The importance of teacher wellbeing for the future of education

Educators often have to make do in difficult situations, and this is something that predates the pandemic. However, the strain that has been caused by national lockdowns and school closures has presented teachers with a set of challenges that are unprecedented. Simply trying to maintain business as usual has been a monumental challenge, and planning for the future often had to be put aside to ensure that current circumstances didn’t deteriorate further.

Planning for the future

UK-based Educational communications agency Spring Education surveyed educators to determine whether they felt that their schools had a clear strategy. Of the approximately 1,800 teachers surveyed, 95 per cent said that their school did have a strategy, and a further 88 per cent said they thought their school had a clear vision for the near future (one year ahead).

While teachers the world over have been lauded for their ability to improvise and adapt to a difficult situation, e-learning and other adaptations have often come at a cost. In addition to the monetary costs of acquiring some e-learning solutions, there has been a developmental cost on students. Social interaction, both with schoolmates and teachers, has been interrupted; school meals could no longer be provided; and physical activities like sports and crafts were largely unworkable. The long-term repercussions of this sort of interruption to normal schooling may not become evident for many years to come.

Spring Education’s survey also highlighted certain priorities among the teaching community. For instance, just under 68 per cent of educators said that emotional and mental health support were top priorities for their schools. This was closely followed by the need to overcome loss of learning, at 62.1 per cent. Improving student attainment came in at a close third, with 61.7 per cent of educators citing it as a priority.

Support for teachers is needed

In addition to support for students, schools are also acknowledging the need to offer greater support for teachers. Melanie Kitchen is a coordinator of instructional technology and staff development for 19 school districts in the US state of New York. In an interview on online teaching, she highlighted the importance of inter-teacher communication and contact. “Teachers need to connect with each other now more than ever”, she says. The opportunities for inter-teacher contact should be taken advantage of, or developed if they’re absent. This includes regular staff meetings through alternative means like video conferencing platforms, with special attention given to teachers’ concerns regarding their own mental and emotional wellbeing.

The importance of this was also highlighted in Spring Education’s survey of educators. In addition to what they called ‘top-tier priorities’ (those deemed as such by more than 60 per cent of those surveyed), there were also ‘second-tier priorities’, which saw support from at least 20 per cent of educators. The highest among these, at 27 per cent, was teacher training and continued professional development (CPD). This was followed by improvements in attendance rates, at 22.3 per cent. After that was greater support for special educational needs (SEN), at 21.3 per cent. It’s worth noting that even though the latter two are student-centric, they still require additional support for teachers to be able to provide them. Naturally, teachers are concerned about the welfare of their students, and will seek tools and other resources to help them in this regard.

Finally, there are the ‘third-tier priorities’ that Spring Education identified. These were cited by less than 20 per cent of respondents. Specifically, these were the improvement of behaviour (at 16.7 per cent) and the improvement of school facilities (at 16.4 per cent).

Enabling teachers to do their job better

The director of programmes at Australia’s National Excellence in School Leadership Institute (NESLI), Dr Janet Smith, explains that investments in teacher wellbeing and resilience will have positive effects on the broader school community, including students. This is quite an intuitive claim, as a disenchanted and under-supported teacher is naturally going to be less effective than one who has received the necessary support. Deputy principal and wellbeing leader Elizabeth Whiting, who works at a school in Melbourne, points out the opportunities that difficult circumstances can bring about. She explains that the development of resilience among teachers not only helps them through the difficult circumstances of the pandemic, but enables them to better adapt and grow afterwards. The necessities brought about by a disruption can have positive repercussions for years afterwards.

Among the major adaptations that teachers have taken on board is the increased use of ed-tech. Greater engagement with ed-tech solutions has allowed teachers to better adapt to the challenges of e-learning, and made teaching from home much more effective and manageable. Promethean’s State of Technology in Education reports, which focus on education in the UK, have found some interesting results regarding teachers’ adaptations. Despite more educators trying out ed-tech, they still feel that other issues are a greater priority. These are primarily results and attainment, in addition to the curriculum itself. Almost 80 per cent of educators in the report agreed that the latter are the most important objectives. Conversely, updating technology and training have been lower priorities. However, it’s worth noting that the number of teachers prioritising education through ed-tech has been increasing: from 9 per cent in 2017 to 22 per cent in 2020.

The steps and adaptations so far

UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank jointly conducted a global survey of national responses to COVID-19 in 2020, in which they asked countries’ ministries of education how their systems offered support to teachers. Just under 90 per cent of the countries responded by saying they offered support to teachers through guidelines. These guidelines highlighted the importance of maintaining student engagement and communication, the provision of feedback, maintaining lines of communication with caregivers, and keeping track of learning outcomes by reports to local education units.

However, some governments had their own ways of doing things. For instance, Costa Rica developed what they called a ‘digital toolbox’, which contained teaching resources for teachers to use, including a guide to autonomous work. São Paulo in Brazil arranged two-hour conversations on a frequent basis between teachers and Education Secretary Rossieli Soares. This was done through a dedicated mobile application which was developed by the state. This ensured an open line of communication between teachers and government, meaning that the latter were better informed to make decisions regarding remote learning programmes and other concerns.

Elsewhere in Brazil, in the state of Minas Gerais, another mobile application was developed. Called ‘Conexao Escola’ (‘school connection’ in Portuguese), it was developed to encourage teachers and students to communicate with each other. This allowed them to separate teacher-student communication from their social apps, such as WhatsApp.

Priorities for the long road ahead

Dr Richard Steward, who’s the headteacher at The Woodroffe School in England, has some tips for educators who are looking to change how education is managed. First among these is to remember that change is constant. The development of coping strategies to help educators manage change in schools is what’s necessary to adapt to rapid change. Moreover, the way projects and new methodologies are implemented can always be subject to alteration, and educators must remember there’s no need to panic if things don’t go as planned. Finally, close collaboration between different schools allows educators to pool their ideas and resources, and learn from each other in the process.

Over the course of the pandemic, many educators have found innovative ways of implementing and using ed-tech tools and other technologies to help them overcome the challenges of e-learning. The ability of teachers to think, innovate, stay focused, and implement change is even more important than the new tools made available to them. Offering support to teachers, whether in terms of professional development, training, or just in terms of their personal wellbeing, will allow them to continue to make the best out of the various opportunities presented to them. This ensures better learning outcomes for students, regardless of any difficulties that are thrown their way.