School of Education

Teacher well-being: Coping mechanisms to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic

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The College of Humanities recently hosted a public webinar series on the topic of Teacher well-being: Coping mechanisms to deal with the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

It featured Professor Lesley Wood (North West University), Mrs Miriam Arnold (Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, Germany), Dr Rebecca Collie (University of New South Wales, Australia), Mr Ndabenhle Terry Mdluli (School Principal) and Ms Nompumelelo Nzimande (Primary School Teacher), and was chaired by Professor Anja Philipp (UKZN).

The webinar brought together the experiences of teachers and principals from South African schools and the expertise of national and international researchers to discuss the new challenges confronting teachers under COVID-19 and how this affects their well-being.

‘Teacher well-being has been the focus of attention in research for decades, and several factors have been identified that influence it. Under conditions of COVID-19, teachers suddenly faced a novel set of challenges. The work of teachers has changed tremendously to accommodate remote teaching while gradually moving back to contact teaching,’ said Philipp.

The webinar also examined resources to support teachers to manage the effects of COVID-19 on their well-being as well as coping mechanisms they can engage in to manage the current situation.

Collie discussed some of the challenges imposed by COVID-19 on teachers and the impact these are having on their well-being. Based on her research, she examined strategies that teachers can use to help navigate these challenging times while discussing research on strategies that schools can adopt to support and sustain teachers’ well-being during COVID-19 (and beyond).

Wood’s presentation proceeded from the view that teachers are the heart of the school, and if teacher wellness is at a low level, the whole school is impacted negatively. ‘However, conditions in many rural and township school in South Africa (e.g., poor infrastructure, a lack of resources, overcrowded classrooms, learner violence, poverty-related social problems) could be the root cause of teacher distress. Teacher wellness, even pre-COVID, seems to be at an all-time low in under-resourced schools in South Africa,’ said Wood.

She suggested ‘that the crisis we are now facing may be an opportune time to instigate school-wide, sustainable practices to reduce social injustices in schools, thereby improving teacher wellness in the process.’

According to Arnold, when the COVID-19 pandemic reached Germany in March, the country went into lockdown where schools closed, leading to remote teaching. ‘Teachers and school principals had to adapt quickly to the new circumstances and to develop strategies for remote teaching,’ she added.

Arnold discussed the preliminary results of a survey of 288 teachers and principals in Germany between April and June to understand the situation at schools during COVID-19 restrictions. She found that support and positive leadership behaviour by school principals during the pandemic is important while high awareness among principals of the health of the teachers at their school also reduces emotional exhaustion.

‘When teachers feel confident with their competence to conduct digital lessons, they are more engaged. On the other hand, when the school offers support for digital teaching, this does not affect teachers’ work engagement, but does reduce their emotional exhaustion,’ said Arnold.

Inkomazi Technical High School principal Mdluli looked at the autobiographical reflections of a school principal’s experiences of being at the coalface of school reopening within the COVID-19 context. He noted that basic education is one of the areas that have faced the wrath of the novel coronavirus and focussed, among other things, on areas such as remote teaching and learning, teacher emotionality, safety and regulations in schools, school infrastructure, and learner and teacher well-being.

‘The weight of our past still weighs heavily on the shoulders of many teachers, parents and learners. These deep fissures of our history and their interplay with the other novel COVID-19 challenges have far-reaching consequences for teacher well-being,’ said Mdluli. ‘For teachers to safeguard their well-being, they need to regulate their coping mechanisms in the right way to avoid possible adverse effects. The outbreak of COVID-19 has not only been a public health crisis; but also a grave psychosocial issue for teachers in schools.’

Nzimande shared her personal experiences of remote learning and contact teaching, particularly how accommodating it is for learners and the challenges that arise. She reflected on the backgrounds of her learners; her own experiences regarding the change associated with COVID-19; the standard operating procedures within the school environment and her well-being; available resources and overall coping strategies to ensure fair distribution of learning.

‘It helps to communicate as a teacher through the proper channels. If there is a committee, it is much easier for the matter to be taken to them, which can then be addressed to a principal. The principal is almost in the same situation as teachers,’ she said.

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