Support needed for teachers under stress
OPINION: The upheaval caused by the virus has been difficult for everyone, especially teachers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a sudden halt to most of the activities we take for granted, yet it has been a totally different journey for our schools as they entered uncharted territory – and for the most part remained open for business.
Large sections of the community now recognise that teachers and others in front-facing education roles are among our society’s unsung heroes, alongside medical professionals, supermarket staff and emergency services workers.
While teachers have put on a brave face and risked their own health to assist others, their wellbeing has taken a battering. It is one of many challenges school leaders are struggling to address at a time of rapid change across many different fronts.
Teaching has long been considered one of the more stressful professions. Excessive workloads, adverse student behaviour (including disrespect and aggression), unreasonable and demanding parents, and toxic school environments are all regularly cited as causes of the stress.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many teachers have described heightened levels of anxiety as they have continued to attend work, despite the threat of infection and challenges to maintain social distancing in a school environment.
They have also grappled with pivoting from a classroom to an online environment, often with only minimal training and little ongoing support.
Many school leaders will argue that historical stressors, recent health and wellbeing concerns, vulnerability, and the rapid rate of change in classroom practices have created a perfect storm for the deterioration of teachers’ mental health.
It is an issue that concerns school leaders and parents of all students. In this regard, there is a positive role parents can play.
The average teacher can be involved in about 1,000 interpersonal connections in a single day (with students, parents, and other educators), and the quality of those interactions can either support or diminish teacher wellbeing.
Even if teacher-parent interactions account for a smaller percentage of daily interactions than the to-and-fro with students, positive and constructive communication can do much to bolster teacher wellbeing.
Yet sometimes the benefits of constructive parent-teacher communication are annulled by the actions of a small group of parents.
Negative parent actions include sending children to school when they are unwell and against the advice of health authorities.
This practice needs to stop. Placing unrealistic expectations on teachers is another negative parent action.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, all parents need to adjust their expectations as teachers try to balance their time between children in physical and online environments. School leaders can do much to support staff wellbeing.
Demonstrating leadership behaviours that promote empowerment among teachers, such as listening to their needs and concerns and seeking their input for decision making, can boost teachers’ wellbeing.
There is also a strong case for school leaders to form staff wellbeing committees or groups that strategically consider what steps might need to be taken to boost teacher morale within a school’s unique operating context.
In this COVID-19 age, school-based wellbeing initiatives for all staff are a must. Some school leaders have found a teacher-to-teacher buddy system provides a much-needed boost during challenging times like these.
Simply knowing that an individual is available to provide non-judgemental support can make a school’s entire staff more buoyant. But teacher wellbeing is not only the domain of school leaders and parents.
Teachers themselves have a key role to play in boosting their wellbeing. Every teacher needs to engage in self-care and demonstrate this behaviour when they encourage students to take care of themselves.
The self-care starts with going back to basics such as getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and eating healthily.
It extends to planning daily activities that are enjoyable, calming or relaxing. Self-care also demands that teachers hunt out those aspects of their jobs that keep them in the classroom.
It might include reflecting on their wins in the classroom, such as the gratification associated with those ‘lightbulb’ moments when a student finally ‘gets it’ after much effort, or when a teacher is able to help a child transform persistent episodes of poor behaviour into those of a model school citizen.
It is very much a case of all teachers being mindful of the need to take care of their own wellbeing.
Teaching as a profession is challenging, even without a global pandemic. On a day-to-day basis, teachers hold classes, counsel students, provide feedback, interact with parents, mark assignments, tidy classrooms, create displays and administer first aid – and the list goes on.
Throw in a dangerous virus that has created havoc around the world and there is a strong imperative for employers, school leaders, parents and teachers to get on the bandwagon to bolster levels of teacher wellbeing right across Western Australia.
Our failure to do so won’t just harm our teachers but inevitably affect the learning of our children and adolescents, not to mention their own health and wellbeing.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer at the Australian Institute of Management WA.