Education International
Education International

Canada’s education leaders look to put wellness back into classrooms

published 14 July 2016 updated 1 August 2016

School is meant to be a safe place, but for too many children and their teachers the classroom has become a source of mental illness, which is why Canada’s teacher unions are taking action.

Achieving everyday wellness has quickly become an important topic spanning across all sectors and ages. The struggle to create balance in an increasingly 24/7 world has taken on greater importance as mental health issues have skyrocketed, and nowhere is this more evident than in Canada’s schools.

“Self-doubt can be felt by both students and teachers,” said Heather Smith, President of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), as she addressed delegates at the opening of the Annual General Meeting (AGM) in Montreal. Referring to the ever-growing expectations being placed on educators and their pupils, Smith quoted a recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study which linked teacher burnout to stress. “Stress is becoming a contagion in our schools.”

With the social and financial costs of mental health issues reaching new heights, experts are looking to address concerns early, which is why the CTF, an Education International (EI) affiliate, made the theme of its AGM “Public Education: Wellness in our Schools.” The AGM takes place from 13-15 July.

Delivering opening remarks to delegates as a guest speaker, Anne Swift, President of the UK’s National Union of Teachers (NUT), blamed high stakes testing on increasing teacher and student stress.

“Our schools are becoming exam factories,” she said. As a result, she added, “more and more children are showing signs of ill mental health,” but the government continues to cut services. Swift called on the government to reinvest in the arts, which she said provide children with a foundation of self-esteem.

In advance of the AGM, CTF held the “Canadian Forum on Public Education,” a conference focused on the mental health of students and teachers, from 11-12 July. The conference, which brought together teacher leaders from across the country, invited various experts on mental health to share their experiences and knowledge with the teaching profession.

Read more about the sessions on CTF’s blog here.

High stakes testing, increased classroom responsibilities with less resources and a digital world that never goes off-line are just a few of the factors plaguing teachers and their students today.

Permanently online

Phil McRae, an Executive Staff Officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association and a professor at the University of Alberta, shared with participants his work focused on tech and its impact on education.

During his eye-opening presentation, Growing Up Digital, Dr. McRae revealed how the reality of smartphones and tablets is having a profound effect on our health, and children set to suffer the most.

“We have to take a long-term look at tech and children, both positive and negative,” said McRae, who revealed how being permanently online is taking a toll on our health and general wellbeing.

In presenting the pros and cons of what is today’s connected world, McRae used what could be considered the staple of family life, dinner together, to make his point: that our need to be online is robbing adults and their children of real, human connection. Research shows that 73 percent of parents use their online devices during dinner, a moment needed for sharing and communication. He says this leads to children having to compete with their parents devices for attention.

“Neglect is now a bigger issue than abuse in North America,” said McRae, who stresses that we as a society need to learn how to balance technology in our daily lives, and that includes schools. We “must make tech a fabric in the classroom,” but it cannot replace social interaction.

In addition to discussions on mental health and wellness in schools, the AGM is set to debate and adopt new policies, approve the annual budget and elect both a new executive for 2016-17 and a president-elect to take office in July of next year.