An interview with Heidi Stahler

Heidi Stahler is a mom of three children, a daughter who is 8, and two boys that are 6 and 3. She is also a secondary occasional teacher, which basically means that she fluctuates between working semester-long contracts at an individual school and day-to-day supply work. This teacher position has given her an incredible opportunity to work with phenomenal colleagues at multiple schools, and it lets her see inside different classrooms all the time, so it’s like she’s continually collecting ideas and strategies to apply to her own practice. Her teachable subjects are English Literature, History and Special Education. Heidi and her family live just outside Toronto, Ontario.

What is one of the hardest parts of being a teacher and a mother?

It’s such a delicate balancing act. They are two of the greatest callings in the world, but it can also be really difficult to balance both at the same time in the way that I want to. I have three young children and for me, one of the hardest parts is “turning off” when I get home so that I can be really present with them for those few hours after work and before bedtime. One of the challenges of this profession is that it doesn’t really have an “ending” time. It’s never finished. There are always lessons to plan, assignments to mark or students to worry about. I have to work hard to compartmentalize those things so they aren’t bleeding into my family time.

Do you feel like you are making a difference in your profession during this pandemic? 

Honestly? I don’t know. I hope so. I’m in a bit of a unique situation as I am an occasional teacher and chose to do day-to-day work this year to spend more time with my family (instead of a semestered contract). I was technically laid off when the pandemic hit, so I’ve been trying to use my time to act as a resource to other parents and teachers who are still trying to navigate this new system of distance / online learning.

I started doing virtual “spirit weeks” with my children and shared the daily themes and activity ideas with my personal blog community. They’ve gone a bit viral and there are classes and families playing along all across North America. We’re now on week five, and I hope that each new spirit day brings a bit of fun and joy to the families and teachers participating.

Why do you think teachers have the highest burnout rate of any public service profession?

I struggled with this question. I don’t know if it’s really fair to compare public service jobs as they each come with a unique set of challenges. I believe that each job is hard and stressful in it’s own way. That being said, looking specifically at teachers, I do believe there is a high potential for burnout for a few reasons. First, I think it has to do with the kind of relationships we build with students and families. A lot of professions interact with people on a daily basis, but we see the same group of young people every day for months at a time. We see these students on good days, but we also see them on their hard days when they are struggling with any number of the issues and challenges that face young people today. I have lain awake many nights worrying about the well-being of my students that I know are in difficult situations at home. When you are working with 75 students at a time, this can feel overwhelming, particularly as supports are so limited in schools and classrooms. Access to social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, behavioural therapists, etc have been reduced over the years, which means teachers are left to take on elements of these roles with limited training until the supports become available. The training that IS available often has to be done on our own free time and at our own expense. The dynamics within any given classroom have also changed dramatically. The number of students requiring modified programming in each class continues to rise, which adds another layer to planning and assessment. Combined with reduced classroom support from education assistants, it can be stressful to find the time and means to provide the one-to-one support that so many of these students require. I have definitely had moments where I have felt like I have “failed” a struggling student. I think it’s in our nature to always wonder if we could have taught a lesson in another, better way or provided feedback more quickly. I know I’ve definitely struggled because I simply wasn’t able to divide my time enough between all the students who required the extra help in the 76 minutes I see them each day.

On top of this, education is always changing. Always. Whether it’s redesigning courses at the department level or implementing new technology or initiatives from administrators or the board office, there is always something new we are asked to learn, prep and plan for. The time we spend navigating these new initiatives takes away from planning, prepping and marking for the courses we are currently teaching, which then inevitably spills over into our home time. There are only so many hours in the day and the requirements of our job continue to evolve and grow.

Lastly, I think many teachers feel burned out by the general attitude that we are faced with. Over the years I have learned to avoid the comment section on any article or thread written about teachers. Too often we give our all to our students only to see that generally we are perceived as lazy, overpaid and underworked. It can feel like we are not allowed to make mistakes, or even make adjustments for our personal lives.

Really, it’s not any one thing that contributes to burn out, it’s the weight of all of these issues being carried at the same time.

What are the things that should be improved in the professional life of teachers?

I am by no means an expert in this, but over the course of the last decade I have noticed a few things:

  • More individualized or self-directed professional development options. Quite often board directed PD can be broad and not as useful to the individual needs of a subject area or department.
  • Release time to plan with coworkers and develop materials that are relevant to our daily teaching.
  • Increased support and access to support staff on a daily basis.
  • More training when new initiatives are introduced. Ideally this would be done during school time and not at our own expense.
  • More resources. Many schools simply do not have the funding to purchase up-to-date or relevant resources for their classes.
  • More support to deal with violence in schools. A very high percentage of elementary school teachers report violence in their classrooms, yet don’t have the training or staff to properly deal with this, particularly when the teacher to student ratio is 1:25+.
  • More trust. Trust us to use our training, knowledge and professional judgement to guide our students through the learning process.

In your opinion, do you think most teachers have a good work life balance in general?

Honestly? No, not really. I think some do, and we are all striving for it, but it’s sort of like a unicorn. You believe it exists and just keep hoping you’ll find it someday. The way our jobs are structured right now doesn’t allow for much of a separation between work and home. The reality is that our work tends to bleed into our home life—there is supervision of extracurriculars vs. getting our own kids to their activities or the lesson planning we didn’t have enough time to complete during our prep time at school because we were busy with students or other duties. There is almost always marking that couldn’t be finished at school, as well as completing detailed feedback on assignments for students, or just worrying about the well-being of students we know are struggling in their home lives. It’s difficult to balance that with the needs of families and home life at the same
time. At the end of the day I think we’re all just trying our best and sometimes one side falls short.

What are some strategies you’ve found effective for teachers that struggle to balance their work and home life during this pandemic?

I think the greatest strategy for finding balance during this pandemic can be summed up into three words: You Do You. Every single teacher is coming into this with a unique set of circumstances, whether it’s in their own home life or the home lives of their individual students. There really is no blanket solution that will work for everyone. I know some teachers that are staying up until the wee hours of the morning every night to try and prepare lessons and provide feedback and instruction for their students because their daytime hours are spent trying to navigate homeschooling their OWN children. Some ideas I could offer to try might be:

  • Create a set schedule for you and your children that outline when you are working, and when you are available for other activities.
  • Set specific “office hours” for particular classes. Don’t feel guilty about not being available 24/7.
  • Try to set up a designated space for work that you can leave or “close up” at the end of the day.
  • Focus on what you *can* control, not what you can’t.
  • Ask for help. Communicate with your colleagues and other teachers. Don’t feel like you have to do this all on your own!
  • Reward yourself at the end of the day! Finish the day with something just for you: maybe that’s exercise, a microwave s’more, a show on Netflix or whatever else floats your boat. Have something to look forward to once the work day is done. Self-care is important!
  • Most importantly: be kind to yourself. Allow yourself a measure of grace and don’t compare your “best” with anyone else’s. You are not a failure because what is working for someone else isn’t working for you. Find your stride and own it.

What are your best skills that could be shared with your colleagues or future teachers? 

This is a hard question for me. I think the skills I take pride in work for me in my classrooms, but that doesn’t mean that a different skill set or approach wouldn’t also be equally as effective. I don’t think there is any one “right way” to do this job. For me, I try to never lose sight of why I chose this as my career in the first place—I think that when my students can see my enthusiasm and passion for learning, most inevitably begin to find their own. I make it a point to really know my students as individuals and make them feel “seen”—I begin every class by standing in the hallway and greeting each one as they come in. I try to learn about who they are, and infuse their interests, cultures and ideas into activities we are doing in class. I prefer to lead rather than lecture, and I try to show them that even teachers can make mistakes. It’s how we learn! More than anything, I try to help students make connections outside of the classroom, so that they understand that the skills we are teaching them apply to so many facets of their every day life. Critical thought extends so far beyond a novel study or an essay.

What is your favorite hobby?

Right now? Probably eating. (ha!) In all seriousness, I love to read, and I spend a ton of time in my kitchen cooking and baking. I have always loved writing, which is why my blog began in the first place. I’ve been writing there in one form or another for 13 years.

Heidi’s favourite quote is: “And the moon said to me, ‘My Darling Daughter, you do not have to be whole in order to shine.” – Nichole McElhaney

Thank you Heidi!

Stay home, Stay safe everyone!
IB 🙂
Founder of Mind Growth Education