In January and February of this year, 275 international school teachers from 46 countries took part in an comprehensive survey about their mental health and wellbeing. The infographic shows the quantitative headlines but the qualitative data gives a much fuller picture of the emotional experiences of teachers struggling to cope over the past 14 months with the massive demands that the pandemic has placed on them. While a number of themes have emerged, which will be shared when the full report is published in April, it is teachers’ feelings of anger towards their senior leaders that stands out most prominently. While any voluntary survey of this kind will likely have a response bias, the data overwhelming paints a picture of high levels of dissatisfaction with the way that senior leaders have handled the crisis. When read in conjunction with the stories of struggle shared by senior leaders in the School Leader Wellbeing During the COVID 19 Crisis The 2020 Report it presents as a real dichotomy that is challenging to resolve.
77% of teachers say their workload has increased since the start of the pandemic and 80% report an increase in their work-related stress levels. Working with all stakeholder groups has become more stressful but it is interactions with students and senior leaders that have become the most stressful. Teachers describe the challenges of implementing online/distance learning.
“The biggest struggle is engaging with students and being able to provide them the help they need. To truly help I need to work with them 1:1 online which takes additional working hours on top of a very busy schedule already.”
“At school, what is a 10/15 min mini-lesson with a student becoming so a complex process online. I never feel like I am doing a good enough job to meet all of their needs.”
“Getting through students who do not respond to online learning, and communicating their challenges to their parents who likewise have their own challenges too. Just a month before I had felt like a highly skilled professional, then suddenly it’s as if everything I know is being questioned, thrown out the window and I just have to get on with it as this is the way things are now. It took a toll on me mentally and emotionally as I have high standards for myself and my work”
Returning to blended learning or full time face to face has also been a challenge for many.
“Having to do teach kids face to face but also simultaneously on Zoom. Lack of student engagement. New students starting at foundation level having never been in school…they have no routines established and are totally disorganised and unsettled when back at school – especially as it’s only part time. Having to constantly nag and police kids. No break times – always on duty supervising kids eating, washing hands etc.”
It is, however, the challenges of meeting the expectations of senior leaders without sufficient empathy or support that ring out the most strongly from the qualitative data.
“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!’”
“Angry emails from leadership, their increasingly high expectations with little support, being asked to be flexible every time the leadership pushes boundaries and then meeting with little flexibility from leadership in return. All while being constantly threatened with job loss and/or cut salaries with little provocation.”
“The fact that schools are in panic mode to remain financially viable so they are dumping incredible amounts of work on staff, unapologetically, because they see it as an issue of survival but teachers are feeling overworked, underappreciated, and in cases where they’re on campus – at risk.”
“Getting admin to understand why teachers are so stressed about online teaching and to appreciate and empathise with just how hard it is – how much more work it is than a normal class. They do not teach and do not understand. They spend their time talking to other administrators online, who also do not teach, about what to do but react viciously and suspiciously when teachers talk about the challenges of working from home. A huge lack of empathy for either teachers…they listen to complaining parents and focus on that. It became a very us and them mentality and they even questioned why we were worried about coming back to school, even though they put up shields in the admin office and restricted who would go in there. They made no concession to the teachers who would have to stand in front of almost 100 students a day – they stayed in their well sanitised office.”
“Extra hours of work, in a whim they change our working hours – you never know what it will be weekly. Basically don’t make any plans in your personal life because at any time you could be called into school. We are human!”
“The expectations to perform without concerns of our well being. Even if we are sick we are expected to teach online and attend online staff meetings. We are risking our health already coming to school and the micromanagement speaks volumes about the lack of humanity of some of the senior leadership at schools.”
Only 22% of respondents said they had received enough support from senior leadership with teachers much more likely to seek and receive appropriate levels of support from teacher colleagues (59%).
The impact that the pandemic is having on the mental and physical health of teachers is of serious concern. 69% reported experiencing anxiety, 43% depression and 62% reported insomnia with only a third saying they have been getting enough sleep. 85% of teachers said they have been concerned about the wellbeing of a colleague this year. Of most concern are the high levels of burnout indicators present in those who took part in the survey. 71% said they felt overwhelmed and 76% were exhausted, while 21% described their levels of stress as unmanageable. 59% described feeling detached from or having a lack of interest in their work, one of the three key indicators for occupational burnout. 62% reported that work-related stress has impacted negatively on their personal life, 45% on their ability to do their job well and 57% on their health, while 61% said they had come close to breaking point at some time during 2020. 23% report having taken time off over the last year with stress or mental ill health.
While teachers have been involved in a number of activities at school relating to mental health, including whole staff sessions on wellbeing (40%) and the provision of information by school on managing their wellbeing in the form of websites and leaflets (50%), only 23% said they had received enough guidance from their school about mental health and wellbeing. Of great concern, only 20% of teachers said that the workplace culture in their school had a positive effect on their wellbeing. There will be more data to follow in upcoming posts about what kind of support teacher would like to receive.
It is important to consider the long term impact of the pandemic on recruitment and retention in the international school sector. 51% of respondents said they had considered leaving their school because of matters related to the pandemic; 32% said they had considered leaving the international school sector and 31% had considered leaving the teaching profession.
While schools have or are beginning to return to normal in some parts of the world, the pandemic is still in full swing in others. The demands of teaching and leading schools takes a greater and greater toll the longer the crisis continues. In the coming 2-3 weeks, I hope to be in a position to make a full set of recommendations to international schools to help them to consider how they may do better in supporting the needs of their highly committed yet highly stressed teachers. It will also be interesting to read my two reports together and consider how we balance the wellbeing needs of both teachers and leaders and provide them all with meaningful wellbeing support to carry them through to the end of this crisis and, unfortunately, as is often the case for international schools, onto the next crisis.