Special project grant pivotal for Prairie Spirit teachers embarking on wellness journey

Sask Bulletin
September 15, 2020

If ever there was going to be a catalyst to bring greater awareness to the importance of wellness, the COVID-19 global pandemic surely accomplished that.

Kim Cooper

Kim Cooper

With that in mind, the Prairie Spirit Teachers’ Association recently was the initial recipient of a $20,000 Local Association Special Project Grant from the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation Executive to delve more deeply into the whole issue of teacher wellness.

This was an issue that was front of mind even before the cataclysmic effects of COVID-19 and the subsequent closure of schools in the province.

According to outgoing PSTA President Brian Knowles, the grant will allow teachers to gain increased release time to attend events focusing on wellness among teachers in the division.

Kim Cooper, who teaches at Delisle Elementary School and has experienced her own serious health issues, has been a tireless promoter of enhanced wellness awareness for her colleagues in the teaching profession.

She said the grant “provides a great opportunity and in education so much can be out of control in terms of teachers staying healthy and looking after themselves. Especially when you look at the current situation there is a lot of worry out there. It’s going to be overwhelming for a lot of teachers and there is so much anxiety. We have to look after each other by creating that culture.”

Knowles said that while COVID-19 has obviously put wellness in the spotlight, “even in a normal year this [wellness] is something that as a local association we have been very mindful of. We need to take care of ourselves. We are looking at ways to develop a plan and we’ve had some of this discussion in terms of changes that we need to implement. That work is more important than ever right now.”

Cooper, who has experienced at least a couple of traumatic episodes which ultimately led to her losing her voice, said that painful journey has actually meant that she is feeling OK regarding the prospect of potentially returning to the classroom in the fall.

“I feel like I’m in a good place; but I feel for those teachers who have not experienced the journey already,” she shared.

Cooper has been a strong advocate for teachers to embrace more fully their personal wellness, while noting that all too often teachers wear badges akin to the fact they can “deal with it.” However, she said that she has definitely seen teachers taking the issue more seriously.

“There is a stronger realization that it’s OK if as teachers we sometimes need to do some stuff for ourselves and to ask for help.”

Knowles concurred that all too frequently in the past teachers have had an almost martyr-like mindset, which he said is actually ironic.

“Maybe it’s because we are serving kids and so you put their needs before your own. But, when it comes to mental health issues, we are waking up to the fact that as teachers we need to model a healthy lifestyle for our students. We know we can do a better job when we are healthy.”

Knowles and Cooper both lauded the support they have received from their division office with Knowles citing the interest he has seen from both the board and senior administrators at the schools in terms of trying to figure out what can be done in order to de-intensify the workload for teachers so that they can achieve a better work-life balance.

Cooper indicated that some steps that would lead to change in overall culture can be quite inexpensive, while at the same time noting the invaluable insight she has gained by reaching out to colleagues in New Brunswick and British Columbia, in particular.

Philosophically, Cooper said things would probably already have been further along, “but life happens [COVID-19]. So with some of our plans we have to wait and see, but I feel good about where we’re going and to consider what things will look like. It’s about making the connections and sharing ideas.”

Knowles stressed the importance of this being a grassroots initiative without any sort of one-size-fits-all prescriptive plan. “It’s more a matter of making people aware of what resources are out there and how you access them,” he indicated, while adding that there are also plans to bring in outside experts to offer their insight.

Cooper sees rich potential by just opening the dialogue.

“I guess you could say that with the pandemic, it aligns pretty well. People are really looking at opportunities that we can work together. I think we can create something cool and that we can get to where we need to go.”

Knowles, who is going to become principal at Pike Lake School in the fall, said he is optimistic that the committee is making inroads. “I think this is just the first step and we need to continue to make changes and look at the overall picture. This grant is an important part of the puzzle.”