Re-building School Culture and Staff Wellbeing Post Lockdown: Six Emerging Themes in the Research
As we emerge from lockdowns and return to on-site learning, school staff are looking around and assessing the impacts of the last 18 months. The common thread we see is exhausted teachers who already had a lot on their plates doing their best to adjust to life back at school after multiple stints of online learning.
It is estimated that over half of our teachers are now experiencing high levels of stress, with at least 20% of these cases being extreme. So it’s clear that now is the time for school leadership teams to prioritise teacher wellbeing in order to action their school goals and strategic priorities.
Several clear themes are emerging in the research coming in from all over the world relating to how to rebuild our schools post lockdown. What is clear amongst these themes is an emphasis on putting our ‘people first, then pedagogy.’
This article will explore:
- Teacher stress
- The emerging themes for school focus post lockdown
- Strategies to consider to promote these themes
- Ideas to support teacher wellbeing
Teacher stress and wellbeing needs more attention.
When we look at the worldwide research conducted on the impacts of lockdowns and home/online learning, there is a clear narrative; teachers are more stressed than ever before, creating a new priority for school leadership – their people.
The research shows that teacher stress can affect and impact student learning. This isn’t new information; there is a well-established and evidenced correlation between staff wellbeing and students’ academic achievement and development. In fact, Hattie (2013) points out that when teachers become burned out or worn out, their students’ achievement outcomes are likely to suffer because they are more concerned with their personal survival.
At this time in our history, there is no doubt that school staff are worn out. So the question is, what do they need to get all cylinders firing again?
Emerging themes in the research
Since the pandemic hit, I have read countless research papers assessing the impact of lockdowns and a transition to and from home learning for our school staff.
Researchers have analysed the narratives and data presented by groups of teachers and landed on a few key recommendations for how to support our staff and community now that we are back on site.
As we plan our annual plans for 2022 and review our approaches, I urge school leadership teams to consider these areas in order to get the best results for school-wide initiatives, strategic plans, staff retention, and of course, student outcomes.
The themes noted across the research are:
- Normalise mental health concerns
- Provide and communicate as much certainty as possible
- Rebuild teacher identity
- Focus on collective teacher efficacy
- Rebuild relationships and community
- Reduce additional workload and focus on priority areas
Normalise mental health concerns
Mental health awareness has gained more traction in the last ten years but probably more so since the first news of the pandemic broke. Before the pandemic, around 40% of teachers reported having significant levels of stress, and 1 in 5 adults experienced a mental illness in any year (2). The most recent data suggests that close to 60% of our teachers report feeling stressed, and almost 30% report serious and extreme stress levels. Alarmingly though, 60% of staff have reported that they have not spoken to school leadership about their stress levels or wellbeing (3).
In a time of collective and worldwide trauma, now is the time to raise awareness of mental health in your workplace, reduce the stigma and provide more options for support by:
- Promoting awareness and understanding of mental health more broadly
- Regularly sharing and promoting support organisations (such as Beyond Blue, Black Dog Institute, and Heads Up)
- Providing time to engage in free online mental health training
- Up-skilling the leadership team and staff on mental health and warning signs
- Scheduling teacher wellbeing workshops with a focus on resilience, self-care, and emotional intelligence
- Bringing awareness to and developing staff capacity in emotional intelligence
Provide and communicate as much certainty as possible
This time in history is characterised by a powerful shared sense of not knowing what is going on. The theme of uncertainty can also be found among concerns about an ongoing lack of clarity from the government and education directorates, making it hard to plan ahead. When our staff lack clarity, it often results in anxiety, and anxious staff can find it harder to engage with their work and build relationships with their colleagues and students.
While we cannot control what is happening across the world or control government decisions, we can do our best to provide clarity to our staff at school by:
- Meeting more regularly as a leadership team and using multiple forms of communication (emails, in person, and during team/staff meetings)
- Providing additional time and avenues for teachers to ask questions and seek clarification (e.g., through the use of drop-in meeting times or a survey)
- Communicating plans as soon as possible and acknowledging when you don’t yet have a plan or answer, but highlighting that it is in the pipeline
- Being open and transparent about plans/directions and inviting feedback and consultation
Rebuild teacher identity
In many research papers, teachers talked about how their professional identity had been affected (2). Several teachers have described their dismay at their job changing due to the pandemic and how they are struggling to re-adjust to school life. Many will need support to refocus on who they are now back at school and why they got into teaching in the first place.
To help our teachers find themselves in the new normal, we could support them with:
- 1:1 discussions with their leader to reflect on their self-image (views of self as a teacher), motivations (reason for teaching), commitment (dedication to the profession), self-efficacy (strengths, skills, and capabilities), task perception (understanding of their roles) and overall job satisfaction
- Group discussions about the above
- Online strength assessments (e.g., VIA strengths assessment)
- Personality assessments and questionnaires
- Anonymous surveys and questionnaires about job roles and expectations
- Self-reflective questionnaire opportunities
Focus on collective teacher efficacy
Collective efficacy refers to a shared belief that the school’s staff can positively impact student achievement – despite other influences in the students’ lives that challenge their success (5). Collective efficacy is evident when teachers see themselves as part of a team working for their students. This teamwork impacts student learning outcomes and creates a shared sense of belonging and wellbeing for our staff, which is an asset during a stressful time. (6,7)
Ways to promote and foster collective teacher efficacy include:
- Adopting or refocusing on a PLC approach
- Reviewing the maturity of your schools PLC approach and setting team goals for improvements
- Adopting collaborative cycles of inquiry
- Setting termly team goals
- Embedding a coaching and mentoring model
- Providing opportunities for learning walks and peer feedback
- Providing professional development for staff emotional intelligence (to interact with, understand, and respond appropriately to other staff members)
Rebuild relationships and community
Humans (and especially teachers) are social beings. During the pandemic, we lost many opportunities to socialise due to social distancing, which has impacted many. Being part of a cohesive and supportive team satisfies individual needs for belonging and organisational needs for greater collaboration (8). Moving forward, schools are highly encouraged to build their staff and community sense of “belonging” and “connectedness” with many opportunities to not only socialise but collaborate.
Ways to build partnerships across your school include:
- Planning in and out of school social events for staff
- Engaging in team building games/activities
- Creating and maintaining staff check-in systems
- Managing conflicts when they arise
- Embedding a coaching and mentoring model
- Assembling a community strategic team
- Planning shared experiences with community (face-to-face or online)
- Sharing mental health and wellbeing support services and tips with the community
Reduce additional workload and focus on priority areas
There is no doubt that our leadership teams feel immense pressure when returning from lockdowns with a number of goals left unattended or unfinished. While getting caught up in a “catch up” mentality can be easy, I often urge leaders to slow down. Sure, we can get straight back into things and jam-pack our meeting agendas with lots of professional learning for our staff or hasten our directives to collect data. But now is the time to keep it narrow. As we return to on-site learning, our staff need opportunities to redevelop skills they have lost, collaborate, ask questions, and reconnect. Professional development opportunities and planning need to address the main areas of concern for teachers and students and, it isn’t curriculum!
In such a busy time, we need to focus on the operational aspects of school life and focus on:
- Providing time for staff to meet and collaborate with one another
- Offering more opportunities for moderation (especially in online learning)
- Providing professional learning opportunities to meet the functionality needs of the school (social-emotional learning, positive behaviours for learning, and trauma-informed practice)
- Asking our staff what they need and how they can best use their time
- Keeping your focus narrow, staff do not have the cognitive capacity to take on too much.
- Develop a strategy – make each term’s direction clear, concise, and visible
- Avoid making any last-minute decisions and changes (this only creates more confusion and uncertainty)
So while it may be tempting to try to rush back to the standard of normal that existed before the pandemic, we have to face the reality that we’re quite a ways away from getting there. We must first address the elephant in the room.
We have to acknowledge that adjusting to living and working during this time has had a significant impact on the wellbeing of our teachers but also on the school community as a whole. By focusing on supporting our people first, we can rebuild a solid foundation for organisational success.
Are you looking to refocus your school’s approach to build a better school culture and improve staff wellbeing? Explore how School Wellbeing Consulting can help align your leadership approach and strategic plans for the future.
To book or learn more, book a complimentary discovery consultation with me today.
- Hattie, 2013
- Kim, L and Asbury, 2020
- Deakin University, 2020
- Kim et al, 2021
- Dabrowski, 2021
- Friedman, 2015
- All the current research
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