Learning from lockdown – teacher wellbeing

The COVID-19 stage four restrictions in Victoria last year imposed a swift move to online learning. The first wave provided a short but sobering taste of the inherent challenges for teachers, students and families. In response, The Knox School, an independent co-educational K-12 school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, drew on existing relationships with academics from Monash University to research what teachers learned from this initial experience.

Online focus groups with 50 teachers, across all levels of the school, revealed three key areas of change: teacher agency; school community collaboration; and, teacher wellbeing. This final reader submission in a three-part series draws from the experiences of middle leader Melodie Matheson and explores how teacher wellbeing became a transformative influence on her leadership.

The struggle for work life balance

Online learning during the lockdown created tensions for teachers. Many worked to fulfill their professional responsibilities in ways which matched their personal beliefs about effective and personally satisfying practice, while also trying to find time to ‘switch off’ from what seemed a relentless workload. An effective balance between these tensions was needed or teacher wellbeing would easily become collateral damage in this process. This balance was critical for teacher health, happiness and productivity.

Middle leaders supporting teacher wellbeing

In this time of intense change, focus group feedback showed that student wellbeing understandably became a key concern for educators. Yet, leaders within The Knox School, such as Melodie, recognised the interconnection between both student and teacher wellbeing. ‘Wellbeing became the number one priority for both staff and students,’ she says.

A new timetable was created to break up the academic week. The five-day week was rearranged in the following way: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday focused on teaching, including discipline areas and curriculum development. Wednesday became a day focused entirely on student wellbeing and was renamed ‘Wellbeing Wednesday’. Melodie explains. ‘Creating a Wellbeing Wednesday enabled students to largely work asynchronously while being supported with wellbeing and physical activities explored through pastoral groupings.

‘The circumstances demanded a wellbeing program that was relevant to student needs in the home learning environment. Thus, pastoral leaders were expected to create, resource and implement wellbeing lessons and activities in tight timeframes drawing from few pre-existing resources. As a middle leader, I had to walk a fine line in supporting staff to manage programs aimed at student wellbeing whilst being mindful of the impact of this initiative on staff wellbeing.’

Collaboration and clear communication

Melodie reflects how reducing teacher stress relied upon trusting relationships and productive collaboration between colleagues, and between parents and teachers. Clear communication enabled both a sense of mutual ownership of initiatives and reciprocity of patience as these innovations were implemented.

‘A whole school initiative was very ambitious and required clear communication at a number of levels. This involved trial and error of new technologies, collaboration for the initiative to be implemented, and patience for it to resonate within the community.

‘Reflecting on this experience, I learned that showing courage in leadership, communicating clearly and demonstrating the alignment between purpose and action is respected by my colleagues. Staff placed trust in me and forgave me when things seemed imposed or didn’t quite go as planned.’

Moving forward with teacher wellbeing

Through their actions, leadership reinforced the idea that teacher expertise was dependent upon a continued cycle of reflective practice, rather than an endless pursuit for perfection. For Melodie, these considerations were transformative for her leadership.

The experience has increased my awareness around prioritising relationships with staff, using collaborative approaches, providing clear and consistent communication and showing and celebrating courage. Continual demonstration that you are approachable and you care about your colleagues provides a firm basis of trust and familiarity. Openly asking for, and genuinely valuing each contribution, creates an environment of respect and collegiality from which collaboration and creativity can flourish.

‘Communicating clearly and frequently circling back to common purpose provides clear direction,’ Melodie adds. ‘Showing and celebrating the courage to pilot, refine and iterate initiatives, models for staff that we are all learners and provides them with a safe environment in which to experiment and explore their own directions. Offering asynchronous professional development time – along with clear purpose and exemplars – gives staff both space and guidance to develop their own initiatives.’

For Melodie, becoming critically aware of the importance of teacher wellbeing positioned the ideas of gratitude, kindness and contribution as inherent objectives of her leadership. Now as she moves forward, she aims to keep this learning alive.

‘In future, I will endeavour to continually nurture collegial relationships, value collaboration, communicate clearly, show courage and employ a balance of asynchronous and collaborative time. Pursuing this approach will contribute towards enhancing a teacher’s sense of belonging, purpose, autonomy and mastery, which all contribute to their wellbeing.’

Teacher would also love to hear what’s happened in other schools. If you’d like to share your story with readers, get in touch with the team via teachereditorial@acer.org

As a school leader, have you gathered feedback from staff about their experience of teaching and learning during the COVID-19 restrictions? How has this informed your plans for the next 12 months?

Thinking about your own experience, what would you like to take forward into your teaching or leadership practice during 2021? What would you like to leave behind?