The Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 has resulted in many complex problems. One of these is how the re-opening of schools will be managed, following a long period of lockdown, and what the effect on both teachers and their students will be. Teachers are facing the unprecedented challenge of managing classrooms of children and young people with many uncertainties and risks ahead. The wellbeing of thousands of teaching staff across the UK is therefore a pressing concern.
In recent surveys, discussions and news items, teachers and psychologists have indicated their serious concerns over the mental health of children during lockdown, some of whom have had no contact with schools or teachers in six months. The number of children who have contacted charities such as Childline has increased exponentially in 2020 and the charity’s website is focussing this month on advice on returning to school. A recent survey from Young Minds confirms the significant concerns teachers have for the wellbeing of their pupils as schools re-open. A DfE (Department for Education) survey in 2016 found that 37% of girls and 15% of boys reported to be psychologically distressed. Following this year’s lockdown and the problems which have unfolded, these figures could be even higher.
As of 28 August 2020, there were over 500 separate discussions on the TES (Times Educational Supplement) web forum, many of which highlighted the current worries and fears of teachers of returning to the school workplace. The discussion thread “Is anyone else just terrified” had prompted more replies than the other conversations.
Teachers’ wellbeing and students’ wellbeing are inextricably linked (Harding et al., 2019). Poor mental health in teachers is associated with poor mental health in students. Supportive teacher-student relationships are a major factor in affecting student mental health (Plenty et al., 2014). Research shows that teachers are at risk from poor mental health (Kidger et al, 2016). Teachers’ presenteeism could be related to poor wellbeing and depression, and this in turn can have a detrimental effect on their students, with teachers not feeling they can adequately support them (Sisask et al, 2014). But if teachers are absent from work this also affects their ability to form good relationships with their students (Jamal et al, 2013).
To strengthen these relationships there is a need for organisations, including schools, to promote health and wellbeing and to put in places measures and strategies for managing this as a priority.
So, what can senior management in schools and educational leaders do?
In research conducted with teachers, it has been found that those who experience more positive relationships with students and colleagues tend to report greater wellbeing at work and more generally (Collie et al., 2016). Therefore, efforts to develop and maintain strong social connections are vitally important, even when physical closeness is not possible.
This is as much about personal agency in developing flexibility and resilience in work and in life, as it is about it being advocated by school leaders. Adaptability refers to the extent to which individuals are able to adjust their thoughts, actions, and emotions in order to effectively navigate new, changing, or uncertain situations (Martin et al., 2012). Individuals need to be able to adjust their thinking, perceptions and attitudes towards how students learn, seek help and support where they need to and manage their emotions as frustrations occur with new ways of teaching (Collie & Martin, 2020). Research has shown that teachers who have greater adaptability report greater wellbeing at work, lower stress levels and higher levels of job commitment (Collie & Martin, 2017; Collie et al, 2018). Support should be offered to teachers to help with emotional processing and resilience building.
Teachers who perceive their school leaders to promote empowerment and self-initiation have more positive relationships with their colleagues and students. They also report greater adaptability and better wellbeing and less emotional exhaustion (Collie et al., 2016; Collie & Martin, 2017). This type of leadership can allow for increased resilience at work which can be used to navigating the challenges brought on by COVID-19 Leadership behaviours might include: listening to teachers’ needs, acknowledging and attempting to understand issues from teachers’ perspectives, seeking teachers’ input in decision-making at a school-level, providing rationales for the tasks required by teachers, such as explaining how and why various tasks may still be important to do remotely (Collie and Martin, 2020).
Collie, R. J., & Martin, A. J. (2016). Adaptability: An important capacity for effective teachers. Educational Practice and Theory, 38(1), 27-39.
Collie, R. J., Shapka, J. D., Perry, N. E., & Martin, A. J. (2016). Teachers’ psychological functioning in the workplace: Exploring the roles of contextual beliefs, need satisfaction, and personal characteristics. Journal of Educational Psychology, 108(6), 788–799.
Collie, R. J., & Martin, A. J. (2017). Teachers' sense of adaptability: Examining links with perceived autonomy support, teachers' psychological functioning, and students' numeracy achievement. Learning and Individual Differences, 55, 29-39.
Collie, R. J., Martin, A.J. & Granziera, H. (2018). Being able to adapt in the classroom improves teachers’ well-being. The Conversation. theconversation.com/being-able-to-adapt-in-the-classroom-improves-teachers-well-being-95788
Collie, R. J., Bostwick, K. C., & Martin, A. J. (2019). Perceived autonomy support, relatedness with students, and workplace outcomes: an investigation of differences by teacher gender. Educational Psychology, 1-20.
Collie, R. and Martin, A. (April 2000). Teacher wellbeing during COVID-19 teachermagazine.com.au
Harding, S. et al. (2019). Is teachers’ mental health and wellbeing associated with students’ mental health and wellbeing? Journal of Affective Disorders, 253, 460-466.
Jamal, F., Fletcher, A., Harden, A. et al. (2013). The school environment and student health: a systematic review and meta-ethnography of qualitative research. BMC Public Health, 13, 798.
Kidger, J. et al. (2016). Teachers' wellbeing and depressive symptoms, and associated risk factors: A large cross-sectional study in English secondary schools. Journal of Affective Disorders, 192, 76-82
Lessof, C. Ross, A., Brind, R. Bell, E. & Newton, S. Department for Education research report (2016) Longitudinal Study of Young People in England cohort2: health and wellbeing at wave 2. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/599871/LSYPE2_w2-research_report.pdf
Martin, A. J., Nejad, H., Colmar, S., & Liem, G. A. D. (2012). Adaptability: Conceptual and empirical perspectives on responses to change, novelty and uncertainty. Journal of Psychologists and Counsellors in Schools, 22(1), 58-81.
Plenty, S., Östberg, V., Almquist, Y. B., Augestine, L. Modina, B. (2014). Psychosocial working conditions: An analysis of emotional symptoms and conduct problems amongst adolescent students. Journal of Adolescence, 37(4), 407-417.
Sisask, M. et al. (2013) Teacher satisfaction with school and psychological well-being affects their readiness to help children with mental health problems. Health Education, 73(4), 382-393
 Complex problems: typically defined as those that include the ability to approach them from multiple, sometimes competing, perspectives and which may have multiple possible solutions.
 Lessof, C. Ross, A., Brind, R. Bell, E. & Newton, S. Department for Education research report (2016) Longitudinal Study of Young People in England cohort2: health and wellbeing at wave 2. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/599871/LSYPE2_w2-research_report.pdf