This time last year, Cecilia C was walking a picket line over issues like wages, class sizes and mandatory online courses. Now, the Toronto teacher just wants some consistency as COVID-19 keeps Ontario teachers on their toes and pushes the provincial education system to its limits.
Cecilia, who asked that her last name and the school where she teaches be withheld, has been teaching in-person since September. She had to abruptly begin adapting to the new protocols of her job.
“I think I’ve reached a new normal,” she says.
Going into work in the morning involves a whole new set of procedures.
“I wipe the door handle, because I don’t know who went into my classroom at night,” she says. “I’ll wipe the light switches. Then the desks. My keyboard.”
After work, she has to put her clothes in the wash and shower before she feels she can safely come into contact with her husband and four kids.
Blames the government
Cecilia is only one of the thousands of public school teachers in Ontario who are struggling to keep up with the physical and emotional demand of teaching in the pandemic. With report cards due at the end of the month, they’ll be giving the first failing grade to the Ontario government, who many teachers feel has left them without the support they need.
While Cecilia goes into the classroom herself, she and her husband chose to keep their four kids at home, taking classes in virtual school. Her youngest, who’s in Grade 2, has been struggling with his online program. The couple has been considering putting him back into the classroom.
She feels students in that age range can’t be expected to adequately learn online without adult supervision, but between her own career and her husband, who works from home now, there isn’t enough time to provide that level of attention.
“People that are not in the classroom make up the rules for everyone that is in the classroom,” she says, a sentiment that’s shared by some public school union leaders as well.
Lacked clear messaging
Harvey Bischof, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president, is well aware of the abrupt changes teachers have had to deal with up to this point.
“We had teachers who didn’t know, the night before classes were to start, what they were going to be teaching the next day,” he said.
As the beginning of the school year approached in September, the government’s lack of clear messaging and direction left many teachers in the dark. Some didn’t know what grade they were teaching or whether it would be in-person or online until the day before school was set to start. Others knew earlier, only to have it switched on them without notice.
“They are doing their very best, under very trying circumstances and they are absolutely at capacity. They are exhausted already at this point in the school year,” Bischof said.
His members, numbering at over 60,000, have also expressed frustration with the new technology they have to work with. Teachers who may have been accustomed to an analog teaching style up until now suddenly found an array of new apps and software thrust upon them. In some cases, they were expected to learn them in real time while also teaching in person.
“We have teachers who are teaching the group of students in front of them but also attempting, at the same time, to teach online for students,” he said. “Those are two entirely different teaching methodologies. It’s really like trying to do two jobs at once.”
The increase in computer-based learning has also increased the demand for computer support, which has left some teachers struggling to figure things out on their own. Bischof said one teacher who was looking for tech support for the online half of their class was advised to “just point [their] computer at the blackboard.” He was quick to point out that most classrooms don’t use blackboards anymore.
The combination of all these factors has pushed many teachers to question whether they should remain in the profession. A survey conducted in Ontario by the CBC in October showed that, of the 1,000 teachers who responded, roughly 20 per cent were thinking of changing careers, while roughly 15 per cent were considering early retirement.
“I would say ‘silently suffering’ is a really good phrase to describe what teachers with responsibilities are going through,” says Beyhan Farhadi, a teacher and post-doctoral researcher at York University in Toronto.
Farhadi was already researching online learning and its relationship with inequality in the school system when the pandemic brought these issues into the spotlight. Now through her focus groups, she’s hearing about more than just the inequality of virtual teaching.
“It’s a mess. All I’ve heard throughout my interviews is ‘Chaos’. I’ve heard ‘Chaos’ be repeated. I’ve heard ‘Insanity.’ ‘Surreal.’ These are the only ways that I think teachers are able to express themselves,” Farhadi said.
Teachers are often left playing multiple roles. Not just educator and technical support, but therapist as well. For most students, their teachers make up half of the adult presence in their lives. With so many home lives under stress, their teachers end up lending a sympathetic ear more often than usual. Surprisingly, it’s not just the students who are turning to teachers for emotional support.
“I’ve had a couple teachers talk about how they’re having to discuss really difficult issues with parents,” Farhadi said. “Not just the students, but parents are experiencing insecurities. Economic insecurities and as a result food and health insecurities that they can’t get resources for. I mean, what do you do as a teacher other than just listen?”
Extend winter break?
Earlier this month, TDSB teachers and education workers wrote an open letter calling for an extra two weeks to be added onto the winter break. Their fear is that students and coworkers, who will inevitably travel and visit family over the break, could come back asymptomatic and spread the virus.
The risk feels particularly present with the recent news of outbreaks and closures at schools in Thorncliffe Park. The closures happened after 26 people at Thorncliffe Park Public School tested positive for COVID-19, which prompted three teachers to walk off the job.
As the winter break approaches, Cecilia doesn’t feel that the two-week break is long enough either, but understands that after months of back and forth, there will still be complaints.
“Whatever decision comes out, not everyone is going to be happy,” she says.