Without proper access to mental health services for students, teachers in rural schools are left putting out fires

On paper, it was a dream job.

Sarah* had taught at an urban intermediate school for six years before packing up and moving to the country.

Her new school in rural Manawatu meant teaching a class of 18 students rather than her old class of 31.

But since starting at her small rural school earlier this year, she has found the idea of the pastoral idyll belies some difficult realities.

Limited access to mental health and learning support have left her burdened with responsibilities outside the remit of most teachers – and with five of her 18 students struggling with mental health issues, she finds herself struggling to teach the class.

“It’s because it is so difficult to get support to come out to our location,” she said. “Mainly counselling support.”

So instead of being able to focus on teaching her Year 6 to 8 class, she finds herself putting out fires regularly.

“At times, I feel like I’m guessing what is best to say or do as I have no psychology degree behind me or training in the area,” she said. “I try my best but the mental health of these tamariki is a huge responsibility.”

And she’s not the only teacher – rural or urban – who’s feeling this way.

Education union NZEI Te Riu Roa is trying to raise awareness of under-resourcing of learning support with its Ngā Aukaha All in for Tamariki campaign.

NZEI president Liam Rutherford said many students missed out on the support they needed because of severe underfunding and long waits for support services.

Without support services like guidance counsellors in schools, the role tended to fall on classroom teachers or deputy principals.

“This puts additional pressure on educators in schools and classrooms,” he said. “They have the best intentions with the way they are working with young people, but at the same time, being a guidance counsellor comes with specialist knowledge that often classroom teachers just don’t have.”

NZEI president Liam Rutherford wants to see more access to specialist services such as guidance counsellors and speech language therapists in schools. Photo: Supplied

And for rural schools like the one Sarah works at, getting hold of counselling is even more difficult.

With a 50-minute, one-way trip to the nearest town, she said many families found the cost in both hours and dollars too much to bear.

She said neither private counselling nor Ministry of Health services would make the reverse trip, citing prohibitive transport costs.

The Ministry of Education said it hadn’t received requests for assistance from the school in question and had learning support specialists who responded to all requests, irrespective of where students and schools were located.

“Our support is focused on students with additional learning support needs to make it possible for them to access the curriculum in the school setting,” said Jocelyn Mikaere, the ministry’s Hautū (leader) for Te Tai Whenua (Central). “This may be in conjunction with mental health services and other wellbeing supports supplied by health providers.”

But Rutherford believes the threshold for the provision of these services is often too high, and once it has been reached the support comes too slowly.

“We need to be instantaneous once we reach the point of a school recognising a student needs support,” he said. “Recognising a student’s need for support suggests there has been a lead-up or prior incidents.”

And with the responsibilities of the job stacking up, it seems those working in schools are feeling the strain.

Findings from the Education Review Office released on Tuesday showed teachers and principals in New Zealand schools were getting less satisfaction from their work and were feeling less supported and connected.

Only 57 percent of principals at smaller schools, which are often rural, reported happiness at work.

Rutherford said much of this could be put down to not enough support being offered to rural principals, who often had to teach on top of all of the administrative and pastoral duties of the role. Often, rural principals worked 60 hour weeks.

“Given that people come into education because they are passionate about making a difference, seeing those declining satisfaction rates is really concerning,” Rutherford said.

NZEI was keen to see guidance counsellors common across the primary level, instead of mainly in high schools.

“There have been a handful of schools that have gone and employed them off their own bat because they’ve seen such a big need,” he said. “But at the same time, that school is having to make trade-offs around teacher aides or computers of all of the range of priorities that schools have.”

The problem may go further than just a lack of funding, with staffing shortages hitting many of the roles schools so desperately need.

“One of the biggest areas that we lack in when it comes to capacity is around specialist learning support – things like educational psychologists and speech language therapists,” he said. “Those are areas where there’s just not enough people trained to be able to do the work. It means that children go on really long waiting lists or just get told your level of need doesn’t meet the threshold for support.”

And there’s a snowball effect to the problem, with students who don’t receive the right support needing even more support down the track.

Sarah has seen it in practice.

“What you get is a lot of children who actually require services but because they haven’t got it from a younger age, all the issues become bigger and bigger,” she told Newsroom.

*Name changed

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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