COVID-19: Supporting Teachers in Times of Change
Results of a national teacher survey on resilience and burnout during the coronavirus pandemic highlights how teachers cope with stress and change
COVID-19 is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Researchers from the University of Winnipeg surveyed over 1,600 teachers across the country to explore which conditions, in terms of resources and job demands, allow teachers to remain resilient when teaching during times of disruption and change such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Note: These findings are part of a survey series on supporting teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Survey responses were first collected in April/May 2020, when teachers had just begun to teach remotely. The survey was administered a second time in mid-June 2020. It will be administered once more in September 2020, when students (in most provinces) are physically back in school practicing safety protocols related to COVID-19. Stay tuned for updates on this survey series.
WHAT WAS FOUND IN A NUTSHELL
- On a scale of 1-to-10 (1 being not at all stressed and 10 being extremely stressed), 76% of teachers on average reported their level of job-related stress as being over 6 consistently in both April and June.
- Teachers at both time points reported that the level of stress they were perceiving exceeded their coping ability—by 10% in April/May and by 6% in June.
While we would expect the pandemic and the changes it causes to provoke stress, what’s most concerning is that teachers reported high stress for such a long duration, a situation that commonly leads to burnout. This suggests that teachers require a decrease in demands, an increase in resources, or both, to ensure they can remain resilient and be their best self at work.
Teachers’ biggest concerns were:
- Student well-being and inequities in access to learning;
- Decreased self-efficacy – the belief in their ability to positively impact student performance; and
- The excessive number of websites, learning resources, platforms, and other teaching and learning supports that have been released during the pandemic, which were viewed as increased demands rather than helpful resources.
Two surveys were conducted between April and June 2020, which generated participation from over 1,600 teachers representing every province and one territory in Canada. Follow-up interviews were conducted with a sub-sample of the survey participants.
Teachers reported significantly higher levels of exhaustion by June
The first two stages of burnout include exhaustion (stage 1) and cynicism (stage 2), both of which increased further along in the pandemic by June 2020.
So what explains teachers’ increased levels of burnout?
According to teachers, concern for students’ well-being was one of the most stressful aspects of their job.
Under regular circumstances, teachers use daily contact with students to form relationships and ensure that they have adequate food, support, and safety. In contrast, remote learning has elevated teachers’ worries about student well-being, as they are not able to interact in-person with students each day, leading them to feel less confident in knowing that their students are okay.
“My biggest stress right now is just not knowing all the well-being of the students…. There are a lot of times that I just don’t know what a student is doing or if they’re alright. We all connect with different students, and there are some that I’ve really been like thinking about-- are they alright? Is everything good at home? I’d normally check-in with them, but now it’s another process.”
Teachers saw amplified inequities in access to learning, which went beyond the obvious digital divide.
Although teachers provided learning materials in multiple ways in addition to online supports, even students with internet access and devices were not all equally supported. Some students require extra supports because they have special educational needs or parents who don’t know the language of instruction. Additionally, some students have no one to help them because their parents are either working, busy with child care, or away.
“I would love just more, if other families that don’t have access, to have access to devices and some other resources so that they could have richer learning at home, a way to get that to them. We’re already doing it a little bit, but I think it could be better.”
Loss of accomplishment is the third and final stage of burnout. While teachers reported higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism by June, their sense of accomplishment also increased significantly about teaching online. It was found that an increased sense of accomplishment is associated with lower levels of burnout.
Teachers who received support from administrators were better able to manage student behaviour
Teachers are continuing to perceive significant support from their principals, and have increased their efficacy (i.e. belief in their ability) for managing behaviour while teaching online.
So what contributes to teachers feeling confident in their ability to effectively manage behaviour?
Perceived level of support is an important factor for teachers’ resiliency
Many teachers described experiencing an initial period of uncertainty and lower confidence in their ability to do things (e.g. solve problems, complete tasks). Teachers who perceived scrutiny from parents and administrators during this time had stated having more difficulty coping.
“I found I was almost getting depressed and felt completely helpless basically--the sense of helplessness and inability to help the kids like I typically would.”
Teachers who perceived support from colleagues, practiced self-discipline in setting limits on time and space, and who practiced self-understanding were more successful in coping and more confident in their ability to complete tasks.
“You’re doing the best you can: don’t beat yourself up, right? You know you have to take care of yourself. Some days I put down my head, and I am working straight through and it comes easy, and it’s great. Some days it’s hard to focus, and it’s a struggle. On those days you just have to remember that it’s an unnatural situation, and you do the best you can, and it’s not something that you should beat yourself up for.”
Many teachers discussed that without being physically present to consistently observe and monitor students’ off-task behaviour, that it was important for learning activities to capture students’ attention and focus. Teachers found it beneficial to collaborate with their colleagues in developing theme-based, cross-curricular inquiry within their lesson planning, which led to more engaged students while strengthening professional learning communities
“And I think being sure to reach out to colleagues, and get in touch and even if it’s not officially school business, just to chat. And we all follow each other on Instagram so we can say “Oh, that was such a great video you posted today of such-and-such kid” and just making sure, because we are a small school of pretty tight-knit staff... I think it’s been important to kind of make up a version of that through video calls and texting where we’re still checking in with each other and keeping in the loop with each other’s classrooms and celebrating successes.”
Teachers are continuing to provide high quality education despite feeling uncertain during this time
While teachers reported significantly more negative thoughts and feelings toward changes that have resulted from the pandemic, their own behaviour (i.e. teaching practice) hasn’t shifted significantly. This means that teachers are continuing to provide high quality teaching despite not feeling positive about the rate and pace of change imposed by the pandemic.
- Teacher stress and student stress are two sides of the same coin. Stress often operates in a domino effect, where high teacher stress generally leads to higher student stress including poor wellbeing and achievement. When we support teachers, we support students.
- When providing teachers with teaching and learning resources, less is more. While many organizations have published a plethora of resources to support education during the pandemic, this overload of information can be overwhelming and actually cause increased teacher stress and burnout. Offering a curated list of resources that teachers can select from to support them in their teaching would help to minimize the stress associated with feeling the need to use each and every resource that is available.
- Include teachers in planning and decision-making. Supporting teachers, listening to their perspectives, and including them meaningfully in planning activities will ensure they remain resilient and empowered to provide students with the best education possible (both remotely and in-person) during the pandemic.
- Promote teacher collaboration. Ensuring opportunities for teachers to collaborate increases collegial support and helps them develop creative and effective ways to engage students.
- Administrative support is an important factor in teacher wellbeing. Support from administration has a strong impact on teachers’ ability to cope when faced with challenging – and even unprecedented – situations. Administrators can play a big role in building resilient teams who perform well when faced with adversity while becoming stronger in the process. Resilient teams are supportive, feel a clear sense of purpose, and adapt to change.
Stay tuned for the results of the next survey to learn more about how teachers are coping in September with schools across the country reopening.
For further reading check out this recently published journal article by the researchers here:
To learn more about the Well at Work initiative visit:
Dr. Laura Sokal
Laura Sokal is Professor of Education at the University of Winnipeg in central Canada. Aside from working in schools in five countries, she has served as a Child Life Therapist, as Director of programs for marginalized children and youth, and as Associate Dean of Education. Her SSHRC-funded research program includes investigations of the psycho-social aspects of teaching and learning from preschool to university, with a special focus on inclusion and well-being.
Dr. Lesley Eblie Trudel
Dr. Lesley Trudel has been successfully involved in K-12 education for over thirty years. She has held positions ranging from instructional to administrative, working with diverse populations in both urban and rural settings. Lesley was most recently an Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Manitoba, Canada. In January 2019, she joined the Faculty of Education at the University of Winnipeg as an Assistant Professor. Lesley is a collaborative and interdisciplinary researcher, with a keen interest in organizational learning and systemic change.
Jeff is an Associate Professor with the Department of Mathematics & Statistics at the University of Winnipeg. He joined the Department in September of 2000 and served as its Chair for 2004-2009. Jeff was Principal Consultant for the Statistical Advisory Service the Department of Statistics at the University of Manitoba for 1998-2000. Previously he served as the Biometrician for the Grain Research Laboratory of the Canadian Grain Commission in Winnipeg for 16 years.
Meet the Knowledge Mobilization team at Well at Work
Sarah Ranby, Research Analyst
Sarah leads the planning, communications, coordination, and conducting of research and knowledge mobilization outputs for EdCan. She earned her Master of Science Degree in Family Relations and Human Development and holds a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Psychology from the University of Guelph. Sarah’s research interests broadly include knowledge mobilization, and program evaluation, in particular, analyzing school-based supports that promote positive mental health.
André Rebeiz, Research Manager
André is Project Lead for EdCan’s Well at Work initiative, which supports school districts and provinces to make teacher and staff well-being a top policy and investment priority. He is is a graduate of Sciences Po Paris (Institut d’études politiques de Paris) holding a Master’s degree in International Public Management from the Paris School of International Affairs and a Bachelor’s degree in the Social Sciences.