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Teaching during the pandemic has been stressful. What can be done?

by Kritika M Narula

As the pandemic rages on, so do the measures to combat it, including lockdowns, remote work/study and blended learning models. Because the government guidelines related to lockdown and social distancing differ across countries and from one week to another, a lot of firefighting has been ongoing for months. For school leaders, this has meant:

  • Managing the school operations remotely and responding to policy changes in a timely manner
  • Ensuring a seamless transition to the hybrid or online learning models
  • Arranging for accessible and affordable technology and tools to prevent disruption in children’s education
  • Accounting for the safeguarding threats that have emerged out of the constantly changing situation for vulnerable children, among other challenges

In the wake of a global public health emergency, they have been relentlessly making provisions for all possible scenarios, including forming communication channels and lines that work for their students and staff, on a case-by-case basis. There isn’t a quick-fix or a one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges posed by the lockdowns. About 14% of children in England are currently getting in-person teaching. These include children of key workers and those identified as vulnerable. Therefore, even though school closures are in order until February half-term, schools aren’t literally shut down, in the strictest sense of the word. In fact, at many schools, the school staff have been available hands-on for allaying any worries that the parents might have:

Media has been replete with stories of headteachers & other school leaders — a large part of whose jobs has been crisis management for most of the last 12 months — on the brink of burnout due to the sheer load of measures to look after and implement. Headteachers are expected to be experts in a lot of skills in addition to teaching: they’re looked upon as leaders in pedagogy, crisis navigation gurus, and impact-driving forces.

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As Ben Solly, headteacher of Uppingham Community College in Rutland writes in SecEd, “The reality is that life as a headteacher is completely unpredictable and every single day could present a scenario that you have never before encountered. The truth is that the buck stops with the headteacher and, should disaster strike, we are the ones who end up in court.”

All school staff are having a hard time, too. They’re bone-tired and worn-down. Combine the general impact of the pandemic — isolation, lack of social interaction, health-related restlessness — with the pressure of being responsible for the education of children, and there’s a recipe for an anxiety juggernaut. 

Uneasy transitions and adaptations

The pivot to online learning came about as an emergency response. This meant that the transition wasn’t smooth, and we still aren’t quite there. Across the world, even teachers who are more comfortable with traditional classroom teaching and/or are intimidated by technology have had to unlearn and re-learn quite a lot in terms of technologies, tools, lesson planning — in a bid to create an effective digital classroom. Even so, there is an endless number of considerations: not all children have equal access to technology, their home environments may not be the most conducive to learning, there’s a mental health impact of the pandemic and lockdowns, and in some cases, these issues have exacerbated the existing inequities, driving the students to self-harm, suicides, etc. School staff are walking on eggshells.

Zerrin Gurcali, who teaches at Sharnbrook Academy, Bedfordshire, shares with us, “It’s been quite hard not being able to meet friends and family, and as a teacher, it has been hard because I feel confined to my room where I have my computer system and I keep working from here. The whole school routine has been difficult, as we've had very little time to prepare for our lessons.” Because the shift to online teaching was a palliative measure, the schools didn’t have enough time to prepare and train.

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She adds, “It has been hard making the transition from teaching in school premises to the virtual set-up, in part due to the little amount of training that we've received for online teaching. I teach English, and for me, it’s been quite hard to cover important modules and topics like language techniques. Students are often reluctant to participate as actively in a virtual discussion. On top of it, we cannot fully assess if they’re truly understanding what’s being taught.”

To add to the stresses facing school staff is the fact that they are often the first point of contact for parents, who are barely holding it together themselves. When COVID-19 cases were identified in a school, headteachers were reportedly hounded, the staff was afraid, and it hasn’t been easy to stay available for all parents at all times. Headteachers are imploring the parents to show empathy:

As a result, school staff are tired, overworked, exhausted, and burning out. According to this research by the University of Oldenburg, during the lockdown, teachers experienced medium to high levels of stress, pulling in remote teaching for more than four hours each day. For support staff, it’s suggested to tailor the support and systems: 

  • Mental health support should be extended to the entire staff, irrespective of their position in the school.
  • CPD for support staff, especially in non-teaching positions, should be facilitated, either in collaboration with the teaching staff or independently.
  • If, owing to staff shortages, additional duties are transferred to teaching assistants, then the DfE guidance should be followed, “…discuss and agree any proposed changes in role or responsibility with the member of staff.” Arbitrary changes in job roles should not take place, and only after proper consent and discussion should the changes be implemented.

Now, as we are nearly completing a year since the first lockdown was announced, there’s another phenomenon to battle, what Northwestern Medicine Psychologist Jacqueline K. Gollan, PhD, calls “caution fatigue.” When we first started taking preventive measures, people were enthused to stay home and help curb the spread of the virus, but with time, people have become callous, carefree and less strict about following these regulations, due to drained motivation from anxiety and isolation. Psychological distress can be a major contributing factor to caution fatigue, so experts suggest sticking to routines, having a work-life balance, and taking breaks from a constant stream of news/information.

Caution Fatigue-induced dips in motivation can directly impact the performance of school staff and in turn, education of children. Therefore, it’s important that school leaders and teachers are given the space to recuperate.

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Reclaiming routine and setting boundaries

School staff shouldn’t be expected to be available 24*7. Technology can make it easier to communicate outside of work hours and parents might often wish to get information at odd hours so as to prevent panic, but the teachers should not be expected to respond immediately. The workflows in a remote set-up are fluid, if at all present, and it may leave teachers feeling a little unmoored. Therefore, limiting the synchronous work hours during the day can help provide teachers with some downtime. 

At Gurcali’s school, what has also helped curb teacher overwork is the school policy to bring down the class time to 50 minutes. The teachers have also been told to limit their teaching time to 20 minutes and follow it up with more interactive, activity-based learning for the rest of the class. 

For teachers, it’s important to end their workday in a tangible way (taking a walk, shutting your computer system, working out) — since many teachers are working at home, the boundaries are blurring. It’s suggested that all professionals should have an end-of-the-day ritual that divides the working hours from the rest of the day.  For support staff, establishing boundaries around work is key, for example, for teaching assistants, this can also look like limiting how much they offer to fill in for the main teachers. For the rest of us — parents, colleagues, bosses — this means respecting the work hours that teachers set. 

Combatting isolation through access to mental health services and/or peer support

Gurcali shares, “I am working out of my home, so I often feel confined in one small environment. I’m constantly in my room where I work, where I have my computer system. I don’t get to interact with my peers, students, colleagues in person and that has certainly impacted my mental health. It can get draining to be in front of a computer all the time. Not being able to see family and friends takes a toll, eventually. But I do keep in touch through phone calls.”

Colleagues can check in on each other as a part of their routine. Schools can bring in some method to this madness by creating a buddy system, pairing colleagues across different levels. Another suggestion is for schools to create conscious spaces where teachers & school leaders can get together to interact for non-work matters. A virtual break room to help everyone reconnect — it could even be a simple idea of having lunch together online — and can act as a peer support space. 

To prioritize teacher wellbeing, a therapist or coach could organise reflective sessions where teachers can freely express themselves.

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Healthy use of technology

While we recommend that teachers should leverage technology to make life easier, we also encourage teachers to schedule time away from technology. Some schools have incorporated a weekly day of sensory breaks, whereby no live lessons are scheduled and learning happens offline. This effort comes as a relief to everyone involved, from students, teachers, headteachers, to parents. 

School staff have been hard at work ever since the pandemic gripped the world. They’ve shown incredible empathy in the midst of crisis, so it is only humane to reciprocate with empathy. 

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posted 3 months ago
Kritika M Narula
Kritika is a research and media professional based in India.