Teaching is a stressful job, and with schools and universities operating remotely over the last eighteen months, teachers’ worries have increased dramatically. In the latest in a series of articles on distance learning, IQ.HSE reports on research conducted by the HSE University Institute of Education on how teachers have been coping with stress.
‘A challenge,’ ‘a shock,’ ‘a bolt out of the blue.’ These are some of the ways that school teachers have described the transition to remote learning in spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While recollections of this digital revolution are still fresh and debates surrounding it continue, distance learning in the 2020/2021 academic year has become more established, developed, and high-tech.
Nevertheless, analysis of this first large-scale experience of remote teaching is ongoing. In this case, the focus is on the additional stresses felt by teachers and the coping strategies used to deal with them.
Recalling last year’s experience of online teaching, history teacher Anna K. said, ‘Repackaging materials for online use, learning how to manage students remotely, keeping their motivation up, talking to parents late into the night and still having enough energy to be productive — it was unlike anything we’d dealt with before. But we managed.’ She told IQ.HSE of ‘some sleepless nights, short panics, and feeling like I’d jumped into cold water.’ Are these signs of stress? Unquestionably. ‘But we adapted and rose to the task,’ she continues.
IQ.HSE also spoke to Natalia S., who is certain that the stress would have been much worse without support from her school’s administration: ‘My teacher friends said that they figured out the online stuff themselves, or they had help from people at home. But what if you don’t have someone to help you? Our director of studies organized courses immediately, and we tried out various platforms.’ Natalia believes that this gave the teachers confidence.
Biology teacher Anastasia R. believes that there was no need to panic. ‘There were opportunities to take online tutorials. The online format taught me some totally new things.’ She likens the online teaching experience to a vaccination, something required ‘in the new reality.’
‘Vaccinations give your body the necessary experience to achieve immunity. In the same way, remote teaching is a vaccine in the use of online technologies, giving us an “immunity” that teaches us how to handle technical issues, communicate through screens and become less afraid of all things digital,’ she told IQ.HSE. This ‘digital vaccine’ is needed, in her opinion, to ‘stop people from giving up when times are tough and to provide modern, high-quality teaching.’
We can always choose how we react to stress, she continues, ‘Either work with your emotions by distancing yourself from the situation, try to see the positives, or try to solve the problem.’
During the spring 2020 lockdown, many teachers managed their stress through hobbies and talking to friends and colleagues. ‘We shared our experiences after classes, which was more useful than the usual methodological meetings,’ explains Anna K.
The use of similar strategies by teachers to cope with negative feelings were observed by HSE University Institute of Education psychologists Anastasia Petrakova, Tatjana Kanonire, Alena Kulikova and Ekaterina Orel. The researchers wanted to know how the new working conditions affected the emotional wellbeing of teachers, and how they dealt with stress. They interviewed teachers from eight cities in Russia: Moscow, Khimki, Zheleznogorsk (Krasnoyarsk Krai), Omsk, Vorkuta, Saratov, Shakhty and Yaroslavl. The interviewees had teaching experience ranging from three to forty years, and included subject teachers, educational psychologists, school counsellors and vice principals. The interviews were conducted during the lockdown period in April–May 2020.
Question topics were divided into three groups: changes to working and living conditions during the pandemic (the use of digital tools for work, communication with students and co-workers, schedule changes, etc), subjective assessment of stress levels and coping strategies (maintaining a good emotional state, work-life balance, daily routines, etc), and perceptions of the future (which practices will continue to be useful in the future).
‘It was a race: once we heard the signal, we were off,’ said Natalia S. of the spring 2020 period. ‘But some people already had training, and others were running for the first time. They had a terribly stressful time.’
‘It was a shock for our school,’ explained one respondent in the research. Another said, ‘Nobody spoke to us about what was going to happen. They just gave the command and that was it.’ Others reported being more concerned by uncertainty: ‘We didn’t know what would happen next.’
The abrupt change in working conditions, including the use of new technologies and an increased workload, may have caused significant worry. One respondent said, ‘I felt hysterical from all the pressure. I was completely spent by the end of the week. I just cried and felt crazy.’
Teaching is unquestionably a nerve-wracking and emotionally demanding profession, and one that requires particular resilience to stress. Even before the pandemic, teachers experienced significant stress caused by high workloads, emotional attachments to students and their parents, bureaucracy, paperwork and many other factors. During the pandemic, many teachers were also unhappy with the quality of online learning materials.
‘The resources we were advised to use were very basic — students and teachers felt demotivated by them. And on the other hand, some materials were too complex. We had to come up with the content ourselves,’ said Anna K.
Longitudinal research conducted in Australia, Sweden, Finland, the UK, Israel and the USA shows that the abovementioned factors can lead to depression, irritability, decreased self-esteem and job satisfaction, psychosomatic disorders and more. Teachers end up feeling burnt out and disillusioned with their work, and this affects the quality of their teaching.
‘Everything got a lot harder during the pandemic,’ explains Natalia S. ‘I was scared and uncertain, and all the teaching methods I’d been using for 20 years didn’t work anymore.’ Her colleague Anna K. adds, ‘The situation meant that there was no way to avoid going digital — otherwise, there was simply no way to teach. So you had to take a constructive approach and look on the positive side.’
A teacher’s psychological condition influences the quality of their teaching and the successful socialization of their students. It has been established that teachers who feel happier with their lives and who know how to manage their emotional wellbeing are more successful at forming resilience to stress in their students. ‘For me, it was important to stay calm — or at least keep up the appearance of it. The children are very aware of my state of mind,’ says Anna K. She tried to cheer her students up in their class chat, say funny things and share interesting links. ‘But I still think they could tell how anxious I was,’ she added.
Stress can be described as two sub-processes: assessment of a stimulus (a stressor) and a strategy to deal with it (coping). The American psychologist Richard Lazarus was a pioneer in the study of coping, and wrote the classic 1966 work Psychological Stress and the Coping Process.
Later, Lazarus and his co-author Susan Folkman outlined two main functions of coping: regulating negative emotions and changing situations that cause negative feelings. They also defined two corresponding types of coping: emotion-focused (either positively reassessing a situation or reacting aggressively) and problem-focused (finding a solution to the problem).
It is important to note that while other approaches take differences in individual personality into account, the research described here does not.
There is no shortage of online resources to help teachers reduce stress. However, the most common approach taken by teachers was to seek help from friends and colleagues.
This strategy can be considered a combination of emotion-focused and problem-focused coping. It can help accomplish various goals: solving problems, getting useful advice (as with problem-focused coping), as well as becoming calmer, keeping occupied, and restoring emotional balance (as with emotion-focused coping).
‘Help from the school, our methodologists, and the IT specialists who trained us was very important,’ said Natalia S. ‘We were also able to take part in outside courses, webinars and master classes — but that’s another story.’ Anna K. explained, ‘We were assigned experts in all this technology who we could contact at any time. That made things easier.’
The research revealed that different schools supported their teachers in the transition to online learning in different ways. According to some respondents, ‘We started practising and rehearsing online classes before the start of lockdown, while we were still in the workplace.’ Another reported that, ‘We had round-the-clock support, and we have special chat groups with [the IT specialists].’
However, other respondents spoke of indifference from school administrations. ‘On one hand, we had freedom [to choose online platforms], but it also felt like they didn’t care about us,’ said one teacher. ‘Not every room in our school has internet,’ one explained. ‘We were basically left with whatever equipment we had at home.’
Did teachers need psychological help during the transition? According to Natalia S., ‘Some training would have been helpful — even things like techniques to reduce anxiety and decompress when your head is full of information.’
Research into teachers conducted in the US and the UK shows that avoidance, aggression, and taking on excess responsibilities are not effective strategies for regulating one’s emotional state. Physical activity was found to be more helpful, serving as an emotion-focused coping strategy for restoring physical and emotional strength. Anastasia R. explains, ‘Morning runs during lockdown weren’t an option, but I ran on a treadmill at home. I exercised and I tried yoga.’
Hobbies are another effective way to unwind. ‘I love museums, so I enjoyed wandering around European museums online,’ said Anna K. ‘I also took a mini-course on painting.’ Natalia S. rewatched her favourite films during lockdown: ‘I figured out how to use online cinemas and find foreign TV shows,’ she explained. Anastasia R. said, ‘I found online tutorials interesting, both for work and for myself,’ while another respondent said, ‘My family and I found Latin American dances online and danced together.’
Emotion-focused coping in the form of talking to friends (over the phone and online) also reduced stress. ‘I hadn’t seen my classmates in a long time, and we were delighted to catch up over Zoom,’ said Anna K.
Teachers who did not initially feel threatened by the distance format and who were able to find ways of coping with the situation reported experiencing little to no stress. ‘I’m at home, I can watch over my child, and I know what needs to be done. Working this way makes me feel very at ease,’ said one respondent. For some, it is a time-tested and familiar format: ‘I do a lot of work with children from home. [...] I just turned on my computer as always, sat in front of it and kept on working. [...] I can lie on the sofa! And I don’t have to look good! [...] There are no downsides for me.’
Many of the teachers surveyed tried to take a philosophical approach. ‘If you find yourself in a certain situation, then that’s the way it’s meant to be. You have to live through it,’ said one respondent. Anastasia R. considers such challenges useful: ‘In those moments, you can learn something important about yourself. You realize what your priorities are. You might start treating people differently, with more sensitivity. There’s an upside to stress: it teaches you how to focus.’
Almost all of the respondents viewed the situation as an opportunity to learn how to use new technologies. This was particularly true of regions with adverse weather conditions that can cause school students to miss classes. ‘We live in Siberia. We have frost, so we already had a form of distance learning, but the children didn’t get anything from it because we didn’t know what to do with them. Now we do,’ explained one teacher.
Looking for positive meaning and new opportunities in a situation is an example of emotion-focused coping. By contrast, reacting to difficulties with aggression has been shown to be ineffective.
Teachers’ workloads have grown since the transition to distance learning. Some traditional tasks, such as checking each student’s work and providing feedback, have become more difficult. One teacher explained, ‘You have to check [completed assignments] because if the students have sent something to you, it probably means that they need your help or support.’
These increased responsibilities have impacted teachers’ work-life balance. ‘All I can say is that I spend 12–14 hours a day in front of the computer,’ said one respondent. ‘I didn’t get housework done and didn’t have enough time for my daughter. It became ridiculous — parents would send messages to the chat group at midnight asking what the homework was,’ Anna K. told IQ.HSE. ‘How can you recharge your batteries in those conditions?’
The respondents tried to preserve some of their personal time. ‘I wrote in the class chat group that I was not to be disturbed between 5pm and 7pm because I had classes,’ said Anastasia R. One respondent to the research noted, ‘My time is clearly planned out — this is when I have English, and that’s it. It’s very diverting, and I just feel better.’
At the same time, the respondents reported that they sometimes sacrificed their personal time to offer psychological support to their students. ‘We all get together on Zoom and chat a little — it’s important for me to see how the children are feeling,’ reported one teacher. ‘Some had very serious family issues during lockdown, and some families had social and economic difficulties.’
‘We had friendly conversations about what they were having trouble with,’ said Anna K. ‘That had an impact on the kids’ motivation — they tried to work as actively as they had before.’
The majority of the teachers surveyed managed to cope with their stress. Nevertheless, anxiety and doubt about the future remain. ‘Education is a face-to-face process,’ said Anastasia R. ‘The online format is convenient, but I worry that it will make education impersonal.’ Natalia S. said, ‘I try to keep my worries under control. At the moment, it’s hard to say what’s going to happen with education, what kind of combination of online and offline there’s going to be. It’s too early to draw any conclusions. But it’s clear that there are advantages to going digital.’
Anastasia R. commented, ‘The digital vaccine we’ve been given will improve education. Some things can be moved online without issue, while others will be better in person.’ She views it as a ‘useful experiment,’ adding, ‘That’s my honest and objective assessment.’