressed out and, quite frankly, burnt out," Levitan said. 

"They're not eating, they're not sleeping, they're very overwhelmed, and quite frankly, some have already taken a year without pay or taken a year of sick leave or just decided this is not the job for them."

She said it doesn't feel like the school year has only just begun. 

"We've officially been at school one month today. We feel like we have been at school for five years."

For one teacher, chaotic school year brings back memories of a fatal accident

3 years ago
Duration 1:19
Featured VideoMary McLaughlin says being a teacher during the pandemic means her attention is split in too many different directions, making her fearful that accidents will happen. Fourteen years ago, McLaughlin was called to perform CPR on a student who had been badly injured in the gymnasium, but she wasn’t able to save him.

Boards acknowledge stress

In a statement to CBC, the UCDSB said it's seen no increase in the number of teachers leaving the profession this year compared to any other time. 

The board said it understands that delivering a hybrid model of education is "challenging," but said it doesn't have the financial resources to set up a separate virtual school. The board also said families wanted the flexibility to move between remote and in-class learning. 

"We understand that this is an imperfect situation, but we are living in imperfect times," wrote Stephen Sliwa, the board's director of education.

A sign of the  Upper Canada District School Board  sits by the side of the highway.
The Upper Canada District School Board has approximately 5,200 students doing remote learning and 21,000 students in its in-person programs. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

The OCDSB said in a statement that the answers to the CBC questionnaire echo some of the feedback it recently received from its own internal survey, in which nearly 2,800 staff participated. 

Both boards encouraged staff members experiencing stress and burnout to contact employee programs in place to support their mental health.


Jennifer Chevalier

Senior Producer, The House

Jennifer Chevalier is the senior producer of CBC Radio's The House. You can contact her at

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now