teacher wellbeing

Teacher Wellbeing Should Be the Focus as We Return to On-Site Learning

As we navigate a period of complex change, the students aren’t the only ones who will need help adjusting to the constantly changing world. Long before COVID-19 disrupted schools, teaching staff were already at significant risk of burnout and chronic stress, and teacher wellbeing matters now more than ever before.

Since the first wave of fear from the pandemic in 2020, teachers around Australia have reported higher levels of distress and concern in response to the significant changes brought about by COVID-19 (1, 2).

Teachers’ worlds have been flipped upside down with increased workload demands, unfamiliarity with remote learning and teaching, and limited resources. As such, teachers have developed psychological symptoms since the beginning of the pandemic, and there is an ongoing concern for the future of teaching. 

To move forward without ongoing “wear and tear,” school staff must acknowledge how complex and uncertain the current situation is and come to terms with the fact that it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, fearful, anxious, or stressed as we transition to new ways of teaching and leading. 

This article will cover:

  • Why teacher wellbeing is important 
  • How teacher wellbeing impacts whole school outcomes 
  • The added pressures the pandemic has put on teacher wellbeing 
  • Considerations as we return to on-campus learning 

Why is a focus on teacher wellbeing so important?

Teacher wellbeing refers to a teacher’s positive evaluation of and healthy functioning in their role, as well as their connection to colleagues, students, and the wider school community. (3) Workplace factors such as workload, support, school connectedness, satisfaction with professional learning opportunities, personal experiences with stress, fulfilment, enjoyment, and health can contribute to positive or negative teacher wellness and wellbeing. (4 5)

Teacher wellbeing has long been a hot topic in education and more so now during a worldwide pandemic. Teachers have worked under very poor conditions for some time now – poor infrastructure, workload, student management, overcrowded classrooms, lack of resources, and high workload – and this impacted their wellbeing long before COVID-19. 

Experiencing stress for prolonged periods of time can lead to teachers burning out.

Teacher burnout can lead to exhaustion, lack of confidence, and lowered motivation, thus reducing staff attendance at work, willingness to tackle new initiatives, impacted interpersonal workplace relationships, and struggling to form and maintain connections with the students they teach. (6) 

How teacher wellbeing impacts whole school outcomes

Teacher wellbeing is a vital component of educational outcomes and contributes to work satisfaction and productivity of staff. When nurtured, staff are more likely to contribute to a positive workplace culture, leading to better school outcomes. Attention to a teachers’ whole-life experience reduces teacher attrition and staff retention (7). Most importantly, a happy and well teacher demonstrates a positive influence on student wellbeing and academic achievement (8). There is a well-established and evidenced correlation between staff wellbeing and students’ academic achievement and development.

While many schools prioritise student wellbeing by intentionally including goals in their strategic or annual action plans, staff wellbeing is rarely given the same consideration. 

This is perplexing when we consider how, without overall feelings of wellbeing, staff are less likely to form solid relationships with their students and colleagues – important building blocks for any change or progress. 

Stress and overall wellbeing are often cited as key reasons educators choose to stay or leave the profession (9). So, it is no surprise that many schools fall short of the mark as they introduce new initiatives or directions for their schools with little consultation and buy-in from their staff. The result? Very little progress in the right direction.

The added pressures the pandemic has put on teacher wellbeing.

As we continue down the pandemic path with an unrelenting air of panic and fear, our teachers are likely to experience a vast range of thoughts, feelings, and reactions as we continue to traverse unchartered waters on the fumes of an oily rag. 

The added complexities that come from the pandemic mean that teachers are accumulating even more stress on top of the quota acquired pre-COVID. Aside from having to adapt in record time to a transition to home learning with a lack of skills, knowledge, and social support, plus managing a variance in workload and the inability to “switch off,” our teachers are experiencing several additional challenges, including: (10, 11, 12, 13)

  • Abrupt measures and directions from the government 
  • Uncertainty about their future 
  • Students’ varying levels of access to online technology and willingness to engage
  • Worry about vulnerable students
  • Lack of routine in a routine and predictability based profession
  • Lack of social support and connections with social distancing 
  • More competing responsibilities, such as homeschooling their own children, caring for vulnerable family members, and/or managing their own mental health
  • Financial concerns 
  • Continuing the non-teaching elements of their job 
  • Staff already experiencing a mental health condition or past trauma are more likely to be triggered by continued stressors resulting from lockdowns.
  • Stress about job insecurity for young people, LSA’s and casual teachers

Considerations as we return to on-campus learning 

Just as the transition to home learning brought about stress, the return to on-site learning carries a host of different concerns for teaching staff. Therefore, it is important for leaders to consider the baseline stressors of teachers, the residual impacts of lockdown, and the cumulative effects of a return to school.

In studies from all over the world, teachers have noted the following concerns: (14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21)

  • Fears for their health and that of their families
  • Ensuring continuity of learning for students 
  • How to assess and report on students fairly
  • Stop-start nature of future schooling
  • Students falling behind/learning losses 
  • Student management and behaviours
  • The possibility of children becoming infected in schools and schools becoming a focus of the disease 
  • The health of student families and their risks
  • Teaching skills and feeling capable 
  • Vaccinations and vaccination mandates
  • Staff shortage as a result of vaccine mandates
  • Some professionals will face a double return to school – both their own and that of their children. Indeed, having a family may have played a role in the increased stress experienced during the pandemic.
  • Teachers become mediating bodies – often cushioning the blow of information for students and families. Maintaining a state of “calm” in a stressful situation adds another load to their plate and calls for psychological support
  • Lack of consultation or communication from directorates or school leadership.

It appears that returning to the classroom, beyond being a return to normality, seems to have become a new focus of stress and anxiety for teachers. Studies from around the world have indicated that this crisis, teaching from home and now, a return to on-site learning, has caused teachers to suffer problems that are often related to a pandemic situation, such as anxiety, depression, domestic violence, divorce, increased workload, psychosomatic problems, secondary trauma (from students, families and other staff members) and exhaustion all of which restrict their ability to teach properly. (22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28) As such, this stress may impact teachers’ health and, as a result, could lead to increased instances of sick leave, absenteeism, and poor work performance (29). 

When teachers have a heavier workload, they have less time to recover, creating a vicious cycle of teachers being emotionally exhausted and disconnected, which creates an inability to recover and leads to a ‘pile-up effect.’ (30)

So what can we do about it?

From this information and teacher narrative, a few clear themes emerge which can help us to pose useful questions from which we can form considerations for a return to on-site learning:

  • How can we promote strategies to prevent or reduce feelings of burnout?
  • How can we create certainty and clarity for our teachers?
  • How can we reduce workload?
  • How can we offer health and wellbeing support to our staff?
  • How can we provide opportunities for our staff to connect and build relationships?
  • How can we build teacher confidence and identity again?

Conclusion

As we attempt to return to a place of normalcy, it’s crucial for leaders to consider the impacts the pandemic has had on their staff. Teaching staff did their best to adapt remote learning in record time with little training and limited resources, all while attending to their personal lives on the side. 

During these transitional periods, it’s important to not only care for the wellbeing of students but also to focus on and care for the wellbeing of teaching staff. They are the heroes carrying out the everyday workload, and if their concerns and wellbeing aren’t addressed, schools are more likely to see an uptick in absenteeism and a downturn in performance. 

If you’re ready to support your staff during this challenging time, I can help facilitate the process through my school wellbeing consulting services. Book a discovery call today to learn how I can help set your school up for long-lasting success!

Sources

1Yong and Watterson, 2021

2. Yong and Watterson, 2021

3. Siphokazi Kwatubana & Vivian Molaodi

4. Porter, 2020

5. Porter, 2020

6. Zadok-Gurman et al, 2021

7. Flores 2006

8. Spilt, J. L., Koomen, H. M., & Thijs, J. T. (2011). Teacher wellbeing: The importance of teacher-student relationships. Educational psychology review, 23(4), 457-477.

9 Naghieh, A., Montgomery, P., Bonell, C. P., Thompson, M., & Aber, J. L. (2015). Organisational interventions for improving wellbeing and reducing work-related stress in teachers. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 4(4), 1-65.

10. Kim, 2020

11. Kim, 2020

12. Borup et al., 2020 

13.  Daks et al., 2020

14. Dabrowski, 2020

15. Parker, P. D., Marsh, H. W., Jerrim, J. P., Guo, J., & Dicke, T. (2018). Inequity and excellence in academic performance: Evidence from 27 countries. American Educational Research Journal, 55(4), 836-858.

16. Zafra, 2020

17. Soriano, 2020

18. Stein-Zamir, C., Abramson, N., Shoob, H., Libal, E., Bitan, M., Cardash, T., Cayam, R., & Miskin, I. (2020). A large COVID-19 outbreak in a high school 10 days after schools’ reopening, Israel, May 2020. Eurosurveillance, 25(29). https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32720636/.

19. Fitzpatrick et al., 2020

20. Wolmer. 2005

21. John Hopkins University

22. Al Lily et al., 2020

23. Li et al., 2020

24. Zhou and Yao, 2020

25. Prado-Gascó et al., 2020

26. Cuervo et al., 2018

27. Ryan et al., 2017

28  Von der Embse et al., 2019

29. Moreno et al., 2004

30. www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-00663-2 

Mungroo, M. (2020): Teacher well-being: Coping mechanisms to deal with the consequences
of the COVID-19 pandemic. University of Kwazulu-Natal School of Education. http//soe.ukzn.ac.za/news/2020/07/teacher-well-being-coping-mechanisms-to-deal-with-
the-consequences-of-the-covid-19-pandemic/ (Accessed 22/12/20).

Catalán et al2019; Boyle et al., 1995; Kokkinos,2007). https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjep.12381    

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