Isolation education

Even before COVID-19 turned the world upside down, the teacher workload crisis was overwhelmingly real. So how has the outbreak impacted teacher wellbeing and how can edtech help?

The Breakdown

●  Over a quarter of UK teachers are planning to leave the profession within the next 12 months due to heavy workloads
●  “I think self-care is something that’s largely talked about from the student perspective and not often talked about from an educator perspective. It’s a bit of a blind spot” – Nathan Snider, ICTC
●  “Schools could definitely look at automating tasks usually undertaken by the admin team” – Jade Parkinson-Hill, STEAM School
●  Shareable digital resources can reduce time spent on planning and lesson prep
●  “We’ve seen, over the years, that maths homework has increasingly moved online” – Laura McInerney, Teacher Tapp
●  “More professional skills development opportunities ensure that there’s better classroom management, better support for students and in turn, better educator wellbeing” – Nathan Snider


 

The last four weeks have transformed society in ways we only could have envisioned through a blockbuster film. One positive to be drawn from the madness is the fact that nurses, bin men and supermarket workers – and all those fighting COVID-19 on the frontline – are finally getting the recognition they have always deserved.

But what about our teachers? Those who once stood at the helm of the classroom are now taking charge in a virtual realm. Many have never utilised technology at this scale or intensity before. On top of this, many are battling with their own anxieties spurred by the outbreak, all while continuing to act in loco parentis as much as the situation and technology allows, striving to prevent a lost learning generation. They are working in shifts on-campus to support vulnerable children and children of key workers, putting their own lives and their family’s at risk. Many are delivering free school meals by car or on foot to those most in need. The burden is heavy, but still, they persist.

Uncertainty lingers while shoots of innovation grow from the chaos and thrive, but where will the sector be when the dust finally settles? The short answer is, it’s too early to say, but with the entire population self-isolating indefinitely, experts forecast a mental health pandemic – the effects of which could be far more devastating than the virus itself.

Workload and teacher wellbeing – inherently linked?

In October last year, a survey by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) revealed that over a quarter of teachers polled were considering leaving the profession within the next 12 months. Of these respondents, more than 56% cited workload pressures as the main factor driving their decision, while a further 20% cited stress and anxiety.

“The challenge is, the more teachers who are driven by stress and workload pressures to leave the profession, the more work and pressure is piled upon those who remain,” said John Ingram, CEO of Pamoja Education, an Oxford-based edtech company.

Nathan Snider, manager of policy and outreach at the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC) in Canada – a country battling similar teacher welfare issues – firmly believes that heavy workloads have a significant impact on teacher wellbeing.

“I think they’re immediately interlinked,” he told ET.

“I think self-care is something that’s largely talked about from the student perspective and not often talked about from an educator perspective. It’s a bit of a blind spot. Not only are they interlinked, but I also think the quality of self-care provided for teachers and its impact on the workload are obviously one in the same, and as a result, the quality of education being administered is negatively impacted. You’re dealing with a subject that’s intertwined with both student and educator experience.”

Jade Parkinson-Hill, founder of the STEAM School, agrees. “I 100% don’t think you can separate the two issues,” she said. “The vast majority of teachers go into it because they want to have a job that has a purpose. They want to enrich the lives of young people. On a practical level, even though you know there’s only so much you can do in a day, you still have that inner drive to do well, to serve your students and help them perform. You feel like a massive failure if you don’t achieve everything you had hoped, and that has a huge impact on your wellbeing and self-esteem.”

But Laura McInerney, co-founder of Teacher Tapp and former teacher, disagrees. “They’re not necessarily interlinked as there are some people who work phenomenally long hours, particularly head teachers, who nevertheless say they have the highest morale and are the most satisfied with their work-life balance. It’s not as straightforward as the hours you work or the responsibility level you have reducing your wellbeing,” she told ET. “Now, that’s not true for everyone,” she said. “We see patterns of middle leaders in particular, who have long working hours and still take home a lot of work with them.”

So stacked is the teacher’s day that analysing their opinions towards workload and wellbeing is no easy feat. “It’s hard to survey teachers,” explained McInerney. “Like many people in other professions, they don’t have ready access to computers all day and they’re very busy, so getting their opinions or attitudes can be very difficult.”

As someone with first-hand experience of daily teaching pressures, Laura understood the importance of gleaning teacher insights, but recognised the ineffective and unhelpful nature of sector leaders and edtech companies hounding them for a survey response.

And so, McInerny and co-founder Becky Allen created the Teacher Tapp app. Every school day, the app sends thousands of teachers across the UK three multiple choice questions about their opinions on teaching. Once answered, they are able to view the previous day’s results and uncover what thousands of their peers are thinking. The app then sends a deeper analysis of responses on the following Monday, while teachers also receive daily continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities that are short, clear and relevant to teaching.

“Instead of everybody trying to hamper them to get hold of them, we wanted to make the process as streamlined as possible because teachers have such a high workload. You don’t want to be adding to that by having them talk to all the stakeholders. We wanted to make their lives easier, but if they don’t talk to the stakeholders, then how will things ever get resolved?”

The teacher’s perspective

Teacher Tapp’s findings have provided valuable insights on the matter of workload and wellbeing. One survey, for example, found that 69% of respondents disagreed (to varying degrees) that the stress levels they experience are acceptable for the job they do, while 77% claimed that “workload and work-life balance” were the cause of stress and unhappiness at work.

“You feel like a massive failure if you don’t achieve everything you had hoped, and that has a huge impact on your wellbeing and self-esteem” – Jade Parkinson-Hill

“Teachers are working incredibly long hours and, as the OECD’s recent TALIS survey reported, an increasing amount of their classroom time is taken up by things like administration – with only 80% of class time in England spent on actual teaching and learning,” said Ingram. “All of this heaps pressure on teachers. If we want to keep teachers in the profession, and if we want to encourage more people to go into it, then we have to reduce that pressure. And technology, when used correctly, can be a powerful ally in helping to cut that admin burden.”

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Can automation help teacher wellbeing?

As Ingram suggests, tech is often championed as a means to reduce everyday classroom stresses. Jade Parkinson-Hill agrees. “Schools could definitely look at automating tasks usually undertaken by the admin team,” she commented. “From a teacher’s point of view, they’ll be looking to work with tech powered by AI and machine learning, which would significantly reduce their marking and assessment workload. There are some really great companies out there – like Century Tech, which has an AI-driven machine learning platform which can really take away some of that pressure on schools.” With a Teacher Tapp survey from earlier this year placing assessment aids at the top of teachers’ edtech wish list, Jade’s suggestions certainly seem to hit the mark.

Snider agrees. An ICTC study from March 2020 drew on the responses of 16 interviews with educators across Canada and conducted an extensive review of edtech in the classroom. Researchers found that technology allows teachers to work with students far more comprehensively on a one-to-one basis, while digital devices and solutions also enabled teachers to navigate specific learning disabilities or barriers in a way that wasn’t socially ostracising. “A lot of educators ended up coming back to us saying that these learning management systems (LMS) were allowing them to work one-on-one with students who may need additional time for reports, essays and to meet traditional classroom expectations,” said Snider. “Not only that, but they also provide them with the opportunity to identify potential barriers that they may or may not have noticed before. Them being noticed helps to address, to a certain extent, different social inequities that may have taken place.”

Saying that, the ‘human’ element of teaching – including constructive feedback, regular contact hours and one-to-one support – remains integral to student success. “While tech can alleviate some of that workload, as a teacher, you still have to know exactly where your learners are, and if tech can help you do that, on top of taking away some of the pressure, then that’s a real boon,” said Parkinson-Hill.

In a world stricken by COVID-19, edtech has been a saviour. Generally (even pre-pandemic), access to shareable digital resources has been shown to reduce time spent on planning and lesson prep – for primary school teachers in particular (Kitchen, Finch and Sinclair, 2007). A look at the interactive whiteboard provides a more specific example of how edtech can help; on top of saving time on planning, prep and delivery, the smartboard allows teachers to tailor content to the specific needs of each student. With its personalised nature, the VLE (virtual learning environment) offers similar perks while working remotely. Interactive whiteboards have been shown to reduce levels of stress and anxiety in pre-service maths teachers (Fraser, Garofalo and Juersivich, 2009) in previous studies.

“We’ve seen, over the years, that maths homework has increasingly moved online, and that’s something that has now sped up even more,” said McInerney. “Maths is easier for a computer to mock than it is for some other subjects. Fractions are fractions whether you’re teaching in Taiwan, South Africa or Argentina,” she added. In maths and more scientific subjects, the answer is set in stone, making it easier for an algorithm to imitate. More creative disciplines that are fundamentally subjective, on the other hand, are a totally different challenge…

But with RM Education’s recent Teacher Effectiveness Review revealing that just 27% of teachers feel confident using the tech at their disposal, while barely half of UK teachers believe technology will improve their performance, there’s clearly a disconnect between edtech implementation and usage in the classroom. Could this be down to a lack of CPD leading to low levels of confidence in using such devices?

“If we want to keep teachers in the profession, and if we want to encourage more people to go into it, then we have to reduce that pressure ” – John Ingram

A 2017 BESA study of 1,325 ICT leaders across UK schools showed that half of teachers are in need of e-safety training, while digital content requirements in primary schools are expanding considerably. And with more than a third of learners feeling that teachers lack confidence when using classroom devices, their low self-belief is emulated in practice.

“One of the strong policy recommendations in our report is additional support for teachers,” Snider told ET.

“It seems to be a blind spot where ministers had an expectation, and even in some cases, parents had an expectation that teachers were going to be adopting technology more frequently in the classroom. Yet, the reality is that there’s a complete lack of support in a variety of different areas for educators to actually be able to learn how to use these systems confidently and effectively, which means that you’re now sitting with a situation where you have educators who are being forced to utilise a technology they are only half-trained in using.”

The COVID-19 impact on teacher wellbeing

In the week before school closures – when the sector transitioned to a remote learning model – Teacher Tapp asked teachers whether they had received training in the tech they would use. “Something like 85% claimed that they had,” said McInerney. Then, the app asked teachers how confident they felt about using the tech or solutions. “We compared it to the previous year, when by chance, we had asked (almost at the same time) about lack of confidence in using technology, and we hadn’t seen it change. So, you’re now in a position where, in order for learning to continue, teachers need that technology, and you give them the training – which you couldn’t get a better situation for – and it barely moves the needle in that level of confidence.”

“Yet, the reality is that there’s a complete lack of support in a variety of different areas for educators to actually be able to learn how to use these systems confidently and effectively” – Nathan Snider

With future generations relying on technology to minimise the disruption and prepare them for the future, the sector has no choice but to adapt. We are still in the early stages of the pandemic, so it’s up to sector leaders and policymakers to consider every aspect of this complex scenario.

“I think it’s really clear that the emergence of edtech in the classroom is increasing. So far, COVID-19 has done nothing but prove that edtech is here to stay, and I think that our ability to leverage that technology in an effective way is going to increase. As a result of that, a critical focus is ensuring that educator support is in place. For the educators’ sake, in terms of balancing workload and educator care and support, I think, again, it’s kind of one in the same. More professional skills development opportunities ensure that there’s better classroom management, better support for students and in turn, better educator wellbeing,” Snider concludes.

“I would say that COVID-19 has also brought to light certain social inequalities. We have a phrase here in Canada called the digital divide, which is the social inequity associated with technology. I think the digital divide is an issue we’re going to need to look at with a really critical eye. How do we address that and how can the sector step up to ensure it’s being monitored as closely as possible to ensure equality in educational access and attainment?”

But that’s a whole new feature in itself…


You might also like: Using edtech to assess and improve teacher wellbeing


 

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