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Teaching Through the Pandemic – What Has Been Most Challenging For International School Teachers?

Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 26th March 2021

This is the third article in my series on international school teacher wellbeing during the COVID 19 crisis, based upon a survey which I conducted in January and February 2021. 275 teachers took part from 46 countries, sharing their experiences of teaching through a pandemic. My articles First Results from International School Teacher Wellbeing Survey Reflect Poorly on Senior Leadership  and  International School Teacher Wellbeing – How Can Schools Support Teachers More Effectively? contain useful infographics presenting the quantitative findings of the survey. The full report will be published in April.

Teachers were asked to describe what has been the most challenging for them as a teacher since the start of the pandemic. The intensity of the challenges faced by teachers over the last 12-14 months is highlighted by the themes emerging in response to this question.

The Challenges of Online/Distance Learning

The demands and complexities of delivering learning in an online environment was by far the strongest theme emerging from the data. Teachers spoke of the challenges of designing lessons for online delivery.

“It has been difficult to say the least, to take units and have to figure out, revamp them to work for distant learning. This has been blocked in some case by admin because they felt like certain tasks (like using Flipgrid) were unsafe – decided w/out asking questions or investigating the platform. So the expectations were high but the school had no effective, engaging platforms to reach students.” 

This was challenging for everyone but more so for those who teach in areas that are by their nature hands on or require face to face interaction. Teachers of band, special education and early years spoke of the hopelessness they have felt in trying to deliver meaningful learning to their students.

The amount of time is takes to prepare lessons for virtual delivery came through the research strongly, as did the need for teachers, parents and students to master new technology.

“The time it takes for digital preparation just never goes below a certain point. I can’t get prepared for anything beyond the next lesson. It’s like being a first-year teacher in my 32nd year.”

“Never having used video I suddenly felt real pressure to become an overnight YouTube star. Some colleagues were setting the bar really high and others like me were really struggling. I was spending hours making a 3 minute video, which seemed a monumental waste of time but was expected each day.”

” Trying to support the tech needs of parents has been the most stressful. Many parents have very little knowledge of tech related to education e.g. they may know how to take a short video or photo of their child’s work but have difficulty learning to upload it into the school’s drive or onto their children’s digital workbooks. “

The greatest challenge of distance learning by far, however, has been engaging students and monitoring and feeding back about their learning.

‘Finding ways to deliver online learning to children with very short attention span and yet still complete the work the teacher expects of them.”

“Student learning is just not as strong when some students are completely online. Trying to create engaging online or physically distanced instruction is much more difficult. There are so many distractions for students, and it’s much harder for me as a teacher to check their understanding.”

“The most challenging aspect of teaching during the pandemic is the fact that government entities, school leadership teams, and parents conveniently forget what it is like for teenagers when they are home all day. They blame teachers when students are not engaged in the same way as they would be if they were attending school physically. Expectations are totally unrealistic and this mindset also fails to reflect what the working day may be like for young people.”

“Keeping students engaged in learning whilst not being able to connect in a face to face setting so we have not been able to build community and a sense of belonging.”

“To predict and understand students’ learning responses online was very hard, and then to make teaching adjustment accordingly online as well as adjust my own teaching plan at night or before the next online class. It was a constant battle.”

“Giving constant, endless feedback to students. In order to maintain student engagement, I have tried my best to respond to the responses of my feedback. However, with over 100 students, it can become very challenging. Not answering “thank you” at a time like this can upset little kids – so sifting through all their posts can at times be exhausting.”

The Blurring of Boundaries Between Home and Work

Many teachers spoke of the lack of work-life balance and the inevitable blurring of boundaries between school and home life that working from home brings.

“Delivering Zoom sessions all morning, then planning meetings all afternoon and unexpected whole staff PD sessions, then in the evening posting everything to Seesaw while at the same time trying to manage giving feedback to the students and answering parent emails. I was working 16 hours a day and not having any time to spend with my own family.”

This has been particularly challenging for those with school aged children at home.

“Being a teacher parent who has to teach live lessons all day every day and has to support the learning of my own children at home has been very hard. There are no concessions to those of us who are parents. My wife had to go into her workplace so I was left on my own with the kids and some days it was chaos.”

“Being a faculty parent – trying to support my own children as well as teach my students has, at times, been completely overwhelming. It’s my own children’s education that has suffered, not my students’ though.”

Teachers also talk about the impact of working from home on their physical and mental health.

“The lack of movement for myself in a work day is also difficult and focusing on a computer screen all day is difficult for the eyes and brain. I’m more exhausted at the end of the teaching day and I find I don’t have much energy to get out for a walk or do any exercise. I worry about how unhealthy this is long term but short term it makes me feel awful.”

“Also ranking top of the list for me has been the constant screen time. It is endless and exhausting.”

“I love teaching but teaching face to face and interacting with people. The lack of human contact in online learning is definitely taking its toll and I hope that the pandemic is over soon.”

Leadership and Parental Expectations

Many teachers spoke of the seemingly impossible demands placed upon them by senior leadership and parents. The challenges of online learning have been compounded by changing guidelines and expectations from senior leadership, constantly moving the goal posts for those on the frontline.

“The increasingly high expectations around online learning from leadership with little support, being asked to be flexible every time the leadership pushes boundaries and then meeting with little flexibility from leadership in return.”

“The amount of micromanagement from leadership made things much worse. Changing expectations and piling on the workload on a whim and then sending angry emails at all hours, making us feel constantly as if we are doing a bad job when we are really trying our best.”

Teachers have been placed under considerable pressure by parents and have felt wounded by the lack of appreciation for their hard work and flexibility.

“Parents not understanding the programme or understanding it is not the same as face to face but still expecting the same amounts of time teaching/grouping. Expectations of teachers to be a babysitter to keep their child occupied so that they can work from home.”

” Parents acting as if we don’t work. Learning to do my job completely differently simultaneously with working full time in a pandemic and then having parents act as if we are on a vacation.”

Blended Learning Approaches

While there have been many challenges presented by the return to face to face learning, the majority of respondents prefer this model. However, many have found themselves in situations where they are expected to teach face to face and deliver online at the same time in a blended model. This has proved to be highly problematic for many.

“Having to divide my class of 23 5 year olds into 3 bubbles across 2 classrooms, keeping social distancing between children, while SLT continues to implement the usual calendar, a very busy schedule of observations, book trawls etc. At the same time we have to teach live lessons to distance learners in the same day. We are doing this with no breaks for EY teachers and LAs due to bubbles not to be broken by additional adults. Teachers are exhausted, many won’t take sick days as cover is difficult.”

“The expectation to provide an effective online curriculum while teaching full time face to face with limited breaks. Constant changes in timetables and an expectation to eat a lunch at 11am within the 15 minute allocated break. The decisions made without consulting the whole staff and the lack of respect for teaching staff. The feeling that we are being treated like puppets and the instances where we are told that we are ‘lucky to have a job’ and decisions made are for our own ‘mental health!’ “

Constant Change and Uncertainty

The lack of certainty around the developing situation has been a significant source of challenge for teachers. Moving in and out of face to face, blended and online learning, sometimes on short notice; lack of clarity about when the crisis will end and what the future will hold has placed a real strain on many.

“The “uncertainty”, is it one week or month or longer of online learning? Will exams go ahead or not? What will the classroom will look like when/if we return? The background stress level is amped up for everyone, teachers/parents/learners. So little situations can become stressful situations very quickly. Planned/pre prepared work can become obsolete due to changing circumstances adding to the feeling of frustration. In an international setting job security also becomes a concern not to mention personal safety concerns especially at the beginning of the pandemic when it wasn’t clear how deadly this virus is. For the first time in a long time the feeling that I am not in control of anything, it is surprisingly stressful especially if I dwell on it too much! Strange times.”

Many teachers have been unable to return home to visit loved ones for over a year now and there remains uncertainty for most about when this will change.

“I haven’t been able to go home and at the moment I am not sure when this will change. While we have pulled together as a community, it is very hard not seeing my family, worrying about how they are coping and not being able to be there for them. My parents are elderly and I have been really worried about what would happen if there is an emergency at home. Would I be able to get there? Will I be able to travel this summer or even next Xmas? Sometimes I worry that I might not see my parents again if they get ill but I try not to think about it”

We must bear in mind that while the situation has eased for teachers in many parts of the world, for others the situation is ongoing. New lockdown situations are being implemented in Europe and elsewhere and he vaccination programme is yet to offer respite in most parts of the world. For many there seems to be no end to the crisis in sight, while the longer it drags on the more teachers’ personal resources are drained.

This article outlines the major themes that have emerged from the study so far but many minor themes are also coming to the fore which will give a deeper insight into the challenges international school teachers have faced over the last year or more and, for many, continue to face. I hope to share these in the coming weeks as I continue to analyse the data.