From Responses to Recovery
Puzzles, boats, and the COVID-19 pandemic
Once close friends and colleagues, teachers Ashley, Morgan, and Mackenzie stood in their classroom doorways, their physical distance a stark reminder of the emotional distance between them now. In an attempt at building a bridge of commiseration after teaching in pandemic conditions for over a year, Ashley said, “I wish the admin would understand how this feels for us. I have never felt so discouraged and isolated. Another PD about online methods is exactly NOT what I need right now.” Morgan agreed. “What we really need is to be heard and respected – and a break. Yeah, a break would be nice. I’ve had it!” Mackenzie was silent. She had been looking forward to the PD later that day. Online teaching had been a welcome break from business as usual, and after an initial bumpy period, she was leaning into it and feeling a sense of accomplishment. Each teacher looked at the others. The silence dragged. And then the bell rang, and it was back to work.
In April 2020, schools around the world were forced into a period of historic disruption as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Similarly, in Canada, an initial few weeks of school closures evolved into several months, with schools continuing to ride the ongoing waves of the pandemic and teachers expected to pivot from in-person to remote instruction and adopt new pedagogies as required. Here we present an on-going, SSHRC-funded Canadian study (Babb et al., 2022) that our research team began in April 2020. We queried over 2,000 Canadian teachers for almost three years during the pandemic, so that we could gain a deep understanding of their experiences, inquiring into the demands faced by teachers and the resources available to support them through this time.
Teaching during the first few months of COVID-19
Initial interview data collected from Canadian teachers early in the pandemic showed that balance was difficult to maintain (Eblie Trudel et al., 2021). Many learners had inadequate access to technology, limited home support in their language of instruction, and reduced assistance with the challenges of additional learning needs. Many parents, already strapped with work and child-care duties, were overwhelmed and unable to assist in facilitating their children’s instruction. Moreover, teachers struggled to prioritize basic student needs, create vital partnerships between schools and families, and develop the necessary confidence to deliver engaging learning through new modes of teaching.
As our research developed, findings demonstrated that teachers responded predictably to the two widely accepted theoretical models of burnout used in our study, voicing their subjective appraisals of teaching in a pandemic in remarkably diverse ways. The job demands-resources (JD-R) model (Bakker & Demerouti, 2007) allowed us to recognize that varied, but unique, experiences of teachers were leading some teachers to burnout, due to the increased demands and inadequate resources available for support. A model by Maslach and Jackson (1981) permitted us to assess the progression of burnout along a spectrum associated with periods of occupational stress, noting dimensions of exhaustion, depersonalization or cynicism, and reduced work accomplishment. We found that exhaustion could arise from excessive demands felt in a particular role and that lost efficacy could result from insufficient resources to meet such demands. Some exhausted teachers withdrew from students and colleagues, or avoided work altogether, actions recognized as depersonalization and cynicism in the burnout literature. Given that teachers’ withdrawal from students could impact student achievement and wellbeing, finding ways to reduce teacher stress and increase coping was shown to be vital for maintaining quality instruction and avoiding teacher burnout.
Unsolvable as a single puzzle
Imagining the research process akin to assembling a large puzzle, our team attempted to use traditional statistical methods to provide a concise picture of teacher coping over the course of the pandemic. However, developing a clear picture of teacher experiences proved to be challenging. Just when we thought we understood the trends, we were faced with new data that did not fit at all. It was like we were assembling a puzzle with pieces mixed in from other puzzles – and the pieces just didn’t fit. By using a new kind of statistical analysis, we found that there were, in fact, five unique puzzles that required consideration. Our findings revealed five distinct profiles (or patterns) of responses to teaching in the pandemic, each relating to different combinations of role demands as well as access to both individual and employer-provided resources (See Figure 1).
Specifically, we identified two groups of teachers who were flourishing, and we called them the “engaged” and “involved” groups. Despite experiencing moderate levels of exhaustion and perceiving high demands, teachers in both of these categories accessed a greater number of resources and demonstrated higher levels of accomplishment than other teachers in the study. Like Mackenzie, the teachers in the engaged and involved groups were supported to meet their job demands during pandemic conditions, although the teachers in the involved group were slightly more withdrawn than those in the engaged category.
A third teacher group was nearing burnout and was acknowledged as being “over-extended.” Teachers in this category, like Ashley, had a small deficit of resources compared to their work demands, and were at the “tipping point” of burnout symptoms. While they were experiencing close to the highest levels of exhaustion and feeling moderately withdrawn, they were still able to demonstrate higher levels of accomplishment. Finally, we found two other teacher groups to be experiencing moderate to high levels of exhaustion and feeling significantly withdrawn. Teachers in these groups, like Morgan, were languishing and exhibiting symptoms of burnout. We coined them “detached” and “inefficacious,” with the latter reporting the lowest levels of accomplishment of all. These findings were shared by our partners at the EdCan Network through an article and infographic.
Importantly, for each group we found that it was not the number of demands or the number of resources that predicted burnout, but rather the ratio of resources to demands that predicted the level of stress and burnout perceived by the teachers in the groups. This realization challenged the thinking that teachers were “all in the same boat” during the pandemic. Some teachers were in yachts and some were in life rafts. Some had smooth sailing while others taught through a raging storm – all dependent on whether they had sufficient resources to meet the demands of their specific teaching contexts.
Solutions to the five puzzles
Subsequent work with our partners in a large Manitoba school division, allowed comparative insight between national and provincial data. We were alarmed to discover that 46 percent of Manitoban teachers demonstrated patterns of the two struggling groups, compared with 27 percent of teachers from across Canada. In fact, a greater proportion of Canadian teachers remained at a tipping point in the over-extended group, whereas more Manitoban teachers had already spilled over to become detached and inefficacious. With the Manitoba government aware and informed of this research, over $1 million in funding was awarded to our partners at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) (mbwpg.cmha.ca/) provincially, to address the wellbeing of individuals and organizations in the provincial education sector. CMHA established a website (careforallineducation.com) that facilitates real-time access to Wellness Specialists through phone and online chat modalities to all Manitoban education sector workers, including teachers. CMHA also developed a suite of workshops as part of a multi-level response mechanism. This initiative acknowledged that individuals, administrators, organizations, and government needed to work together to ensure that support is provided for education sector recovery and growth.
Bakker and de Vries (2021) found that with support from school organizations, teachers were more likely to sustain individual resilience while still meeting professional responsibilities. Not only could teachers freely engage with individual strategies for coping (setting boundaries with work time and space, applying healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits, and practising self-compassion) but they could also partake in systemic programs for workplace wellbeing.
For teachers who were flourishing, concurrent employer-hosted opportunities that fit the specific needs of these teachers best include:
- job coaching (increasing job control, task variety and transparency)
- mentorship opportunities
- positive role changes
- increasing resources such as professional learning to further engage in and enhance daily work.
Responding to teachers at a tipping point, languishing, or feeling role strain, individual recommendations would include:
- decreases in multi-tasking
- reducing distractions
- blocking time for priority tasks
- planning for digital downtime and rest
- focusing on non-work-related activities after working hours.
It is essential to remember, however, that employees cannot recover from stress within workplaces that demonstrate imbalances in demands and resources, so simultaneous workplace changes are essential to facilitate and encourage individual strategies that allow for recovery and replenishment. Leadership suggestions here include:
- enhanced communication and collaboration to better determine stress levels of staff
- human resource programs to support recovery and wellbeing
- policies or procedures that allow employees to disconnect from daily work and enjoy leisure time.
The key idea in this scenario is that teachers can engage in self-regulation by identifying their levels of stress and then actively select individual and organizational strategies to enhance coping and optimize wellbeing. In order to do this, however, it is vital to identify burnout as a collective rather than an individual responsibility, with interventions provided at both personal and organizational levels.
Different boats in the same storm
Holmes and colleagues (2020) endorsed the importance of understanding teacher stress as a means of supporting the education sector going forward. As one interview participant described, “Teachers were experiencing the pandemic in different ways. Some were thriving and engaging in novel aspects of teaching and technology, while others were experiencing trauma and tensions, and grieving the loss of pre-pandemic practices.” With enhanced awareness of the diversity of responses to coping during the pandemic, our research demonstrated that teachers could be assisted to understand and navigate their stressors and supports, thereby accessing additional resources as necessary to engage with or offset the strain of job demands. Furthermore, with this knowledge, school boards and other stakeholder organizations could be better prepared to provide resources and supports to help employees achieve or restore work-life balance and enhance or recover wellbeing. Ongoing monitoring and subsequent follow-up research with the CMHA is being conducted by our team to evaluate the effectiveness of both individual and organizational resources for wellbeing, as we move forward with post-pandemic recovery. We now know that teachers are not all in the same boat as they continue to navigate their teaching roles, and that a collective suite of responses will be necessary to ensure they all make it safely and successfully back to the harbour.
babb, J., Sokal, L., & Eblie Trudel, L. (2022). THIS IS US: Latent profile analysis of Canadian teachers’ resilience and burnout during the COVID-19 pandemic. Canadian Journal of Education, 45(2), 555–585.
Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2007). The job demands-resources model: State of the art. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 22(3), 309–328. doi.org/10.1108/02683940710733115
Bakker, A., & de Vries, J. (2021). Job Demands-Resources theory and self-regulation: New explanations and remedies for job burnout. Anxiety, Stress & Coping, 34(1). 1–21. doi.org/10.1080/10615806.2020.1797695
Eblie Trudel, L., Sokal L., & Babb, J. (2021). Teachers’ voices: Pandemic lessons for the future of education. Journal of Teaching and Learning, 15(1). doi.org/10.22329/jtl.v15i1.6486
Holmes, E., O’Connor, R., et al. (2020). Multi-disciplinary research priorities for the COVID-19 pandemic: a call for action for mental health sciences. Lancet Psychiatry, 7(6), 547–560. doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(20)30168-1
Maslach, C., & Jackson, S. E. (1981). The measurement of experienced burnout. Journal of Occupational Behaviour, 2(2), 99–113. doi.org/10.1002/job.4030020205
Sokal, L., Eblie Trudel, L., & Babb, J. (2020a). It’s okay to be okay too. Why calling out teachers’ “toxic positivity” may backfire. Education Canada, 60(3). www.edcan.ca/articles/its-ok-to-be-ok-too
Sokal, L., Eblie Trudel, L., & Babb, J. (2020b). COVID 19: Supporting teachers in times of change. Education Canada, Infographic Series. https://edcannetwork.wordpress.com/2020/09/02/teacher-covid-survey
First published in Education Canada, April 2023