The spring semester, in which schools across the country closed their doors and teachers pivoted to remote instruction on a dime, was challenging for everyone involved. But a new survey shows that teachers’ sense of success dramatically declined—a troubling sign, since many schools have started the new school year remotely, too.
But there is some good news: Teachers who had supportive school leadership were the least likely to experience a dip in their sense of success.
Researchers analyzed data from working condition surveys that were taken by teachers in both the fall and spring semesters of last school year. The spring survey, which was taken between April 27 and June 23, focused on teaching during the coronavirus pandemic and yielded a sample of 7,841 teachers across 206 schools and nine states, including Illinois, Texas, and New York.
Researchers found that 53 percent of teachers reported a decline in their sense of success. Of those reporting a decline, a quarter reported a significant decrease.
“I think we need to really value teachers’ own perceptions of their self-efficacy, because ultimately if a teacher doesn’t feel successful, it’s really unlikely they’re going to be helping students meet the academic standards and achieve the type of success we’re looking for on a day-to-day basis in classrooms,” said Matthew Kraft, an associate professor of education and economics at Brown University and an author of the study.
Also, teachers’ sense of success—the degree to which they feel like they’re making a difference in students’ lives—can influence whether they stay in the profession, Kraft said.
“Teachers don’t make a whole bunch of money. They have a very physically and emotionally and psychologically challenging job, particularly now,” he said. “The kind of joy and value that they derive from helping kids is really a key part of what makes teaching rewarding and meaningful, and if that’s absent, it’s easy to see why teaching would be an even less attractive profession.”
Education Week survey data found that teacher morale declined over the spring semester, as teachers grappled with unfamiliar technologies, retrofitted their lessons, responded to an avalanche of emails, texts, and calls from parents and students, and worked to emotionally support their students during a scary, unfamiliar time. On top of all that, teachers had to juggle the needs of their own children and other loved ones.
Teachers said they were more likely to quit at the end of the last school year than they were before the pandemic began, the EdWeek survey found.
A Difficult Work Environment
The working conditions survey found that 40 percent of respondents said that caretaking responsibilites made it difficult to do their job, and 16 percent said they were unable to balance their work with other responsibilities at home. Mid-career teachers—who are more likely to have school-aged children—were more likely to have these work-life balance challenges.
Meanwhile, 8 percent of teachers were uncomfortable with the technology needed to teach remotely. This was especially the case for veteran teachers: 22 percent of teachers with three decades of experience said they weren’t comfortable with online teaching tools.
Teachers also reported that their students were less engaged during the spring semester, and about a quarter of teachers said their students lacked the technology needed for remote learning. Teachers in high-poverty schools reported less student engagement than their peers in affluent schools.
But for all of those teachers, supportive school leadership made a difference. Researchers found that teachers who could depend on strong communication, fair expectations, and a recognition of effort from their administrators, along with targeted professional development and the ability to meaningfully collaborate with colleagues, were much less likely to experience declines in their sense of success.
That support “helped to buffer them against the challenges” of switching to remote learning, Kraft said.
Researchers wrote that school leaders could work with teachers to set professional expectations and determine the training they need, as well as design structures for both formal and informal collaboration. Effective school leaders also made sure teachers feel appreciated—in the spring, many administrators helped troubleshoot problems teachers were having, encouraged their staff to set boundaries, and offered scheduling flexibility.
Teachers with supportive school leadership felt less isolated, which bolstered their sense of success, researchers wrote.
A New School Year
Although the spring semester was chaotic and many teachers considered it to be emergency learning, Kraft said he worries that the fall semester could present some of the same problems. About half of the 800 districts in Education Week’s database on school reopenings, which is not nationally representative, have opted to resume in-person instruction at least some days of the week, including four of the 25 largest districts.
“I think for those schools starting remotely, the challenges will be even greater because they won’t have the personal relationships established to draw upon when starting class online,” Kraft said. “Teaching is a relational job. It is about knowing your students, knowing their individual strengths and areas for improvement, knowing what motivates them, connecting with them—that is so hard to do in a remote context.”
To help tackle that problem, some schools are hosting socially distanced meet-and-greets, where teachers can meet their students in person from a safe distance. For example, elementary students at Copeland Manor School in Libertyville, Ill., got to meet their teacher for 30 minutes on the school’s front lawn before classes started. And incoming kindergartners at Popp’s Ferry Elementary School in Biloxi, Miss., waved to their new teachers from their cars in a drive-through line.
School leaders will also have to help meet teachers’ needs as professionals and help create conditions that will allow them to be successful, Kraft said.
“It takes dedicated school leadership, clear communication, [and] coherent school practices that allows teachers to focus on their core jobs,” he said. “This is challenging for everyone, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Image: Lily Hart, a foreign language teacher at Bellows Falls Union High School, works with her students online from her Keene, N.H., home on March 31. —Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.