Teacher wellbeing during COVID-19
While COVID-19 is grinding much of society to a halt, schooling has entered uncharted territory. During this time, it is important that teachers look after themselves. Fortunately, there are evidence-backed strategies that can help support teachers’ wellbeing.
Teachers’ wellbeing is not only a vital outcome in itself, it is a means to other vital outcomes, such as students’ learning and wellbeing. Below, we run through several strategies for supporting teacher wellbeing and explain why they might be helpful for navigating COVID-19 and its impacts.
Social distancing has been identified as a crucial step to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Recently, however, psychologists have highlighted that physical distancing might be a more appropriate word (Miller, 2020): we should be ensuring physical distance from others, but not social distance. At these times, and in fact all times, social support is essential for our wellbeing (Waldinger, 2015). This is true for teachers and people in general.
In our research among teachers, we have found that those who experience more positive relationships with students and colleagues tend to report greater wellbeing at work and in broader life (Collie et al., 2016). Efforts to develop and maintain strong social connections are therefore crucial, particularly in times where we are likely to experience less social interaction than usual.
Given the changes required to slow the spread of COVID-19, it is important that we engage in physical distancing, while maintaining social connectedness. This might involve meetings and chats with colleagues or students using online platforms like Zoom or Skype, or via online learning management systems; phone calls with family; or playing a game online with friends.
Tried and true strategies for building social support with colleagues are likely to still be helpful. For example, help seeking from colleagues, peers, and mentors has been shown to be a helpful strategy for teachers to navigate work challenges (Castro et al., 2010).
Adaptability refers to the extent to which individuals are able to adjust their thoughts, actions, and emotions in order to effectively navigate new, changing, or uncertain situations (Martin et al., 2012). In general, the teaching profession involves many situations and events that can be considered new, changing, or uncertain. To name just a few: teachers must respond to the changing needs of students throughout a lesson, adapt to manage unexpected situations relating to student behaviour, and make adjustments to their teaching plans when timetable changes occur (Collie & Martin, 2016).
COVID-19 can be definitely categorised as a new, changing, and uncertain situation for all. It is safe to say that adaptability is needed even more now than ever. For teachers this may involve, for example:
- adjusting thinking and attitudes about how students learn online and how technology can be harnessed in teaching like never before;
- adjusting behaviours by seeking out people to support any technical needs for remote teaching; and,
- adjusting emotions by reining in possible anxiety or frustration as new technologies are navigated and as different students engage with remote learning in different ways.
Our research has shown that teachers who are more adaptable report greater wellbeing at work. In addition, adaptable teachers demonstrate greater commitment to their job and lower disengagement at work (Collie & Martin, 2017; Collie et al, 2018). Disengagement at work occurs when teachers reach a point of putting very little or no effort into their work, often due to experiences of prolonged work stress.
Based on work around professional growth (Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002), we recently proposed some actions that might help teachers to boost their adaptability by:
- thinking of a recent situation that required adaptability (e.g., adjusting an assessment for online marking);
- reflecting on how you adjusted your thinking, behaviour, or emotions to deal with the situation and whether you could do this differently in future (e.g., What different resources could I use next time? Where else could I go for support with this?); and,
- experimenting with these ideas when a similar situation arises. (Collie & Martin, 2016)
Given the evolving situation with COVID-19, adaptability is likely to be highly important for teachers to effectively navigate these uncertain times over the coming weeks and months.
What can educational leaders do to support teachers?
In addition to the strategies for teachers described above, educational leaders also play a powerful role in supporting teachers. These leaders include school leaders and immediate supervisors.
Autonomy-supportive leadership refers to actions by leaders that promote empowerment and self-initiation among teachers (Slemp et al., 2018).
Our research has shown that when teachers perceive their school leaders to be more autonomy-supportive, teachers report more positive relationships with students and colleagues and greater adaptability, greater work-related wellbeing and lower emotional exhaustion (Collie et al., 2016; Collie & Martin, 2017). Autonomy-supportive leadership behaviours, then, are an important way that educational leaders can help support teachers’ experiences of social support and adaptability. Whereas work-related wellbeing reflects positive and healthy functioning at work, emotional exhaustion involves feelings of being emotionally drained and worn out, and is considered a key component of burnout (Maslach et al., 2001).
In a more recent study, we also found that when teachers perceive their school leaders to be more autonomy-supportive, they report greater workplace buoyancy (Collie et al., 2019). Workplace buoyancy is the capacity to effectively navigate common challenges at work—and may be particularly important in navigating the challenges brought on by COVID-19.
Importantly, previous research has also provided guidance on how to implement autonomy-supportive leadership. These include:
- listening to teachers’ needs, such as in relation to the requirements for delivery of online learning
- acknowledging and attempting to understand issues from teachers’ perspectives, such as providing teachers opportunities to voice the difficulties and the opportunities that arise when teaching remotely during COVID-19
- seeking teachers’ input in decision-making at the school-level, such as asking teachers how best to approach different events and tasks scheduled during the COVID-19 pandemic
- providing rationales for the tasks required by teachers, such as explaining how and why various tasks may still be important to do remotely.
Castro, A. J., Kelly, J., & Shih, M. (2010). Resilience strategies for new teachers in high-needs areas. Teaching and Teacher Education, 26(3), 622-629.
Clarke, D., & Hollingsworth, H. (2002). Elaborating a model of teacher professional growth. Teaching and teacher education, 18(8), 947-967.
Collie, R. J., Bostwick, K. C., & Martin, A. J. (2019). Perceived autonomy support, relatedness with students, and workplace outcomes: an investigation of differences by teacher gender. Educational Psychology, 1-20.
Collie, R. J., & Martin, A. J. (2016). Adaptability: An important capacity for effective teachers. Educational Practice and Theory, 38(1), 27-39.
Collie, R. J., & Martin, A. J. (2017). Teachers' sense of adaptability: Examining links with perceived autonomy support, teachers' psychological functioning, and students' numeracy achievement. Learning and Individual Differences, 55, 29-39.
Collie, R. J., Martin, A.J. & Granziera, H. (2018, May 8). Being able to adapt in the classroom improves teachers’ well-being. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/being-able-to-adapt-in-the-classroom-improves-teachers-well-being-95788
Collie, R. J., Shapka, J. D., Perry, N. E., & Martin, A. J. (2016). Teachers’ psychological functioning in the workplace: Exploring the roles of contextual beliefs, need satisfaction, and personal characteristics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(6), 788–799.
Martin, A. J., Nejad, H., Colmar, S., & Liem, G. A. D. (2012). Adaptability: Conceptual and empirical perspectives on responses to change, novelty and uncertainty. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 22(1), 58-81.
Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual review of psychology, 52(1), 397-422.
Miller, K. (2020, March 18) Let's Aim for Physical Rather Than Social Distancing. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-refugee-experience/202003/lets-aim-physical-rather-social-distancing
Slemp, G. R., Kern, M. L., Patrick, K. J., & Ryan, R. M. (2018). Leader autonomy support in the workplace: A meta-analytic review. Motivation and emotion, 42(5), 706-724.
Waldinger, R. (2015, November). Robert Waldinger: What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness [Video file]. https://www.ted.com/talks/robert_waldinger_what_makes_a_good_life_lessons_from_the_longest_study_on_happiness?language=en
The authors of this article say adaptability, which has been linked to great wellbeing at work, will be needed now more than ever.
Think of a recent teaching or work-related situation where you needed to show adaptability. How did you adjust your thinking, behaviour and emotions? Would you do anything differently if this situation happened again in the future? Would you need any new resources or support next time?