Inside a packed coffee shop in suburban Halifax, a middle-aged woman sitting at a table begins to sing. “Notice me, Horton… feather by feather… feather by feather.”

The song is well rehearsed; she knows it well. So does a young man two tables down. He pauses mid-conversation and, smiling, springs up and hurries over to the woman.

“I can’t stop singing that song with you sitting over there,” Lara Fawthrop says to her former student. 

Several years ago, in high school, he had played Horton the Elephant in Seussical, a musical based on children’s stories by Dr. Seuss. She was his music teacher and this was his song. When he tells her he is still singing, she is delighted.

Then the conversation turns serious. Fawthrop says she is taking time away from teaching after losing her voice. “It’s been really helpful to be off,” she says. The medical leave allowed her the time for a full recharge. “Reset, figure out what matters, what’s more important. I’m going back on Monday.” 

“Still at Sackville High?,” the student asks.

“Yeah, oh yeah,” Fawthrop says with a chuckle. “They’ll probably bury me there.”

After the student walks away she turns back to her coffee, glowing from the brief interaction.

“Love these kids,” she says. “Even when they grow up.”

A hidden crisis

School is stressful for students. Homework, grades and social interactions are some of the biggest challenges in their young lives. But they aren’t the only ones anxious when the bell rings. Teachers are increasingly burning out.

A recent Brown University study found that over the past 15 years the number of teachers who believe their job is “worth it” dropped from 81 to 42 per cent. For many teachers, the motive behind their stress is clear: they are overworked. 

A 2015 study by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union showed that public school teachers across the province spend considerable amounts of their own time doing schoolwork. Teachers reported working an average of 52.2 hours a week, 18.7 of those outside school hours. It’s no surprise that, in the same report, 94.2 per cent of teachers said their main stressor was workload. 

As the pandemic lingers, teachers face even more setbacks. More student absences are enough of a hurdle. But when the teachers themselves call in sick, if substitutes are unavailable they have to cover classes for each other. When taking over for colleagues, teachers sacrifice valuable prep time for grading and lesson planning.

Ryan Lutes, the president of the NSTU, says when teachers don’t have time to adequately plan classes, they lose confidence. “They go home thinking about those kids and knowing that they couldn’t meet their needs.” That, Lutes says, weighs heavily on teachers’ mental health. 

Teachers being overworked, he believes, is a hidden crisis: the public doesn’t see “the fires” that teachers and administrators put out every day to keep schools running. Lutes says it breaks his heart when teachers tell him they can’t do it anymore. He recalls being told by a teacher, “My mental health is suffering, my family life is suffering because I need to put in so much time at home – and I’m still not meeting all the kids’ needs.”

Tangible solutions, he says, include lower class sizes and better salaries for substitute teachers. Smaller classes would mean fewer students to divide teachers’ attention and energy. Better-paid substitutes would entice more people to enter the profession and improve retention of those already on staff.

Substitute teachers in Nova Scotia are paid $196.23 a day. If one was to work all 195 school days on the calendar, they would come to just over $38,000 – hardly enough “to get by today,” Lutes says. Substitutes’ pay is “not creating a profession that people want to get into.”

Class sizes in Nova Scotia increase by age: primary schools are capped at 20 students, while grades 10-12 are capped at 32. Lutes says teachers have told him they have too many “people in front of me right now with too many needs.”

“I would love to be able to yell to the rooftops: be a teacher! It’s a tough job but the system really supports you,” Lutes says. “Right now, the piece that’s missing from that is the support for teachers.”

Health leave unintended outcome

Fifteen months after going on leave, Lara Fawthrop is ready to go back to school.

She’ll be back teaching English but, for now, will sit out music. After entering teaching 21 years ago, Fawthrop began to lose her singing voice. It never fully recovered.

The time off not only helped her voice but her mental health. During her time away, Fawthrop began to reevaluate her work-life balance. While rewarding in many ways, work had become her whole life. She did not work nine to five. Weekends meant arranging musicals and concerts, disrupting her family’s life as much her own. She says, “My kids grew up at the school, as I did.”

As a young teacher starting out, she was eager. In her first year, she dreamed about her lesson plans — and was proud of the fact. But as time went on, she says, her responsibilities changed with different governments, reports and policies. 

caption Sackville High School in Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia

Her music course was not required, which meant that she had to be a salesperson for the program. The need to make the music program thrive still seemed to fall on her. Fawthrop describes the position as lonely. 

Choosing to go on long-term disability was a clear decision, despite a sizable pay cut. Her lifelong passion for music had become a job, and her voice was damaged as a result. 

A music teacher without her music.

A tough question arose within her: “Are you working for your passion or are you working in your passion?” The answer was painfully clear.

caption Lara Fawthrop, left, and her mother Jean Fawthrop with a hooked rug.
Lara Fawthrop

Her greatest victory during the 15 months off was developing passions untethered to her job: rug hooking and making sourdough bread. These skills challenge her creative muscles in new ways and bind her closer to family. Her mother has enjoyed rug hooking for years and had always nudged her daughter to join the fold. Her sister, a fellow teacher, introduced her to sourdough, even welcoming Fawthrop into her bread-making friend group. They even have a group chat: The Sourdough Sisters.

When working on her crafts, she can put aside worries and focus on the fulfilling task at hand. She doesn’t ignore her stress, but does stop herself from endless worrying. Planning her return to school, rugs and bread were of course included.

“I will be bringing my hooking to school. That’s what I’ll do at lunch.”

Professional help

While new passions helped Fawthrop make time for herself, some teachers ultimately need counselling for stress and anxiety. 

The NSTU offers free counselling for its more than 10,000 members through two full-time therapists. A blue-tinged counselling brochure offers a smattering of reasons for seeking out help, including emotional turmoil at work and the desire to “make changes in your energy and enthusiasm for your professional direction.”

The two counsellors travel across the province for sessions with teachers by appointment. These offer short-term help. Lutes acknowledges that the two counsellors are “run off their feet”: the appointment backlog is many months long.

While counselling can benefit those with access, Lutes wants to see structural changes so that fewer teachers rely on it as a last resort. “When the system is supporting us, I think teachers do a bang-up job.” Lacking that governmental support, he says, “really has an impact on the mental health stress of teachers.”

Those who stay

The teachers who remain on the job face challenges.

Christine Emberley has taught many subjects at Woodlawn High School in Dartmouth. Currently, she has English, social studies and drama. A teacher for 16 years, Emberley says it’s always a surprise when she gets her assignments for the next year.

As the classes stack up, so do her worries about how to keep lessons current and fresh. Does she have enough time to prepare lessons? She laughs at the thought. “No. I’m just going to say that emphatically: I don’t.”

Of the 20 scheduled 75-minute blocks in a week, only two are reserved for marking and planning. Two years ago, her school increased the number of classes teachers teach per semester from six to seven. More often than not, schoolwork bleeds into her own time.

“You used to be able to minimize it a little bit, like around report card time or exam time,” Emberley says. Now the bleeding is constant. Whether she arrives early in the morning, stays late in her empty classroom, or works at home after putting her daughter to bed, the work takes extra time.

This semester she has a total of 93 students across her classes, about 25 of whom have special learning needs. Each of these 25 students have individual reports on their accommodations and learning differences. While these reports help teachers understand students’ needs, Emberley says, it’s another expectation added without considering how much work it creates for teachers.

“What everybody is struggling with right now is: do I have to reduce what I’m giving the students in order to be able to sustain (myself)?” Emberley says. “What’s going to give?”

Despite having a supportive school administrative team, teaching drains her. She worries more. She cries more at home. She’s increased her anxiety medication. When she did this her doctor said, “You’re the sixth teacher I’ve had come in for this.”

With pain in her voice, she describes a night when her 10-year-old daughter asked her if she had had a bad day. “I did have a rough day,” Emberley told her, “but you’re 10 so you really shouldn’t be worrying about that.” She tells this story with a tone on the border of sarcasm and heartache.

She can list several colleagues who retired early or simply left education. This is now common: a 2022 study by the (U.S.) National Education Association in Washington, DC shows that teachers considering leaving the profession earlier than they expected has jumped to 55 per cent. 

The stresses of teaching hurt so much, Emberley says, because teachers are so deeply connected to their work. As she sees her colleagues leave, though, she can’t help but ponder her own future. Still, teaching is her identity at this point; she wouldn’t know where else to go.

“I know that I’m not the only teacher who has that question floating through their head: how much longer can I do this?”

Teaching in the balance

Back in Sackville, it is almost time for Lara Fawthrop to resume her 21-year teaching career. Heading back to school after a long, 15-month break may be a test for her newfound clarity. “You’d think I’d be really nervous,” she says. “But I’m not.”

Fawthrop does, though, question if she will be the same teacher as before. No, she decides. Then she hesitates. Something, after all, needs to change.

“I hope I’ll be the same teacher – but with more balance.”

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About the author

Sam Farley

Sam is a fourth-year King's journalism student from Boston.

This story is part of the 'A time of pain and hope' series.
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