Looking Beyond School Closures: Considering Teacher Well-Being and Support—Dr. Carmen Strigel, RTI International

Whether schools are reopening or continue to be closed with a priority placed on virtual instruction, there are several critical considerations particularly relevant for TPD@Scale. Aside from family and student well-being and student academic growth, we need to place more emphasis and consideration on our teachers. This includes their well-being, their support, and their training. 

First and foremost, there is teacher well-being. Aside from creating physical environments and processes that protect teachers’ health in situations of full or partial return to the classroom, teachers’ socio-emotional well-being needs to be a priority. The dramatic changes to their daily practices and the new demands placed on teachers is likely to create tremendous stress, whether teachers are required to instruct virtually or back in their classrooms. The potential for this stress to turn into anxiety is high, especially where teachers are made responsible for their students’ health by having to monitor and enforce the children’s adherence to social distancing, hand washing, and classroom cleaning procedures. To help address these concerns, we need to find better ways to include teachers in planning to understand what is responsible and realistic to expect. Deliberate monitoring of teachers’ socio-emotional well-being and the availability of free counseling services may go a long way to help prevent the negative consequence of stress and burn out. Free COVID-19 testing and paid sick leave will be cornerstones to both teacher and student health. School systems could also offer a range of activities that promote teachers’ informal communication and experience sharing, allow for activation of social support networks, and entail explicit and frequent recognition of achievement. Even in contexts where resources are scarce, finding ways to fund and sustain such measures should be a priority.

A second consideration is teacher support. The requirements that come with teaching virtually or back in the classroom in times of COVID-19, will benefit from systematic and proactive teacher support. In the virtual model, providing accessible technology support will ensure that teachers can focus on their instruction and students. Creating (virtual) teacher teams that promote teacher collaboration in the design of (virtual) student learning experiences can help relief stress on individual teachers. As mentioned above, going back to the classroom is likely to go hand in hand with significant changes in procedures. Many school systems that have already reopened their schools and others that are planning to do so often require teachers to take a lead in re-arranging classroom seating and student movement to ensure social distancing, in monitoring students’ uses of masks and required hand washing procedures, and in classroom cleaning. Asking teachers to take on these additional responsibilities raises not only concerns about teachers’ socio-emotional well-being, but also about the efficient use of their face-time with students. Any approaches that allow teachers to particularly focus on equitable student engagement will also go a long way to promote quality instruction for diverse learners. Importantly, education officials can support teachers by communicating with families to find out if and what technology access students may have, to what degree that access would allow students’ effective engagement with any virtual instructional elements planned, assigning cohorts to teachers based on teaching mode rather than by traditional classroom groups or geographic catchment areas, and designing multi-channel approaches to ensure sustained and equitable student access. While financial and human resource limitations, particularly in low-and middle income countries, may aggravate the difficulty of providing such teacher support, these might be concrete areas where international assistance could also play a role.  

Even in teacher training situations, teachers socio-emotional well-being needs to be a priority. Other considerations include a careful re-evaluation of the relevant skills and competencies that teachers might need in this new instructional context. Quality virtual instruction and teaching in classrooms adjusted for social distancing requirements might require teachers to expand their toolbox of instructional routines, digital resources, student grouping structures, and student engagement modalities. The selection of relevant resources is one that has been of particular attention in recent months and many school systems, schools, and teachers have made great strides in identifying an initial set of resources to keep their student academically engaged. Yet, there is a difference in identifying a neat electronic resource as an emergency response versus tactically curating a series of electronic resources and activities that applicable student learning standards and classrooms’ diverse students’ abilities and needs. The ability to monitor student’s socio-emotional wellbeing virtually might also be a particular competency for teachers to acquire. 

In summary, in all the attention paid to students and their families in light of COVID-19, we want to make sure we do not forget about our teachers. There are many opportunities, even in low-resource settings, where we can plan for, provide, monitor, and sustain our consideration of their well-being, support, and training as a critical element relevant to TPD@Scale.

by Dr. Carmen Strigel

A version of this article is also available on the Shared RTI website, and is cross-posted with their permission.