The term “unprecedented times” has become a hallmark for describing the context in which leaders must respond to changing needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Effective responses in education are dependent upon teachers as the front-line workers in classrooms, so it’s essential that administrators take care of teachers. When they do so, they also take care of students.
When teachers don’t have the resources they need, and especially when sustained job demands are high, teachers experience chronic stress — and eventually burnout.
Teachers who are burned out are less effective as teachers, have less supportive relationships with students and, in turn, the students they teach have lower academic and social outcomes.
National teacher survey
We conducted a survey to learn how best to support teachers with coping during the pandemic. In May, we surveyed 1,330 teachers from across Canada, including every province and one territory. The survey included 92 questions related to burnout, efficacy, techno-stress, attitudes toward change, resources, demands and coping.
We hope our early findings can help shape how parents and administrators consider supporting teachers during this pandemic and potentially other waves of it. As we continue our research we will be interested to see how teachers show resiliency during the pandemic. Research shows that teachers under sustained stress lose resiliency in three phases as they burnout, but a balance of job demands and resources can reverse this trend.
Our survey questions used a scale to capture teacher views, and there were some opportunities for open-ended comments. We used purposeful sampling to select a subsample of teachers who represented the larger sample, and we interviewed them about their experiences teaching during COVID-19. Our results suggest five important themes.
What we learned
1. Teachers’ concern for vulnerable students is one of the most stressful aspects of their jobs right now.
First, we saw clearly that teachers have a caring role in the lives of students outside students’ academic work, and that teachers’ concern for their students is top of mind for them right now.
When we asked teachers to name the three most stressful aspects of their jobs in current conditions, and also when we interviewed teachers, the first concern expressed by many teachers was how they are using daily contact with students to reinforce established relationships and ensure students have adequate food, support and safety.
Not being able to observe every child and youth each day intensifies teachers’ worries, as they aren’t confident that all their students are OK.
Of particular concern to teachers are children who have not been heard from and whose families have not responded to their teachers since schools shut down. Some teachers have gone so far as to go to students’ homes to check on them.
One teacher said:
“Now, there’s just more worry about how kids are coping and how their families are coping. … I’m not even really worried about what we’re teaching — that’s the last of my worries.”
2. Teachers are seeing magnified inequities.
These trends were demonstrated in the open-ended responses as well as provided in detail in the interviews.
One teacher said:
“Students might not have a meal that day, so we’re reaching out to them and delivering food, and our division is working hard on getting technology to those kids and getting them hooked up to the internet.”
Even students with internet access and devices are not all equally supported.
Some children need more academic supports because they have special educational needs or parents who do not speak the language of instruction, and teachers reported that not all children had equal access to that support when not in school. Some have no one to help them because their parents are working, busy with child care or are unavailable.
Teachers recognize that they have a role to play in addressing the inequities and are providing learning materials in multiple ways in addition to online supports. In some cases, teachers were driving to students’ houses and teaching out of their vans, and in some divisions school bus drivers were redirected to drop off and pick up student work at their homes.
3. When giving teachers initial resources, less is more.
Our survey findings showed that the most successful approach for offering teachers resources are those that initially focus on only a few familiar teaching mechanisms and then gradually provide more complex options. Teachers who were flooded with websites, learning platforms and other resources often viewed them not as resources, but as demands, leading to more teacher burnout.
It may seem counterintuitive that offering many resources to bolster learning isn’t helpful during a stressful time, but this message was statistically significant within the survey results and borne out in interview data.
Teachers demonstrated the highest levels of coping when initially given reduced demands and the opportunity to focus on familiar strategies and expectations with students. Once they had settled into the new reality of their teaching roles, they were able to add more resources and view them as supports.
Modelling predicts, and our findings concur, that during the initial stages of workers’ exhaustion, it is more effective to decrease demands than it is to provide resources.
4. Perceived support matters to teachers’ resiliency.
Survey data demonstrated that teachers who perceived high parental support or high administrator support coped better, and interviews verified these trends.
Many teachers described an initial period of uncertainty and exhaustion, where their efficacy and confidence dipped.
Teachers who sense scrutiny from parents and administrators during this time when their struggles are observed have more difficulty coping. Teachers who perceive collegial support, who set limits on their time and who practice self-understanding are more successful in recovering efficacy and coping.
5. Teachers are concerned about effectively engaging students through remote learning, and professional collaboration can help.
Teachers expressed in interviews that they are concerned about finding ways to engage students through remote learning during the pandemic. Student engagement was highlighted as a significant concern in the open-ended survey responses as well.
Teachers noted that without classroom-based, consistent observation and monitoring, it is even more important that tasks and learning activities motivate the students to sustain their attention and focus. Some said that the collaboration of colleagues was important. When teachers worked together to develop theme-based, cross-curricular inquiry in their lesson planning, this resulted in more engaged students and also bolstered existing professional learning communities.
In order to ensure that our children get the best education possible both during distance learning and when returning to classrooms, supporting teachers and listening to their voices will be important to ensuring these essential members of the educational team remain resilient.