Teacher well-being has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In order to develop a sense of understanding and advocacy, stakeholders, including parents, school district officials, and community partners need to know what has occurred during the pandemic that has led to decreases in teacher well-being.
From June to July 2020, my research team, including co-investigator, Caren Holtzman, completed a mixed-methods study revealing some of the underlying causes of decreased well-being for 73 teachers working in under-resourced schools in Southern California. The teachers, representing seven districts and three charter schools, all completed a survey, followed by 30 of those teachers participating in in-depth interviews. Although the study focused on the immediate shift to remote learning from March to June 2020, much can be learned from the research to improve conditions to increase teacher well-being now.
All teachers reported a sense of worry and concern for students. Absenteeism was deeply felt. One teacher said, “All of them turned into ghosts, I guess is the best way to describe it.” Although teachers reported that school officials worked to find missing students, the abrupt lack of contact affected teacher emotions. “It was various levels of loss, you know, some just ‘boom’ checked out and some I’ve no idea what happened,” reported one high school teacher. This sense of loss, as well as the loss of not seeing their students in person, led to a kind of grieving for some educators that generally was not being acknowledged or supported.
Teachers also reported concern regarding student basic needs, and other trying situations such as parent job loss, evictions, a lack of food in child households, increased student anxiety, and increased parental stress. Teachers were listening to these stories daily, which could lead to symptoms of secondary trauma. Secondary trauma is an indirect exposure to trauma through a first-hand account or narrative of a traumatic event and studies reveal that it does affect school personnel (Borntrager, Caringi, van den Pol, Crosby, O’Connell, Trautman, & McDonald, 2012; Lander, 2018; Walker, 2019).
Wrapped within this was a growing awareness of inequities that their students were facing regarding digital literacy, poverty, and access to language supports. Because teachers could not solve these problems of inequity immediately, frustrations grew. “It was really hard for me to deal with. I was really angry, I attended meetings and tried to speak up,” said one teacher. But advocating for change amidst their own personal concerns regarding the pandemic and its impact on their own families was exhausting.
Administrators and other stakeholders must acknowledge that secondary trauma can have long-lasting implications on teacher well-being and that providing mental health support, presentations regarding self-care, a trauma-informed care approach, and space for teachers to connect with peers as they grieve is essential. Additionally, districts should consider mental health when developing any COVID-19 strategies regarding flexibility with sick leave.
Policies, such as the way teachers could connect with students, impacted teacher well-being. In early March, districts were understandably shaken and policies shifted often. This was stressful for teachers regarding maintaining connections with students and families. In some cases, districts did not allow teachers to connect with students in real-time online due to concerns with legal privacy issues. One teacher said, “I think the switch to distance learning had me feeling pretty powerless.” Because having positive relationships with students is associated with greater teacher wellness at work (Collie et al, 2020), policies should be designed to promote connection and relationship building, as well as flexibility and innovation in how teachers maintain contact with families.
Work-life balance also impacted teacher well-being. The shifting needs and demands from families left teachers “on-call” day and night, even while rumors abounded that teachers were not doing enough. One teacher said, “I don’t know how to create a healthy barrier in my life, like calls at 6 am and at 10 pm, I just answer them.” Another teacher said, “And because of technology needs we were getting contacted by the kids at all hours, the parents at all hours. And so it was really hard for us to turn off. And it's added to our stress levels because if I would get a kid asking me for help at 7 or 9 I was willing to help. After all, here I am getting some engagement.”
Teachers were also balancing the needs of their work-life with the needs of their families. Some were recording their lessons while their babies slept, others were teaching while multiple children were home. All teachers were worried about the pandemic and the health and well-being of their families. One participant said, “But it was a lot. It was a lot of change. And then on top of it all, as an educator was my own trauma of the pandemic. My personal thoughts on what's going on in my home and my feelings and trying to raise a teenager through the pandemic.”
As the pandemic progresses, teachers should receive support and education regarding work-life balance so that teacher burnout can be avoided. Roles and responsibilities should be clearly delineated and mentors and administrators should support teachers in asking, “How am I doing this week? What nonurgent extra tasks can I set aside?” And as a parent or a community member, we must offer teachers grace, flexibility, patience, understanding, and support all while advocating for greater resources to support teacher well-being and greater action to reduce underlying inequities experienced by their students.
Note: This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) at the University of California-San Diego.
Bintliff, A., Holtzman, C., Barron-Borden, B., Ko, E. A., Thong, V., Ardell, K. (2020). "It impacted me profoundly": Causes of decreased teacher wellbeing during the initial shifts to virtual teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. Manuscript in preparation.
Borntrager, C., Caringi, J. C., van den Pol, R., Crosby, L., O'Connell, K., Trautman, A., & McDonald, M. (2012). Secondary traumatic stress in school personnel. Advances in School Mental Health Promotion, 5(1), 38–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/1754730X.2012.664862
CASEL Cares Initiative. (July 2020). Reunite, renew, and thrive: Social and emotional learning (SEL) roadmap for reopening. CASEL. schools. Reunite, Renew, and Thrive (CASEL)
Collie, R. & Martin, M. (2020). Teacher wellbeing during COVID-19. Teacher. https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/teacher-wellbeing-during-covid-19
Lander, J. (2018). Helping teachers manage the weight of trauma: Understanding and mitigating the effects of secondary traumatic stress for educators. Usable Knowledge. Harvard Graduate School of Education. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/18/09/helping-teachers-manage-weight-trauma
Walker, T. (2019). 'I didn't know it had a name': Secondary traumatic stress and educators. NEA News. 'I didn't know it had a name': Secondary traumatic stress and educators