Coping personally and professionally as a teacher during COVID-19
When the coronavirus pandemic reached Jamaica in March 2020, and schools were mandated to close abruptly in middle of the school term, the world of teaching changed overnight. Teachers had to switch from teaching in physical classrooms to teaching online. To the layperson, this seemed like a simple task. For teachers, it was not. Suddenly, they were expected to work in virtual spaces with limited knowledge and skills for online delivery, minimal familiarity with technology for doing this, and limited or no access to resources to support this. This added to the many challenges our teachers were already facing in classrooms.
Teaching, at a professional level, is an advanced and complex undertaking. A person who dares to teach must possess certain personal and professional attributes. A teacher must be a person of strong moral character, a role model, a caregiver. A teacher is one who is often expected to place the needs of the students above his own. Additionally, teachers must possess competences for classroom management, for organising and implementing instruction, and monitoring student progress and potential. According to Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), teaching has also been recognised as a very demanding and stressful occupation leading to high levels of burnout, chronic depression, frustration, low self-esteem, and high levels of attrition.
Teachers in many countries struggle to teach unmotivated students; sustain discipline in the classroom; fulfil the requirements of an ever increasing and demanding workload; adjust to policy and curricular changes; navigate difficult or challenging relationships with colleagues and administrators and poor working conditions. Consequently, Ingersoll, Merill, and Stuckey state that on average, globally, approximately 40 per cent of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years. In Jamaica, we have lost between 350 to 1,000 of our 25,000 teachers a year since 2000 due to increasing feelings of stress, challenges with managing the demands of teaching in Jamaican schools, and feeling unsupported. Seventy five per cent of our teachers, according to Hordatt Gentles, admit that they are contemplating or planning to migrate to take up teaching jobs abroad. For some, the driving force is better wages, and for others, the lure of working in a possibly less stressful environment, among other reasons.
DEALING WITH A DIFFICULT SITUATION
Then came COVID-19. The term “unprecedented times” became the hallmark for describing the new context in which our teachers had to work. Effective responses in education were now dependent on teachers who were expected to just “cope” and keep things “normal” for students and parents. They were expected to deal successfully with a difficult situation, to contend, get by, grapple, make do, make out and manage despite the challenges. Teachers had to adapt to teaching online, and using new and varied meeting platforms and learning-management systems. Since the pedagogy needed to support online management of students and student learning was not a major part of their pre-service nor in-service training, for many, this was an arduous task. Like everyone else, teachers had to upgrade the infrastructure in their homes to accommodate teaching from home – draw on their own resources to purchase data or Internet subscriptions, laptops, computer desks, and chairs. Teachers had to rearrange their physical spaces at home to find a location that was suitable and conducive for online teaching sessions. Teachers also had to find suitable spaces and time for their own children, who had to participate in online classes from home.
The changes took a personal toll. Teachers struggled like most of us, with anxieties about being locked down, being socially isolated, getting ill, and were overwhelmed by the task of being an administrator, classroom manager, and the sole technical support personnel available for students and parents. Teachers worried about their students. Anecdotal evidence suggests that initially, some teachers could reach less than ten per cent of their students online. Some braved the lockdown and took the initiative to go into communities to give work and meals to the students they could not reach online.
The lockdown has made it challenging to meet the needs of students in accustomed ways. Teachers worry about students’ well-being and progress. While teachers are still grappling with these issues as they try to adjust to this new normal, another change is on the horizon. Face-to-face teaching is now being pilot tested. Amid the increase in COVID-19 cases, teachers are returning to physical classroom spaces and navigating how to manage students and teaching in the COVID-19 environment with safety measures, social distancing, rotation schedules, and blended-learning models of teaching. This is potentially a new source of stress and anxiety and at the same time a source of relief for some teachers. One thing is certain, teaching and learning may never go back to the way it was.
Teachers must now embrace the reality of the paradigm shift that has resulted from the COVID-19 crisis. This is defined by the new and different ways that learners of all ages, worldwide, now access learning and experience teaching. Teachers have benefited from training programmes in online teaching from the Ministry of Education. They have commenced the move towards adopting flexible and appropriate methodologies to facilitate learning through synchronous and asynchronous sessions and are making strides in choosing appropriate modes of delivery, content, and activities based on local e-readiness. However, although most teachers are willing to embrace the paradigm shift, they are struggling to make the leap.
The reality is that teaching is a stressful job, and the pandemic has made the job much more stressful. As teachers navigate this paradigm shift, they need to be equipped with more than just professional knowledge needed to teach in new ways. Teachers need psychological support on three levels: at the level of the Ministry of Education, at the school level, and on an individual level. The support system must provide organization-individual interface interventions focusing on building workplace relationships and support systems; and individual interventions that help teachers manage occupational stress. These interventions will provide teachers with coping mechanisms that will help teachers to maintain their mental health, their social and emotional well-being and build the resilience needed to continue to do their jobs as professionals.
- This article is from a presentation made by Dr Tashane Haynes-Brown, Dr Carol Hordatt-Gentles, and Dr Sharline Cole of the School of Education, The UWI in the Humanities in Action Webinar Series. To watch the presentation on YouTube visit http://y2u.be/HJlFxisBCNY.