Teaching through the storm: supporting teacher resilience in the post-COVID classroom
We need to rethink resilience in education. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many professions, including teaching, were forced to respond to unexpected and unmanageable job demands and stressors. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a fast-growing body of research has shown an unprecedented rise in perceived stress and burnout in teachers worldwide. In response, many educational organizations globally turned to discuss the role of resilience and the implementation of resilience-building programs. However, these programs often focus on developing teachers’ abilities to absorb these unparalleled negative conditions. The limited approaches to help teachers build resilience ignore any responsibility of the workplace environment, shifting the onus to teachers’ abilities. Our research further explored resilience in educational settings and shows a wider shift in how we approach reliance in needed to support teachers.
Education during the COVID-19 pandemic
The closure of schools around the world in Spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented. The shift from face-to-face classes to distance and online learning due to the closure of schools represented a major threat to teachers’ and students’ well-being, given the duration and intensity of the pandemic. Recent data suggests that many teachers worldwide believe that school practices will not be the same when they reopen, with more online teaching and learning featuring in the curriculum than before. Expatriate teachers, in particular, may have found themselves more vulnerable in the wake of the pandemic, as well as being away from family, they have faced increased work demands and potential income insecurity. As such, the UAE has not been immune to these disruptions and the impact caused by COVID-19. With most schools having returned fully to in-person education as of September 2021, it is becoming evident the that the disruption of education created a setback to many children’s learning. Now, with children two years older than before the pandemic, many teachers may feel the pressure from education authorities to close the gap with pre-COVID age-level norms. Although the impact of the pandemic may be slowing, teachers are still playing catchup, and this may affect their wellbeing.
Expatriate teacher resilience during COVID-19
Data from over 700 expatriate teachers in the UAE suggested that a supportive workplace environment influenced teachers’ ability to exercise resilience at all periods during the pandemic. This research followed teachers’ transition to in-person education starting in May 2021 (mostly online), to November 2021 (71% fully in-person) and May 2022 (84% fully in-person). Although teachers returning to education was viewed as a positive progression, teachers’ perceived levels of burnout and stress increased regardless of the dissipating fear and distress due to COVID-19. A further cohort of 49 teachers underwent physiological testing to better inform whether additional burdens of disrupted education have “gone under the skin” as the pandemic continued. The survey findings suggested that although education mostly seemed “back to normal” the demands on teachers have not subsided. Cortisol levels and heart rate variability measures suggest that there is a prolonged effect of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic of stress experienced “under the skin” of expatriate teachers. Although these elevated biomarkers can be seen as physiologically adaptive to better function under pressure, they can cause long-term risk of mental health outcomes such as burnout, anxiety, and depression as well as physiological health issues such as heart disease.
Developing a resilience environment at work
Hardships may bring us closer together and make us stronger, but evidence suggests that expatriate teachers are still vulnerable due to the on-going difficulties caused by the pandemic. However, the opportunity for growth and learning from this unprecedented time can better inform policy makers and educational leaders. That message is: the workplace environment matters!
In our study, higher levels of teachers’ resilience and confidence, and lower levels of burnout were all tied to the working environment where: 1. organizational leaders were perceived to be easier to talk to; 2. effort is often recognized and 3. staff feel treated equally. This shows that teachers can thrive in a challenging but supportive environment. If there are too many challenges and not enough support, then the unrelenting environment will lead to burnout. Conversely, if there is too much support and not enough challenge then the comfortable environment may not enhance resilience or performance.
Guidelines for developing a resilient environment:
- Own adversity: The schools’ vision for dealing with adversity should inspire and align with the individuals within it. This identity should embody cultural and behavioral norms of reacting and communicating positively to pressure.
- Lead behaviors: Seek input from current members of the organization to create ownership of resilience, demonstrating supportive behaviors in practice. Because of how individuals feel and what they do will continually affect those around them, shaping cultural and behavioral change are critical factors in developing resilience.
- Be a team: Team resilience is “greater than the sum of its parts” (Aristotle). Just because a team might contain resilient individuals it doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will show resilience under pressure. At a team level, what’s crucial is the way that the individuals’ collective qualities (e.g., defined roles and responsibilities, group goal commitment and alignment, nurtured supportive and caring relationships, strong belief in one another) are harnessed so that every member of the team can thrive.
While it’s important for teachers to do what they can to protect themselves from the demands of the job, a supportive workplace environment was key to exercising resilience during the pandemic. Now, as we transition to life after the pandemic it becomes even more important, to avoid burnout and develop resilience in educational teams nationwide.
Dr. Christopher Bryan is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the American University of Sharjah. Receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Limerick, Ireland. Most recently, he worked as a post-doctoral researcher with Dr. Antje von Suchodoletz in the Teaching, Learning, and Development lab at NYU Abu Dhabi.