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A reflection on teachers’ experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic: Where do we go from here?

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This blog has been written by Lisa E. Kim & Kathryn Asbury from the Department of Education, University of York, UK.

As schools around the world continue to adapt to and move on from COVID-19 we consider how teachers can best be supported.

The content of this blog is based a series of interviews we conducted with 24 primary and secondary teachers in England as part of a longitudinal research project “Being a teacher in England during the COVID-19 pandemic” funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. 

“Like a rug had been pulled from under you”.

Several of the teachers in our study used this analogy to describe their experience of an initial shock, and of being thrown into disarray, when the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly and unforeseeably affected their lives as teachers.

In England, teachers have worked through partial school closures in March 2020, re-openings for some year groups by mid-June 2020, full re-openings in September 2020, partial closures in January 2021, and are now preparing for possible phased re-openings in March 2021. We share some reflections on the stories teachers have told us about their experiences of being a teacher during the pandemic.

 

Teachers are overloaded and exhausted

Working under increased demands and with limited resources during the pandemic has taken a toll on the teachers in our study. One secondary teacher said to us in November:

“I feel like I'm on overload. My brain feels like a browser with 100 tabs open. There is so much to think about all the time.”

Part of this overload seemed to be associated with not knowing what lies ahead and how to prepare students for an uncertain future, including the handling of high-stakes national assessments.

Moreover, many teachers reported being physically and emotionally exhausted, which are well-known symptoms of burnout. Burnout is a consequence of prolonged experience of stress, and can have negative consequences for teachers, students, and educational systems, such as greater intention to quit the profession and poorer student outcomes. It is noteworthy that school leaders have reported more anxiety during 2020 than class teachers, which raises particular concern for this group and for the potential effects on leadership it could have.

 

Teachers are concerned for their pupils

The teaching profession is inherently a social one, involving interacting with pupils and their families. However, the pandemic has caused communication barriers, especially with some pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds who may have limited access to technology and broadband. As one primary teacher described:

...some of those families, they're just incredibly hard to get hold of”.

Teachers told us that this lack of access to some pupils, especially those known to be vulnerable in some way, caused them significant concern for their pupils’ learning and wellbeing.

That said, teachers have shown themselves to be resilient and adaptive. To ensure pupils’ immediate learning and nutrition needs are addressed, some teachers reported delivering work packs, laptops, and food packs, where financially and logistically possible. They also told us that they called pupils and their families regularly, and created new communication channels through which they were most likely to engage with families, such as Facebook. As one primary school leader said: “As teachers we want to connect and we want to be there for the kids that we teach. And we want to keep those relationships going even when that's really tricky.”

 

Policy and practice recommendations

A recurring theme that emerged from the interviews was a need for clear direction on how to move forward. In light of all that has occurred in the last year, policy-makers, schools, and teachers are called to work together to collaboratively pave a path forward from the COVID-19 experience. These recommendations are in line with the Teacher Task Force’s Call for Action to support teachers.

 

  1. Government and the teaching community will both benefit from collaborative dialogues

    With a pressing need to respond rapidly to the ever-changing pandemic, governments have had to make difficult decisions quickly. However, participants told us that teachers have often felt excluded from contributing to decisions that directly affect them, making them feel less valued as a profession than before the pandemic. Creating channels whereby representative members of the teaching community can contribute to decision-making processes will be beneficial both for policy-makers — ensuring plans are practically feasible on the ground — and teachers — ensuring that their views are considered in decisions that affect them.
     
  2. Schools and parents will benefit from working together

    The importance of working together with families has been particularly highlighted in this pandemic. As one secondary school leader put it: “It's got to be... a partnership where you're in communication with parents on a regular basis. The parents know what you're trying to do, [but] they know their kids better than you do, and they can support you in trying to get the best for the children”. In the early months of the pandemic, we saw evidence of increased effort and success in establishing and strengthening school–parent relationships, and a feeling among teachers that parents appreciated them, even when they felt that the wider society didn’t. Schools and parents can benefit from sustaining this relationship to achieve the common goal of healthy development and wellbeing for their pupils and children.
     
  3. Teachers must support one another

    Social support is an important job resource that can buffer the effects of job demands, and providing this for one another can be beneficial. Teachers told us that it has been difficult not being able to meet each other, such as through corridor conversations and lunchtime breaks in staff rooms. In light of this, some teachers seemed to be finding alternative ways to connect with colleagues, such as via departmental virtual platforms and social media channels. Finding and using adaptive ways to receive social support, while still protecting work–life boundaries, is likely to help teachers manage stress.
     
  4. The general public needs to recognise teachers’ contributions

    In England, teachers are classed as critical workers and have worked throughout the pandemic. However, a common media portrayal of teachers has been that they are lazy and not working. Images and beliefs such as this must be corrected, as there is evidence that they can negatively affect teachers’ quality of instruction. As a society we must fully appreciate teachers, as they continue work to support the learning and welfare of pupils in their country during the pandemic.

    Teachers are foundational to our educational systems and it is vital that we listen to their experiences and support them as we move forward.

 

Here are some extra resources for policy-makers and school leaders supporting hybrid learning and the return to school:

NB.: The content of this blog does not reflect the views of the University of York or the ESRC but only that of the authors. Most project findings are currently published as preprints and may therefore change during the peer review process.

The authors thank the participants who generously shared their stories with them and the research assistants (Suzanna Dundas, Diana Fields, Rowena Leary, and Laura Oxley) for their contributions to the project.

Photo credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash