“Pecked to death”: Studying how teacher-mothers cope

By Andru McCracken


It’s not everyday a resident with a newly earned doctorate returns to the valley, and less so, has the chance to apply her most recent research locally. That’s the exceptional case of Shirley Giroux, who spent part of her high school education in Valemount off and on as her parents cycled through retirement and ‘unretirement.’

Shirley Giroux holds her PhD… the first one.

Giroux spent many years in Williams Lake but has recently returned to Valemount to work as a mental health counsellor in Valemount’s elementary and secondary schools. She completed her PhD this spring at UNBC, graduating from the department of Health Sciences (and receiving a Governor General’s Gold Medal for outstanding academic achievement at the graduate level). Her PhD thesis title is unforgettable: “Like being pecked to death by a chicken” Resilience and Work-Family  Equilibrium in Teacher/Mothers.”

Her PhD topic arose from her experience:

“I was interested, as a teacher and mom myself, in how so many people who are teaching and raising children at the same time are able to continue on teaching and parenting as both can be very challenging,” she said.

The work also stemmed from previous research into anxiety.

“Out of that work, I heard a lot of stories talking to colleagues: what kind of parent they wanted to be, versus what kind of parent they felt they were,” she said.

“As teachers we work with kids all day and then we come home and work with our own kids. It can be difficult to maintain clear boundaries between work children and home children.”

Giroux was a teacher before she was a mother, and when she had kids she opted to work part-time to manage the load; it’s not something that everyone can afford to do.

Using a combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods, Giroux explored the experience of teachers to learn more about how they cope. She found an array of strategies. Intriguingly she found that the level of work interference in home life isn’t necessarily higher with teachers who are mothers than teachers who are not.

The number one coping strategy seemed to be seeking external support.

“As the teachers get more experienced (experience and age were closely related) they relied more on external resources,” said Giroux. “It might just be that with more experience you have a bigger network or maybe you don’t have to feel as if you are proving yourself as much.”

The research has already had an impact.

“[Teachers told me] what a sense of relief it gave them that their experiences were reflected in these stories,” she said.

Giroux said there isn’t really a space for teachers to talk about the impact of their job on family life.

“I argue that just like we put time aside for professional development we should have a forum where teachers can talk to the emotional part of the work,” she said.

Giroux has been able to try such a program in Valemount.

“The local schools and the union and the school district are supporting a project that directly tests some of my conclusions: that it might be helpful for teachers (and, ultimately, their students too) to talk about the emotional aspects,” she said.

When Giroux had her thesis bound she decided to go with double sided pages. Good thing, the tome contains 342 pages.

“It’s a very short-term project until March. It will be interesting to see what people think about that.”

She had great things to say about the school system in the Robson Valley.

“There seems to be a lot going on, which is really exciting. There appears to be an appetite for people to try new things,” she said.

“People here are actively interested in working together to try things out. That mindset and the prior existence of a local mental health project was one of the things that sweetened the pot to come back to Valemount.”

Giroux wants to take the work further, studying systems change and how to apply the findings of ‘Pecked’ to make life better for teachers and other helping professionals, as well as entire communities.

Giroux said graduate research can be an effective way to bring about meaningful change.

“I know it’s not the only route,” she said. “I want to continue pursuing an education, largely because I enjoy it.”

She won’t pursue that new research too soon. She figures she’ll wait until her husband forgets she already has a PhD.

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