By Nichelle Penney, CASJ Disability Justice Action Group and Kamloops teacher
I identify as a person with a disability. I have been struggling with depression and anxiety for many years now, but I use that as a conversation piece, not a taboo to hide away from the world. I bring this creature to show and tell. I continually refer to it when having conversations with co-workers, and I introduce it to my students. I make sure that my mental health is on display for everyone, in a positive light, so that the creature does not have the power to grow and overwhelm me.
This approach is definitely a coping strategy, but it has also allowed me to be honest with the people around me and to try to eliminate the stigma that exists around mental health. It has opened up opportunities for my students to be more honest with me and to develop relationships within the classroom that allow them to thrive instead of hide.
My union work has also allowed me to take time to reflect on my situation and to help support other teachers around the province. My entire eight years as a teacher has been centered around my union and has become part of my identity. My mental health is as good as it is because of my volunteer work, which has opened up conversations and collaboration around the province. I am currently a workshop facilitator, a Local Representative, a member of the Disability Justice Action Group on the Committee for Action on Social Justice, and a staff rep at my school.
The reality of COVID-19, with the associated term system that has been set up in many school districts, has presented new challenges. I am a part-time teacher for a reason. Having that one block free each day every semester allows me to decompress and centre myself, but that option does not exist in this new system under the pandemic.
Teaching six out of eight blocks this year means that there are 20 weeks when I do not have a break, cannot decompress, and cannot centre myself during the day. I go home exhausted, empty, and defeated. That creature is starting to get bigger. Currently, my saving grace is my union work, which has given me time to decompress, to reflect, and to continue to support myself and others in various ways.
After struggling through the first term in 2020, taking almost 20 days off in the 10 weeks, I decided to look into a partial medical leave. This leave involves dropping a block in term three, when I would otherwise be back to teaching two blocks again. After spending a month arranging for my doctor fill out my medical form, I found out that if I submit that form to the school board, I will have to walk away from all my union work, right down to being staff rep in my school. Much of what I do for my union involves communicating the challenges that teachers are experiencing and supporting the creation of resources and policy changes regarding people with disabilities/disabled people. Mental health is my jam, and supporting others creates a sense of release for me.
Our union is built upon the volunteer work of members around the province, members who wish to help others and create a better tomorrow— whatever that may look like. In the past, this volunteer work has helped in the negotiation of various paid leaves, minimum wage, and even the creation of the Salary Indemnity Plan to help teachers on sick leave who have run out of paid sick days.
I am proud to be a volunteer member of my union who supports teachers and students in all areas and in many ways. Yet, here I am, having to choose between another ten weeks of struggling—another ten weeks of that creature getting bigger on my shoulders—and the union work that supports me and others like me. My union work helps that creature stay small, stay manageable. Doing BCTF work for many is an important component of recovery from mental illness.
I have spoken to many who have indicated that it is the union—their involvement in the union—that has helped them to stay in a profession that is continually being evaluated by members of the public, being oppressed by the government, and undergoing so much change over the years. I am not alone in this thought. I love my students.
I love the conversations and the exploration of the curriculum that we do together. I love seeing them grow and having that lightbulb moment. But I also love knowing that I’m helping to support them outside of the classroom.
Yet, here I am, having to choose between my mental health and my activism for mental health. Where is the justice in that? There are wonderful people volunteering for our membership who are being forced to take a step back. This not only punishes them for trying to take care of themselves, but leaves a gap in our union committees, assemblies, and schools. As I write this article in October 2020, there are already fewer applications to union mentorship and other opportunities. As the school year continues and more teachers are looking at partial medical leaves, that gap will widen and positions may go unfilled, placing the entire membership at a disadvantage. The system needs to change.