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Teacher well-being is key to COVID-19 recovery 

Dr Lisa Maria Muller

As we move into the second year of our work at the Foundation for Education Development (FED) and following the launch of the FED National Education Consultation Report, we hosted a series of roundtable discussions seeking to answer the theme ‘Whatever happened to…?’. This roundtable discussion focussed on ‘Whatever happened to…wellbeing?’ 

We asked Dr Lisa-Maria Muller, Education Research Manager at Chartered College of Teaching, to share her input into the roundtable discussion. In this thinkpiece, Lisa-Maria reminds us that ‘research has shown that teacher and student well-being are ‘two sides of the same coin’ and that we need to ‘focus on both sides of the coin’.

Teacher well-being is key to COVID-19 recovery

Since the start of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, teachers have worked tirelessly to help students access online learning, organised food parcels for their students, dealt with escalating safeguarding issues because of lockdown, assured keyworker provision, all whilst taking care of their own families, to name but a few. And they have been paying the price for their unwavering commitment in the shape of a mental health and wellbeing crisis that demands our urgent attention.

The Chartered College of Teaching first highlighted the potential negative impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on teacher and student wellbeing in May 2020. In the first report of our ‘Education in Times of Crisis’ series, we summarised research evidence from past health crises and natural disasters and hypothesised that teachers are subject to additional pressures because of their professional role in supporting children. They are often the first to respond to students’ socio-emotional needs in such situations and are regularly involved in delivering interventions in these contexts, often without adequate support or training (Child Bereavement UK, 2018; Pfefferbaum et al., 2004; Wolmer et al., 2011; Zhang et al., 2016).

The emotional toll of caring for others

There is general recognition that working with individuals who are themselves experiencing stress, trauma or grief can have a negative impact on the mental health of professionals (Bride, 2004), sometimes even leading to the development of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS) (Figley, 1995) – findings we highlighted back in May 2020 to draw attention to the particular impact this crisis may be having on teachers who became first responders to children’s increased stress, anxieties and traumatic experiences. Evidence from past crises, although limited and of mixed quality, appears to confirm the negative impact such situations can have on teachers’ mental health and well-being (Pfefferbaum et al., 2004; Zhang et al., 2016; Borntrager et al., 2012).

Our research with nearly 1,800 teachers and school leaders confirmed the hypothesis outlined in the first report in that teachers were indeed describing how they had become the first point of call for distressed families and children. Yet unlike other professions such as psychologists or social workers, teachers typically are not trained in the important coping mechanisms that would allow them to distance themselves from the stress and trauma their students are experiencing and to support them adequately (Lowry et al., 2022). This likely further impacts teachers’ mental health and well-being negatively.

The impact of workload

A major risk factor in the development of STS and other mental health issues is workload (Hensel et al., 2015). Multiple reports have highlighted how teachers’ and school leaders’ workload has increased drastically as a result of school closures and the COVID-19 outbreak. In our second report, over 60 per cent of respondents said that their work-life balance and well-being had been negatively affected by the crisis. Our most recent report, which was published in November 2021, highlights that workload and well-being challenges persist. Over half of respondents to our survey indicated that their workload had increased as a result of distance learning – an increase that according to 67 per cent of respondents in a recent TES report has become unmanageable.

Research on school leaders’ experiences of lockdown paints a similarly concerning picture (Greany et al., 2021). The vast majority of respondents reported that the crisis has had a negative impact on their workload and well over half reported a negative impact on their well-being. The stress of the pandemic reportedly also negatively impacted school leaders’ physical health with just over half reporting to be in ‘good’ or ‘very good’ physical health during the pandemic, compared to 88 per cent during ‘normal’, i.e. non-pandemic, times. The crisis is thus clearly taking a toll on the mental and physical health of teachers and school leaders.

Research has shown that teacher and student well-being are ‘two sides of the same coin’. So whilst student mental health is rightly given significant attention during recovery planning, we must not forget about the mental health needs of our teachers. Failure to do so will likely further impact teacher retention and, in turn, any progress towards education recovery we wish to achieve. Let us focus on both sides of the coin.

Excerpts from this text were first published as a blog post on the Chartered College of Teaching website.

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