How concussions became a 'significant' risk for workplace injury among teachers
TORONTO -- Robin Teal never considered her line of work to be particularly dangerous, until she suffered a debilitating concussion that left her painfully aware of the risk teachers face daily.
The educational assistant was monitoring recess when she was accidentally hit in the side of the head with a football thrown by a student.
“Things instantly went black, but I caught myself before I hit the ground,” Teal told CTV News.
“I took off about four days… when I went back to work on Monday it was unbearable. I was still not able to do my job. I couldn’t stand, the nausea, the headaches, the spinning… it was all just too much.”
But Teal’s experience is not a one-off.
Experts say an increasing number of teachers are suffering concussions at work due to accidents in the classroom or at recess, leaving many -- Teal included -- with debilitating, long-lasting symptoms.
“Teachers wouldn’t think it’s a high risk job, but concussion is a significant risk at school,” Dr. Charles Tator, director of the Canadian Concussion Centre at Toronto Western Hospital, told CTV News.
“Awareness is improving, which is why I think more teachers are coming forward and saying hey it’s not just happening on the soccer field it’s also happening at recess.”
According to Tator, the majority of concussion patients recover within a month, but 20 per cent of patients experience long-term symptoms, including sensitivity to light and sound, vertigo, headaches, fatigue and, in some cases, severe depression or anxiety.
“There are so many symptoms and it drives people literally around the bend,” he said.
“So imagine… if you’re a teacher in front of a class of 25 noisy kids with the bright florescent lights. That’s very difficult for a person recovering from concussion.”
In Teal’s case, she endured months of debilitating symptoms which prevented her from returning to work full-time.
“I started with an hour back [at a time] with a supply in the classroom. But after about an hour in the classroom the nausea and the headaches and the dizziness would start again,” she explained.
Michela Bodnar, a fellow teacher and concussion patient, suffered a similar blow to the head during yard duty. After years of migraines, dizziness and sound sensitivity, Bodnar realized she had suffered a concussion.
“My husband used to say that I was superwoman before and now I have been knocked down a notch,” she told CTV News.
“Sometimes in class I will put earplugs in if it is too loud …. Then my body just shuts down.”
Bodnar says her concussion has had a serious impact on her cognitive ability -- so much so that she transitioned from teaching science to religion to reduce the amount of time spent marking and speaking in front of the class.
But it seems more schools and school boards are taking the issue more seriously.
In 2018, the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation reported that teachers had a much higher rate of claim for head injuries than the provincial average.
“Principals want to know when you have been hit and boards want us to report that sort of thing,” said Christine Proulx, a teacher who suffered a concussion while teaching gym class.
“I think it always been happening. I know of other teachers who this has happened to, some recover in two weeks no problem and others have post-concussion syndrome like myself.”
Both Bodnar and Teal say their injuries have made them increasingly aware of the risk to both teachers and students.
“A lot of the schools have gone to not allowing the balls and I think it’s a smart move,” Bodnar said, noting that designating specific spots for kids to play ball sports could reduce the number of accident on the playground.
Teal says her experience has become a teachable moment, opening her eyes to the frequency of which these accidents happen and just how severe concussions can become.
“I just physically make sure I am aware of my surroundings at all times now,” she said.