More than half of the teachers who tuned into a recent town hall organized by the Manitoba Teachers’ Society reported having "seriously considered" retiring or switching professions because of COVID-19-related stresses at work.
Leadership at the union, which represents upwards of 16,000 public school educators in the province, hosted a telephone conference Tuesday to field questions about the pandemic.
Participants were also asked questions about their career status, biggest concern at present, and what would be of most help to them should classes go fully remote, during the hour-long call. Approximately 2,000 teachers answered each question.
When pressed about whether they had thought about retiring or changing careers because of the work environment in recent months, 52 per cent of respondents said yes.
"I’m not surprised — I mean, it’s a reflection of the level of stress and anxiety that’s out there, and when anybody’s working life becomes untenable, they’re obviously looking for a switch," James Bedford, MTS president, said during a phone call Wednesday.
Bedford, who hosted the town hall with general secretary Danielle Fullan Kolton, added: "I certainly hope that there’s intervention very soon to turn that around, because we cannot afford to lose good people from this profession."
During the peak of attendance, a total of 2,175 teachers joined the town hall by phone and 1,687 streamed it online.
Bedford said key concerns raised were teachers’ need for more planning time, simultaneous remote and in-class teaching expectations, duplex classrooms, uncertainty about an extended winter break, and a lack of communication from the province.
“I’m not surprised ‐ I mean, it’s a reflection of the level of stress and anxiety that’s out there, and when anybody’s working life becomes untenable, they’re obviously looking for a switch.” — MTS president James Bedford on the number of teachers contemplating retirement or a career change
Town hall participants were split on their single biggest concern, with answers ranging from workload, mental health, physical health and COVID-19 protocols — 35, 33, 16, and 12 per cent of respondents picked those categories, respectively.
On the subject of what would benefit teachers most if all schools in Manitoba are forced to pivot to remote learning, the most popular answer was more preparation time.
Bedford said the last thing teachers expressed desire for was a remote learning support centre. (The province announced earlier this month it was spending $10 million to create one.)
What would be more helpful is tangible efforts to take some of the load off teachers, Bedford said, offering up the idea of a provincewide centre that offers full-time instruction for remote learners.
"The lottery" — that’s the answer one high school teacher gave the Free Press when asked about what would make her job easier.
“I certainly hope that there’s intervention very soon to turn that around, because we cannot afford to lose good people from this profession.” — James Bedford
The Winnipeg teacher, who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal at work, did not hesitate when asked whether she had weighed a career change amid the pandemic.
Since she is in her late 40s, the teacher said it doesn’t make "financial sense" to switch professions, but if it did, she would.
"There's just simply too much to be responsible for, and not enough resources to do it," said the teacher, who has been tasked with remote and in-class programming for upwards of 110 students, whose reading and writing skills range in level from Grade 1 to university.
With Rural Municipality of Hanover schools in the restricted (code red) phase as of Tuesday, the Winnipeg teacher called on the province to provide clarity to other divisions about whether closures are looming or teachers can expect ongoing in-class learning for the rest of 2020.
The results of the MTS annual formal fall survey of members are expected to be made public in the coming weeks.
Bill Cann, president of the Retired Teachers’ Association of Manitoba, said it won’t be until January that educators have a real sense of how many are choosing to leave their jobs because of COVID-19.
Cann said he suspects there will be a "significant" increase in his membership.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.