Opinion: On Teaching in Alberta

the mental health challenges that aren’t being discussed

My first year of teaching in the public school system, I was 23 years old, living in the Old Fourth Ward neighbourhood of Atlanta, GA in a one bedroom apartment. I was relatively new to a city of 4.6 million people.

I received a position as a middle school art teacher in a community that was experiencing systemic challenges such as poverty and underfunding of schools.

Instead of providing the necessary supports, the government passed the responsibility over to the public school system. In other worlds, to us, the teachers.

In my youthful naivety, I wholeheartedly immersed myself into my work. After all, I was a teacher. I could fix things. I could make a difference. It was my job. In the process, I had little time or energy to address my mental or physical health. Slowly my physical health started to deteriorate. I spent winter break in bed with the flu. In the months that followed, I was continuously tired. I could not seem to get out of bed in the morning.

And then my mental health started to break down.

One day in early spring, I came home from teaching and sat my bag on the kitchen table. I lay down on my kitchen floor and could not get up. I had simply lost all desire to continue. Tasks that we take for granted — like standing, walking, or getting out of bed in the morning — seemed like a monumental impossibility.

Experiences like these are not ones that you ever recover from. They change you from your core. They shape your worldview for the rest of your life.

They transform the way you teach, the way you view your administration, and the way you look at your government.

Lying there, on the kitchen floor, I came to the obvious conclusion that I needed help. I moved in with my aunt who lived one hour north of my school. I saw a psychiatrist. I took medication. I took a week-long stress leave from work. And at the end of the school year, I packed my bags, and drove across the country to a small town in northern Colorado to spend the year rethinking my future.

When I finally stepped back into a classroom three years later, much had altered about myself. The most notable change was that I made a promise…

I was never going to allow myself to get to a place where I could not pick myself up off the floor.

Wellness became my guiding star. Through marriage, one international move from Atlanta to Calgary, and having two children, I have always been able to teach in our public school systems from a position of relative mental and physical wellness.

Until this year.

As has been the case with many educators and working mothers, this spring was difficult. From a practical perspective of navigating COVID, work, childcare, and remote learning for my daughter, it was draining. From a spiritual and political perspective, it was devastating.

As the clock started ticking towards a new school year, I watched Alberta’s dismissive response to creating a responsible and comprehensive back to school plan.

I was seeing once again the burden of overcrowded classrooms, lack of funding, and systemic problems like unemployment, the lack of affordable childcare, and the continuing global pandemic, being deflected and passed on to educators.

As August approached, I started looking with great trepidation at my kitchen floor.

I resigned from my school district last week.

I made a promise to my 23 year old self that I would take care of myself. I am keeping that promise. Since my resignation, I am filled with the lightness that comes from making a difficult decision that is also the right decision.

However, my concern increases daily as Alberta’s provincial government performs a well orchestrated dance of denial, disengagement, and refusal to look at the challenges teachers face such as overcrowded classrooms and underfunded schools.

This refusal of our Province to address issues in education has an abundance of negative outcomes. Many are predictable and are being discussed: the increased transmission of COVID and the physical safety of our students, teachers, and community. However, other outcomes are not being addressed as openly. Specifically, the mental health of those that are keeping our schools running: our educators.

Educators are wonderfully resourceful, giving, reliable beings. But they are just that — human beings. They are not immortal. And they are facing a challenging fall after experiencing a challenging spring. We all have our breaking point.

Teachers, let me be clear, if you try to fix the complex issues that our government has passed onto you this school year… you will end up on the kitchen floor.

Ask for help. Don’t isolate yourself. Don’t try to single handedly tackle the complex and overwhelming issues that our Province has neglegted. Seek connection. Lean on your coworkers. Look inward. Be vocal. Speak your concerns. Say, “no.” Walk away if you need to.

In her book, all about love, writer and feminist bell hooks writes,

“Self-love is the foundation of our loving practice. Without it our other efforts to love fail.”

Teachers, love yourself hard this year. Love yourself harder than you even have.

I still have hope. I still believe that teachers and community members have the power to spark deep and meaningful change in our society and in our schools. But we can only be agents of change if we are strong. We can only help others if we are well. This year, teachers, please stay well.

Lisa Bush is a writer, educator, and author of the book Teaching Well: How healthy, empowered teachers lead to thriving, successful classrooms. She is the creator of the Working Mom Wellness Podcast. To receive the latest wellness news from Lisa, sign up here.

Writer, educator, and author of Teaching Well: How Healthy, Empowered Teachers Lead to Thriving, Successful Classrooms. Creator of http://workingmomwellness.ca