Reflections on Teaching in Crisis Contexts (4 of 4) - Focus on what you can influence

Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Teacher Wellbeing

This article is part of a collection of blog posts related to the education in emergencies response to COVID-19.

Neglecting the things that sustain us leads to emotional burnout, relationship breakdowns, and physical exhaustion.

Courtesy of Chris Henderson; original article published on 26 March 2020.

Credit: Avel Chuklanov
Credit: Avel Chuklanov

In Part 2, I wrote that during our transition to lock down some teachers will focus on a return to routines and business as usual (albeit online) and others will embrace the “teachable moment.” Alongside my encouragement to step up and lead through our new normal, what I underemphasized was our need for downtime and a genuine distraction from work. As the “teachable moment” type, when our situation escalated and the likelihood of a COVID-19 lockdown became apparent, concurrent with supporting my colleagues' development of a COVID-19 response plan I committed myself to a generative task outside of my usual work routine, but uniquely targeted towards teachers and education sector leaders who have not experienced a crisis in their own context before. This is how this blog series came about. However, I am also in need of a distraction from the unrelenting COVID-19 newstreams and some time to clear administrative tasks, reflect on the past week’s struggles, and re-energize for the uncertain weeks and months ahead. 

Lucy Hone and Denise Quinlan’s (2019) finding that in a crisis you “help yourself by helping others” rings particularly true at this time. They state that “by helping others we take the attention off ourselves and at the same time feel useful and needed” (p50). I have also seen this adage backfire; especially when we overestimate what we can achieve in a crisis and underestimate the complexity of a situation, the networks and nuanced relationships required to navigate systems, and the emotional energy needed to maintain demanding levels of work. Unequivocally, studies also show that being able to receive help as well as give help in a crisis context is hugely important for our life management and satisfaction, well-being, and overall resilience. We can’t operate on cortisol and adrenaline alone. Neglecting the things that sustain us, such as nutrition, rest, family, friends, and leisure, means that emotional burnout, relationship breakdowns, and physical exhaustion are all too common. This is why it’s so vital to know our own limits, focus on and celebrate our strengths, scan our professional network’s many personality types and complementary capabilities, and hone our aspirations in on what we can meaningfully influence in the moment. Whatever form it takes, our contribution at this time should be valuable and sustainable.

After the 2011 Christchurch Earthquakes the overwhelming sentiment was a need to return children and adolescents to a sense of routine and normalcy as soon as possible. For a majority, school represents safety and security. However, as I was working in under-served and under-represented communities this idea of a return to normal did not sit quite right. For generations, the schooling that I had considered normal, routine, and in the best interests of children and adolescents was instead experienced as marginalizing, minoritizing, and traumatic by some of those I worked with. Could we not leverage this disaster as an opportunity for change? Was this not our chance to collaborate with children, adolescents, and their families to create a better way of doing ‘school’? One in which their voice, experiences, and aspirations governed our design thinking and decision making? These questions were my “teachable moment” and within my network’s sphere of influence. At the same time, in the midst of our crisis, I felt I was rushing headfirst and blind into unchartered territory. This is where my connection with precedents from comparable contexts, mentors, and associated research evidence was grounding and guiding.  

Lynn Davies and Christopher Talbot’s (2008) research details the role of teachers in crises, writing that historically they reinforced the importance of children’ and adolescents’ return to educational routine. However, they also identify growing advocacy for the abilities of children and adolescents in crises, and as a result the demand for teachers to play a more enabling and empowering role in preparedness and recovery processes. Their research also critiques the value placed on getting children back to normal, writing “the implication is that it is simply enough to get children back into schools and that the routines of schooling are as important as the content” (p. 513). Echoing this, Kagawa (2005) acknowledges that “creating a sense of normalcy is now seen as insufficient” (p495).

Davies and Talbot (2008) also promote that teachers in crisis contexts provide children and adolescents with a sense of hope and a means of skills acquisition which provides “entry into the world of those who are making decisions about their lives” (p. 513). Kagawa (2005) adds that the cognitive skills and attitudes required by teachers in crisis contexts are amplified and complex; with cognitive skills including conflict resolution, problem solving, decision making, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence; and attitudinal qualities including tolerance, self-respect, self-esteem, a commitment to justice, bias awareness, and respect for the rights and responsibilities of various stakeholders (p. 497). Although this research is based on traditional crises (conflict and natural disasters) the underlying assumptions are pertinent for COVID-19, too. During the lockdown and our eventual re-opening of schools, we have an opportunity to put our collective cognitive skills and attitudinal qualities to practice and address shortcomings in our respective systems. This is our way of helping others together, thereby helping ourselves. For too many children and adolescents a return to normal is neither ethical or equitable. In this extraordinary moment, as the rulebook is rewritten our profession has the power to influence change.

I encourage you to see the above discussion’s themes as our collective silver-lining. With self-care strategies in place silver-linings are sustaining and vital to our mental health and well-being in a crisis; especially when they relate to areas of our work that we believe in and can influence. As Hone and Quinlan (2019) state, “focus on what matters, and what you can control. Concentrate all your attention and resources (psychological, social, physical, emotional, knowledge) on what you can actually influence” (p50). In psychology this is called “benefit finding” and it is widely promoted as a key well-being and resilience skill.

Angela Duckworth and David Yeager’s (2015) research also introduces concepts that help us categorise and understand factors contributing to our mental health and well-being in a crisis. This ensemble of dispositions and capacities represents teacher self-efficacy and agency in action; it includes goal-directed efforts (grit, self-control, growth mindset), healthy social relationships (gratitude, emotional intelligence, social belonging), and sound judgment and decision making (curiosity, open-mindedness). In summary, for the COVID-19 era we need to identify and embrace our silver-lining; we need to aim our efforts towards an ideal future state that we can visualise and influence; and we need to acknowledge that this crisis gives us the opportunity to devise a better way of working with and for children and adolescents, however and wherever learning takes place.

Whenever it feels like a situation is out of our control, we need to be reminded of Albert Bandura’s (2001) statement that “people are both producers as well as products of social systems and realities” (p21). With this revelation in mind, a key strategy for navigating a crisis is the visualisation of a new future state and setting in place a strategy that will help us get there. From this COVID-19 experience and its concomitant constraints, our civic, economic, educational, and health systems are exposed, with their respective strengths and vulnerabilities laid bare for all to see. In this moment, as teachers and leaders we are forced to reconsider the extent to which children and adolescents, in terms of their learning, health, and well-being, are adequately served by the way things are and how we can help get the system to where it needs to be. As a “teachable moment”, how can classrooms in our future state serve and shape children and adolescents - as present and future citizens and leaders - to be the people our systems need? We are both products and producers of systems afterall.

With this future state and its corresponding assets in mind, now is the time to backwards map ideas and interventions over a set timeline, with set milestones, to make this future state a reality. This future state is our silver lining; the light at the end of our tunnel. Document and backwards map this future state like a strategic plan or framework; not only will it help us record and iterate our thinking and progress as the situation evolves, it will help us identify the people we can influence and the people who can influence us (remember, receiving help is as important to our well-being as giving help). Moreover, it will be work that is personal, a product of our own self-efficacy and agency; a centrepiece or foundation for our own mental health and wellbeing; something to lean on when the odds are against us and something to guide and energize us when we’re on a roll.


Bandura, A. (2001). Social Cognitive Theory: An Agentic Perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 1-26.

Davies, L.. Talbot, C. (2008). Learning in Conflict and Post-Conflict Contexts. Comparative Education Review, 52(4), 509-518.

Duckworth, A. L., & Yeager, D. S. (2015). Measurement Matters: Assessing Personal Qualities Other Than Cognitive Ability for Educational Purposes. Educational researcher (Washington, D.C. : 1972)44(4), 237–251. 

Dweck, Carol S. (2008) Mindset: The New Psychology Of Success. Ballantine Books, New York.

Hone, L. Quinlan, D. (2019) Working towards wellbeing. In SET: Student and Staff Wellbeing. 2019:1 NZCER, Wellington. P50. 

Kagawa, F. (2005). Emergency Education: A Critical Review of the Field. Comparative Education, 41(4), 487-503.


Read Part 1 - How is COVID-19 different?

Read Part 2 - In this moment your mindset matters

Read Part 3 - Your mental health and well-being are critical in a crisis


The views expressed in this blog are the author's own.