The number of teachers who took a leave of absence during the initial months of the unsettling 2020-21 school year is up ever-so-slightly in three school districts in the Manitoba capital compared to last year’s figures.
Through a series of freedom-of-information requests, the Free Press collected early fall statistics on teacher leaves, retirements and resignations from six Winnipeg-area divisions: Winnipeg, River East Transcona, Louis Riel, Pembina Trails, Seven Oaks and St. James Assiniboia.
Each division was asked to provide figures from the early 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, respectively, between Sept. 1 and Nov. 2.
The data obtained shows more educators went on leave this year than last year in Winnipeg, River-East Transcona and Seven Oaks divisions, while tallies are down in Louis Riel and St. James Assiniboia. Pembina Trails also recorded a decline in absences, although 2019 figures provided range from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30.
The generic "leave" category includes absences for maternity, parental, long-term disability, short-term disability, paid and unpaid medical and other personal reasons.
There is no specific stress category because no one wants to stigmatize leaves, said James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society.
Of the more than 3,000 teachers employed in the province’s largest division, there was an increase of 42 leaves this fall, with a total 146 educators taking time off.
In River East Transcona, which employs upwards of 1,300 educators, 63 people went on leave in 2020. Last year, 55 took an absence of some kind.
Meantime, Seven Oaks recorded 95 leaves in its teacher population of 950, up 12 from the same period in 2019.
Reflecting on the incremental increases, Bedford said it’s clear teachers feel a strong obligation to their work, students and colleagues — even amid the challenges COVID-19 has imposed on classrooms across the province.
"It’s not a job that you can just drop and walk away from very easily," said Bedford, who represents upwards of 16,000 public school teachers in Manitoba.
The freedom-of-information request data also shows only nine resignation notices submitted in Winnipeg schools during the early fall months of 2020. There were 25 retirement notices across the six metro divisions during that same period.
“It’s not a job that you can just drop and walk away from very easily.” – James Bedford, president of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society
Notably, the data doesn’t include the entire month of November, and Nov. 30 is typically the last day on which teachers can give notice to their employer about intent to retire at the end of a calendar year.
But Bedford, vice-chairman of the Teachers' Retirement Allowances Fund, said end-of-year retirements are more or less on par with other years.
Given how significant of a move leaving a classroom is, even if only for a temporary period, Lesley Trudel, a University of Winnipeg academic researching teacher well-being amid the pandemic, said it’s likely teachers are taking more mental-health days this year than in years past to cope with additional stress.
During a conference call, Laura Sokal, a co-researcher in the U of W education faculty, added that not everyone experiences burnout the same way.
"This idea that you start your profession and you have a certain amount of energy you can put towards it until there’s nothing left — that’s not true," said Sokal, noting that job demands and rewards are fluid.
"Some days are going to be better than others."
To date, Trudel and Sokal’s research, consisting of interviews with teachers in Winnipeg and other Canadian jurisdictions, has determined key educator concerns at present are workload, student health and safety, work-life balance and technology.
"(My voice) is just depleted. My instinct is saying I’m probably just calling it a career." – Manitoba teacher on medical leave
Respondents have disclosed they want support from both administrators and co-workers, and don’t want to be overwhelmed with resources.
The duo is also following a group of 147 teachers in one Manitoba school district to track their exhaustion, cynicism and experiences of personal accomplishment in 2020-21. Early findings show 7.5 per cent of respondents are disillusioned with teaching and, in some cases, want to leave their job as soon as possible or when a more desirable position comes along.
These teachers are early and mid-career educators, Trudel said, adding "that’s concerning."
A Manitoba teacher on a "medical leave," who agreed to an interview on the condition of anonymity, said pandemic-related stresses prompted her to step away from her job in a division just outside Winnipeg in late October.
Two months after she left her classroom, the teacher said she is still feeling burnout. If she does return to school in 2020-21, she said it will be as a substitute so she doesn't have to plan, mark, communicate with parents, or "toe the line" with her division.
The teacher said she returned to school in the fall thinking physical safety needed to trump academics, but was soon "bombarded" with standardized testing requirements and felt her expertise was ignored by her boss.
"(My voice) is just depleted," she said "My instinct is saying I’m probably just calling it a career."
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.