A recent report published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) shows that the first lockdown, which began in March 2020, led to a decrease in the wellbeing of teachers compared with pre-pandemic levels. This will not come as a surprise to many given the impact it had on working practices, and it certainly reflects what I was seeing in my inbox. The developing uncertainty over the impact that SARS-CoV-2 might have on our pupils and students, on our families and our communities and on ourselves as teachers undoubtedly took its toll and continues to do so.
While this uncertainty was unquestionably unsettling, there was a huge amount of work to be done in switching from face-to-face teaching – business as usual – to teaching and learning remotely, and the associated pastoral care involved. We cannot look back on this time without acknowledging the monumental effort this took right across the profession at all ages and stages. And that kind of shift in working patterns combined with the fear that a deadly novel virus can generate is bound to take its toll.
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The NFER’s Teacher Labour Market in England Annual Report, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, found that the March 2020 lockdown saw “a rise in distress, anxiety and lower levels of happiness and life satisfaction compared to pre-pandemic levels”. While this is not a phenomenon unique to the teaching profession, it is nonetheless of concern. There were signs that teacher wellbeing was not in great shape before the pandemic hit so to see evidence of a further decline is a clear indicator that we must act now to bring about change for the sake of those already established in the profession. If we get this wrong now, as we emerge from this latest lockdown and begin to introduce more and more activities into everyday life, we may be dealing with suffering for longer.
Interestingly, the report finds that the profession is seen as recession proof, with an increase in applicants for initial teacher education over the summer of 2020. This trend has continued into 2021 and retention is higher, with teacher turnover being lower. It is of paramount importance, therefore, to ensure teaching is a healthy profession to be in, despite the ravages of the pandemic.
We know that anxiety increased as a result of the pandemic and that workload also increased when schools were fully open, more so than it did for other professionals. Not surprisingly, the NFER report says that “reducing teacher workload and supporting wellbeing should remain a priority for the government in the post-pandemic recovery phase.” This is reflected in the wider community, with anxiety and wellbeing both adversely affected. But what, practically, can be done?
There is a school of thought that such adverse events need to be absorbed first in order to deal with them. We should not underestimate the impact that this pandemic has had on us all and we are still far from it being in the past. In reality, we will all take our own path to recovery and this needs to be factored in to school life in the months and years ahead.
Perhaps the most effective thing that leadership teams can do to support this recovery process is to enable learning about anxiety, wellbeing, recovery and post-trauma. This could be in a direct way through targeted development days and the engagement of professionals, or it could be indirect, though the provision of relevant books and literature, advertising useful websites and other resources, and creating an atmosphere in which talking about the impact of the previous year, and actively finding the time and space to deal with recovery, is encouraged. These ideas may help:
Happiness at work
There are numerous happiness and wellbeing sources and resources for school staff that can be used individually or as a basis for collective CPD. These sites are a good place to start:
- Life Squared - Life Squared is designed to help people to navigate the complexity of life and has a substantial amount of free, high quality content to support living well.
- Action for Happiness – Action for Happiness is a movement of people working for a happier more caring society. Take a look at the website for useful information and resources.
- Education Support – Education Support provides mental health and wellbeing support to all education staff.
Dealing with anxiety
The symptoms of anxiety can be difficult to manage and may be hard to treat if misdiagnosed. This is why it is important to consult a GP who will be able to determine which course of treatment is most appropriate. These sources may also help:
- Mental Health Foundation – The Mental Health Foundation carries extensive advice on understanding and dealing with anxiety.
- NHS – The NHS anxiety pages offer advice and guidance for a range of symptoms of anxiety.
- Mind – advice and support for everyone experiencing mental health difficulties.
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.