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Research, Well at Work, Well-being

Teacher moms are doing it all

Female teachers are under pressure – but schools can help

RESEARCH IN BRIEF

In news that will surprise no educators, teaching is challenging work. Besides planning for and facilitating student learning, there are a number of other demands on teachers’ time and energy, many of which — like volunteering for a staff committee, staying in at lunch to help a student, or providing students with flexible options to demonstrate their knowledge — can seem small or unnoticeable on their own. However, when demands like these begin to add up, teachers may feel that they have too many demands on their time or that their efforts are not being recognized or appreciated, which can then contribute to impaired health.

It‘s partly because of these potential negative consequences that I called my Ph.D. dissertation “Like Being Pecked to Death by a Chicken.” While a single peck (or demand) might be tolerable, an amassment could lead to impaired health, and it’s often an accumulation of relatively small things that wear down a person’s resilience.

As part of my research, I had 182 female teachers in B.C. complete a survey to see whether there are any differences between women who are both moms and teachers, in comparison to female teachers who don’t have kids. Most helpful to my research were the group discussions I led, where these teachers were able to meet and share what were often emotional stories alongside their colleagues about the ups and downs of managing family and work. I specifically wanted to find out whether an “increased burden of care” (i.e. the pressures of being a caregiver both at school and at home) was hurting the well-being of teacher moms, and what they were doing to remain resilient through it all.

WHAT WE MEAN BY “RESILIENCE”

But what exactly do we mean when we talk about “resilience,” and what seems to make the biggest difference for teachers? Resilience is well-backed by research as key to sustaining teachers’ well-being, and it mainly refers to things that enable them to continue teaching despite the challenging conditions they may find themselves in. There are typically three factors that contribute to resilience:

  1. Personal factors: a person’s skills, abilities, and personality
  2. Contextual factors: a person’s environment, such as their workplace, and how this influences their ability to stay healthy
  3. Interactional factors: the stress of dealing with other people

HOW FEMALE TEACHERS COPE WITH SCHOOL AND FAMILY DEMANDS

By helping teachers better understand resilience and how their emotions affect their health and their work — and by being supported to build their resilience while at school — teachers can potentially improve their well-being, health, and quality of life, while also promoting a healthy learning environment where they role model resilience strategies among their students and colleagues.

In general, I found that teachers have similar challenges regardless of whether or not they were moms, and that they seem to use similar resilience strategies to support themselves as caregivers both inside and outside of school. The majority of teachers I surveyed shared stories clearly describing the ways that so many women are able to sustain themselves while working with people all day and simultaneously raising their own children. For those women who weren’t raising children of their own, they described how they worked through challenging circumstances in their professional or personal lives. Through recounting their lived experiences, I learned six key things about how female teachers manage to stay afloat and stay resilient:

  1. Being aware of their emotions. By being able to stay aware of their emotions and work through them in positive ways, teachers are able to support their own resilience and help their students learn to do the same. For example, instead of suppressing their emotions (e.g. keeping a smile on when they’re angry), teachers who are able to acknowledge and deal with their emotions in appropriate ways tend to be more resilient.
  2. Working with people. This can actually pose a challenge to teachers’ resilience, mostly because of the emotion and care that’s required. However, it can also be an important source of resilience where teachers have healthy relationships with their colleagues and therefore find their work more meaningful and enjoyable.
  3. Perspective. This means being able to look at the “whole picture” and see things in appropriate proportion to other demands. Teachers talked about reframing problems to focus on things that they’re able to control or on things about their work that give them a sense of meaning or purpose.
  4. Staying healthy. This includes taking part in activities or behaviours that help maintain physical health (e.g. exercise, healthy eating, and avoiding substance abuse).
  5. Time. While this is often outside a teachers’ control, time can be a source of resilience when it allows teachers to do their work without feeling rushed or otherwise lacking the opportunity to invest deeply in their relationships and interests.
  6. Family. Having strong and supportive family relations was very important to those teachers who were fortunate enough to have access to them.

“Relationships” was also a keyword that teachers used — whether or not they were moms — when talking about how they’re able to sustain their work and home responsibilities. For teacher moms in particular, maintaining relationships and reaching out to other people seemed to become a more important resilience strategy as their children got older.

 HOW SCHOOLS CAN HELP EASE THE PRESSURE

Research has shown that relationships are crucial to resilience, and I’ve seen this in my own observations where teachers were overwhelmingly receptive to filling-in my survey and, most notably, actively taking part in our group discussions. I’m therefore proposing that teachers be provided with more opportunities to build relationships with each other, and I’m convinced that similar group discussions that allow teachers to talk openly about their stories, express their emotions, and share strategies could be valuable in supporting teachers’ resilience.

It has often been said that teachers bear the brunt of criticism in our modern area of accountability. They receive pressure from administrators, parents, and society to increase student achievement while, in many cases, receiving fewer resources to do so. By providing even a small opportunity for teachers to meet and work through emotional stories alongside their colleagues, it’s clear that there’s potential for similar meetings to be useful in enhancing teacher well-being while creating a dedicated support network in schools.

To avoid teachers having to find ways to do this themselves, these meetings should ideally be done at a systems level so that the caring and emotional aspects of teaching can be supported just as any other aspect of teaching is covered in ongoing professional development. Alternatively, if we only focus on promoting resilience strategies for individual teachers and don’t allow for this sharing to happen in a group setting, we will potentially neglect the bigger picture of the demands that teachers face as caregivers — at home, at work, and in between.

 

 

Dr. Shirley Giroux’s Ph.D. dissertation is entitled, “Like Being Pecked to Death by a Chicken: Resilience and Work-Family Equilibrium in Teacher/Mothers.”

Author note: All of the teachers who participated in my research self-identified as cisgender female. Except for limiting my sample to female teachers, this lack of diversity was not intentional.

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Meet the Expert(s)

Dr. Shirley Giroux

School counsellor

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