SINCE the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic, educators who have been going above and beyond to keep students afloat have been suffering from stress.
Following the deaths of nine teachers last week, a Jamaica Observer survey with three high school principals across each county, a university lecturer, and educators at the primary level, revealed that stress is a common denominator among educators.
Principal of Kingston College, Dave Myrie told the Sunday Observer that stress was present pre-pandemic and will remain so post-pandemic.
“It will always be that way because any conscientious teacher who wants their students to do well and to progress will always be concerned and stressed about things — whether it is pace, or the students not going in a way they wanted them to. The truth of the matter is that the whole pandemic and online teaching have been significant for many teachers because, overnight, school moved from face-to-face to online,” he said.
“And that has with it all of its issues. For many schools, many teachers, they couldn’t even see their kids because they didn’t have devices to log, they didn’t have connectivity in the areas that they were in, or they didn’t have data to put on their phones. It’s a whole range of different things. Teachers’ concern was always about learning loss and what was happening to those kids.”
Myrie said another factor to consider is that despite the pandemic, every school judges performance by grades obtained by students through the Caribbean Examination Council (CXC), through both the Caribbean Secondary Examination Council (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE).
“And so, everybody is stressed out trying to get things done, knowing that their resources are limited. You are working in an environment with limited resources but you need to achieve a whole lot. So, all kinds of pressures are there, and the teachers are at the forefront of this dealing with it on a daily basis,” Myrie lamented.
“Parents are also calling teachers as well, asking for help because they have difficulty managing and controlling the child who is in the house with them. It is a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. You are under pressure in every which way,” he continued.
Harry Hanson, principal of Cambridge High School, told the Sunday Observer that he has developed a personal coping mechanism.
“The challenges are overwhelming from time to time but I do my best to take everything at a day at a time, and I just attack them as they come and try not to take anything too personal because what is on me is not about me. That is my little way of coping with whatever comes my way,” he said.
“Teaching is always difficult, as it is. I think that, overall, students came back with adaptive behaviours. That is what we are accustomed to. We have challenges that we have to deal with. We are just doing what we have to do and doing sessions to have people understand that we have to work within our limits and accept what we can’t change… just to do the best that we can,” Hanson continued.
Hanson said there is an ever-present need for psychosocial support.
“We do that from time to time in our meetings, so we kinda have persons speak about self-care to ensure that persons understand that even without anybody coming and complaining, that we are responsible for our own mental and physical well-being. Even if it is to sit down and chat with your colleagues or friends, just de-stress in a healthy way. We have these sessions every now and then, and they can’t be too much.”
Panceta Walker, a teacher at St Aloysius Primary School, has also established ground rules to safeguard her well-being.
“I take my ‘me’ time. I don’t stay on extended meetings, [and I] desist from calling my teachers after [a] certain time or on weekends. I make sure I attend the movies at least once or twice per month, get my massage, or read only inspirational books. I make sure I call up my family and keep in contact with family and close friends. I watch movies regularly at home and find something to laugh about,” she told the Sunday Observer.
York Castle High School Principal Raymond Treasure said with the start of the new school term in January, the face-to-face environment has been more challenging.
“The truth is, the students have been out of school for nearly two years and it’s like we are starting all over again. Before, you had like a culture and you could say that was York Castle’s culture. The senior students would pass that culture on to the new students. That would be like the thing we all embrace,” he said.
“Now, we are starting all over again, trying to create a school culture, trying to get the students to be disciplined, trying to get them to take their work seriously. That is going to add a lot of stress, especially if you’re a teacher who is committed to the thing and wants excellence; it is going to stress you. You clearly have to put in a lot more work.”
Treasure told the Sunday Observer that a lot of people do not realise that teachers are “probably more exposed” than others who are out working.
“You are dealing with up to 40 students per class, certainly at the high school level. From that number, a number of them from time to time contract COVID. So, I can tell you that there are teachers out there who have contracted COVID up to two to three times since they have returned to face-to-face classes. Now, that cannot be a good thing for any teacher.
“Whether you’re wearing mask or not, the reality [is] that most times you’re in a classroom space that was really designed for about 25 students, and you have 40 students in that class. It is stressful for different reasons. People are getting sick because they are constantly exposed, and they have to put in more work because the students have come back with far more challenges. If you are a teacher who has underlying conditions, you are not going to respond well to some of those situations.”
Last week, nine teachers died in little over a week, and the president of the Jamaica Teachers’ Association (JTA) Winston Smith said he believes the high stress levels in the nation’s classrooms contributed to the incidents.
He further urged teachers to implement relaxation exercises to relieve stress, and called for spiritual intervention on behalf of teachers.
However, psychiatrist Dr Wendel Abel said the deaths may have been merely coincidental.
“There is a mental health fallout from the pandemic and everybody is affected but from what I am seeing, I don’t see that teachers are affected any more than any other group in the population,” he said.
“We certainly know the people who have bore the brunt of the pandemic are the health-care workers, and we’re not seeing any increase in deaths among health-care workers.”
But Shellon Samuels-White, lecturer at The Mico University College, said players in academia need to give greater attention to teacher wellness, strive to promote “the whole teacher”, and champion the cause of educator well-being through self-care.
Arguably, she said many colleagues make it through a long career unscathed, health wise. But nowadays, Samuels-White noted, job-related stress is seemingly taking a toll on many teachers and, as we know, teachers with ill-health cannot adequately serve.
“Given the rise of recognised stressors such as poor classroom conditions, inadequate wages, low respect, we can see clear as day that causes of teacher stress and burnout are related to increased job demands, especially around testing; addressing challenging student behaviours; a lack of autonomy and decision-making power; and not nearly enough training to support educators’ and students’ emotional needs.
“In our quest to promote positive, 21st century classroom climate and developing the whole child, the demands of our jobs are becoming more and more intense. With so many tasks competing for our attention, it is easy to lose sight of what is actually important.”
Myrie agreed, saying teaching is a “thankless job” but teachers do it nonetheless, with a desire to see students develop and move forward.
“I don’t think this country understands or even appreciates the difficulties that a teacher goes through on a day-by-day basis. In my own view, I don’t even think they care. There is a lot more care and concern if a school tells youngsters that their grooming needs to be changed than the death of eight educators.
“It is ‘Educate the child and make sure the child does whatever’, and that is where it stops. I don’t think the teachers feel appreciated outside of the school environment. Some of the teachers don’t even feel appreciated by some of the students they teach.”
Further, Samuels-White reiterated: “Teachers, let us commit to doing some things often, purely for its self-care benefit. Self-care is not one-size-fits-all. Do more of what works for you. Make it personal. Make your needs a priority [in order] to be better prepared to help others.”