Too often, we wait for the crisis before administering an ounce of prevention. During this inaugural National Healthy Schools Week and with October being Canada’s Healthy Workplace Month, it’s an appropriate time to recognize that education systems across Canada are asking for help as they struggle with chronic teacher shortages and burnout.
At the EdCan Network (formerly known as the Canadian Education Association, founded in 1891) we’ve been through this cycle a few times. We’ve had 132 years to reflect on what works and what doesn’t within our K-12 education systems coast to coast to coast. We know that investing in a systems-based approach that supports educator wellbeing is foundational to student success.
The big challenges faced by educators across Canada preceded the pandemic. In 2006, 58% of teachers reported high levels of stress, exceeding the levels reported by the average Canadian workforce by nearly 20%. A 2014 study showed that 85% of teachers felt that a work-life imbalance was affecting their ability to teach. Another study that year revealed that 30% of new teachers leave the field within 5 years.
The pandemic has intensified the urgency and exacerbated inequities both geographically and demographically. Recent surveys by People for Education reveal a public education system in Ontario that is deeply stressed and in dire need of resources at the local level. They found that the percentage of schools with no access to psychologists has doubled in a decade, 90% of principals were struggling with chronic staff shortages, two-thirds of principals surveyed found their stress levels of at work unmanageable, and just over a third (35%) of principals felt that the resources were there to support staff mental health and wellbeing. Similarly, a 2021 survey by the Canadian Teachers Federation found that 97% of participants experienced increased physical, mental, and emotional workload, and job demands during the 2020-2021 school year.
The pound of cure must come with strategic investments. Over the last five years, EdCan has gradually pivoted its focus, which is now entirely on wellbeing within our school systems. With our Well at Work program, we’re advocating for system renewal and working alongside school districts across the country – from providing K-12 districts with advisors, coaches and consultants, to providing leadership resources and professional learning opportunities and hosting a peer-to-peer community of practice. School districts that we’ve worked with have gone from “spinning their wheels” to making meaningful progress, implementing a holistic approach to supporting workplace wellbeing to create safe, healthy, welcoming and inclusive work environments.
There are others doing this work alongside us. Our friends at the Canadian Teachers Federation, in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the University of Ottawa Faculty of Medicine, are running a pilot study to test programming that improves teacher and education worker wellbeing and mental health. Research hubs like the Centre for School Mental Health at Western University help to build capacity among new teachers and create evidence-based approaches. The Canadian Healthy Schools Alliance is building a movement recognizing staff K-12 staff wellbeing is a critical component of comprehensive school health.
If we want to truly foster school environments where everyone – teachers, education workers, staff, leadership and students – can thrive, collaboration with our ministry partners is critical: systems-based approaches require time, collaboration and stable funding. In this case, the pound of cure is the potential embedded in a high-performing system. A 2019 study by the Conference Board of Canada pegs the rate of return at $1.30 in economic impacts for every dollar invested in public education spending in Ontario. Furthermore, if the graduation rate hits 90%, it results in $16 million in savings across health care, social assistance and the justice system.
The time to make this investment is now. We’ll reap the benefits for years to come.