Reflections on Teaching in Crisis Contexts (3 of 4) - Your mental health and well-being are critical in a crisis
This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.
Increasing teacher wellbeing increases student motivation, self-esteem, attitudes, and overall learning.
Through international humanitarian agencies and local government or third sector services, there are a plethora of evidence-based guidelines available to support teacher mental health and wellbeing. Although highly valuable, in my own work I struggle adhering to specific and consistent mental health and well-being strategies or practices. I have diverse tools in my kit to draw upon when required, but my own way of thinking and working adheres more to big concepts or theories and their connection or relevance to my professional role and the challenging situations I work in.
Crisis contexts change rapidly, causing unpredictable emotional peaks and troughs. As you steer yourself through complex situations that may feel out of your control, as you achieve miniscule wins against insurmountable odds, or finally achieve a big breakthrough despite multiple setbacks, your mental health and well-being can be taken for a tumultuous ride. In the midst of a crisis you might be mourning your own loss or fearing further harm at the same time as teaching, where children and adolescents’ learning and well-being depends on your ability to perform; inevitably, this amplifies your stress levels, anxiety, and emotional fatigue.
As mentioned in part 1, common factors that enhance motivation, resilience, and educational success in crises are an agentic mindset and a strong sense of self-efficacy, albeit with keen self-awareness for when personal downtime is needed to process, grieve, and re-energize. For me, agency and self-efficacy are the big concepts that I subscribe to; I am familiar with the research (see below) and reflect regularly on the extent to which my inner-voice and behaviors are representative. To do this well though, it’s important to lift your line of sight above the trenches; visualise the bigger picture or the profundity of the situation; configure or reconcile your own mind with who you are and want to be as a teacher and leader; connect the difference to be made with the decisions you make and actions you take; and ultimately, craft the lasting narrative that you want this experience to create.
Multiple studies have demonstrated positive effects on child and adolescent wellbeing and performance associated with increasing teacher wellbeing (Hone & Quinlan, 2019). Evidence also shows that teachers with high levels of self-efficacy are able to set and achieve goals and implement new and innovative teaching strategies, which leads them to feel more satisfied, motivated, and committed to their work (Frisoli, Finder, Falk & Varni. 2019). These same studies highlight that teacher self-efficacy predicts children and adolescents’ motivation, self-esteem, and prosocial attitudes; symbiotically, their own self-efficacy and attitude towards learning improves in parallel with their teachers’. On the other hand, teachers with low or weak self-efficacy are at risk of experiencing increased stress, burnout, and anomie, which leads to impaired classroom relationships (Bandura, 1982; Frisoli, 2013). We can speculate that the inverse is true for children and adolescents, and that this reality is further aggravated in a crisis context, too.
In their landscape review of teacher well-being in crisis contexts, Frisoli et al (2019) state that strong self-efficacy is necessary for agency. They posit that at the heart of building self-confidence to try new things is the ability to recover, reflect, and regain a sense of agency, which is the power to reshape your environment and determine your own destiny. Renowned Stanford social psychologist Albert Bandura (2001) writes that human agency is embedded in a positive theory of the self, symbolized in self-organizing, proactive, self-reflective, and self-regulative behaviours. Echoing the notions presented above, he states that self-efficacy encompasses feelings of self-worth, belief in one’s abilities, and the ability to change or improve one’s own behaviour. In terms of teacher mental health and wellbeing in times of crisis, Bandura’s research on self-efficacy and agency indicates that:
- Teachers who have a strong belief in their capabilities redouble their efforts and figure out better ways to master contextual challenges and remain resilient to the demoralizing effects of adversity;
- Teachers belief in their coping capabilities also affects their vulnerability to stress and depression in threatening or taxing situations;
- Teachers who believe they have no control or influence over the crisis experience high anxiety, dwell on their coping deficiencies, view many aspects of the crisis as fraught with danger, magnify or catastrophize potential risks, and worry about perils that rarely happen or can be easily mitigated.
Presenting and promoting adherence to the concepts above in a context like COVID-19 is admittedly problematic. Many of our protective factors - the conditions or interventions needed to support our wellbeing and development, guide our thinking, and sustain our practice - are more difficult to access in a time of quarantine and isolation. Furthermore, these recommendations are not calibrated to clear or standardized expectations for teachers’ new roles and responsibilities in the COVID-19 era. As such, I encourage you to set your own standard, and in doing so embrace and impart the concepts of self-efficacy and agency relative to your own reality and needs. To paraphrase Dr. Lucy Hone, let’s not lose what we have to what we have already lost.
Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 1-26.
Frisoli, P. S. J. (2013). Teachers’ experiences of professional development in (post) crisis Katanga province, southeastern Democratic Republic of Congo: a case study of teacher learning circles. [PhD dissertation]. Amherst: University of Massachusetts.
Frisoli, P. Finder, J. Falk, D. Varni, E. (2019) Landscape Review: Teacher Well-being in Low Resource, Crisis, and Conflict-affected Settings. Education and Equity Research Initiative. Washington DC.
Hone, L. Quinlan, D. (2019) Working towards wellbeing. In SET: Student and Staff Wellbeing. 2019:1 NZCER, Wellington. P50.
The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.