There can be no more important time to reflect on teachers, their performance and their wellbeing than following the pandemic’s disruption to normal schooling.
New South Wales schools have started to spend their share of the $337 million made available by the State Government for tutoring to help students who fell behind during COVID-19, which while welcome is not without its challenges (Gore, 2021).
But we can’t lose sight of the impact the period of remote learning and its aftermath has had on teachers, in particular their morale.
A significant dip in teacher morale
At times during the pandemic, the status of teachers appeared to be just below that of nurses and doctors on the ‘frontline’. When other people were ordered to work from home and keep their children home if they could, most teachers were expected to be at school, caring for the children of essential workers and delivering lessons face-to-face, via paper and online. Teachers quickly pivoted to and from modes of learning and there are countless stories of heroic efforts as teachers delivered material to homes, made phone calls and provided other support for children and their families.
This is testament to the commitment they have to their students.
However, the increased and complex workload took its toll. Our research shows that teacher morale was significantly lower in 2020 than in 2019, and lower at the end of 2020 than at the start – a pattern not found in 2019 (Gore et al,. 2020).
As a so-called caring profession, teachers’ capacity to sustain this level of work and commitment over the long term could be compromised if their morale does not lift.
Student learning loss
There were widespread predictions of ‘learning loss’ as a result of the pandemic, and the NSW Government’s Check In assessments did find that some students fell behind.
Despite such predictions, our research involving 3030 Year 3 and 4 students from 97 schools found that a majority achieved as expected in reading and maths, and some even did better than expected (Gore et al., 2021b).
Arguably, if these students had fallen behind during the move to learning from home, it was the hard work of their teachers once they were back at school that ensured achievement was as strong as usual, at least in maths and reading.
These findings can be some comfort to teachers and parents.
However, our research did show that Year 3 students in less-advantaged schools achieved less growth in maths (equivalent to two months) in 2020, compared to Year 3 students the year before. This disadvantage cannot be allowed to become further entrenched.
The focus of the NSW Government’s tutoring program should rightly be on helping students who did fall behind to catch up. And using the opportunity of the additional funding and personnel in schools to do something about longstanding inequities.
But there must also be a focus on helping teachers recover.
The positive impact of professional development
Following a 12-month investigation, Professor Geoff Gallop handed down the Valuing the teaching profession report, which identified issues such as teachers’ work and workloads, recruitment and retention, and status and remuneration. Teachers had told the inquiry they face too much red tape, poor workforce planning and constant change, and need more time to plan and collaborate with colleagues (Gallop et al., 2021).
Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge, in his recent Menzies Research Centre address, has said there must be a focus on improving student outcomes by improving the quality of teaching and focusing on evidence-backed practices and professional development.
The NSW Department of Education is currently undertaking a review and reaccreditation of all professional development providers. These moves at all levels of government are welcome, however we argue that as well as improving the quality of teaching, professional development that has a positive impact on teacher morale must also be the focus.
Our research on the Quality Teaching Rounds (QTR) approach to professional development has not only demonstrated that teacher participation improves student outcomes, but also lifts the quality of teaching, teacher morale and school culture (Gore et al., 2021a).
By working to collaboratively improve their teaching in professional learning communities, teachers report feeling ‘energised’ by taking part in QTR. Importantly, these results are consistent for beginning and experienced teachers, teachers working in high schools and primary schools, and in every subject area.
Recovery goes hand in hand
Teacher morale and wellbeing are foundational to student achievement.
If we are to help our students recover from the pandemic, both in terms of their learning outcomes and their wellbeing, then we must also focus on our teachers.
Let’s try to hold on to and promote those positive attitudes our communities held towards teachers during the pandemic, when they soldiered on to make sure none of their students were left behind.
Much of the stress teachers experienced was a result of feeling they could not deliver for their students. However, they did deliver as our research makes clear.
Gallop, G., Kavanagh, T., & Lee, P. (2021). Report of Valuing the Teaching Profession – an independent inquiry. New South Wales Teachers Federation. https://www.nswtf.org.au/files... (PDF, 5.9MB)
Gore, J., Fray, L., Miller, D., Harris, J. & Taggart, W. (2020). 2020 Report to the NSW Department of Education: Evaluating the impact of COVID-19 on NSW schools. The University of Newcastle, Australia. https://www.newcastle.edu.au/r...
Gore, J. M., Miller, A., Fray, L., Harris, J., & Prieto, E. (2021a). Improving student achievement through professional development: Results from a randomised controlled trial of Quality Teaching Rounds. Teaching and Teacher Education, 101, 103297.
Gore, J., Fray, L., Miller, A., Harris, J. & Taggart, W. (2021b). The impact of COVID-19 on student learning in New South Wales primary schools: an empirical study. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-33. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13384...
Gore, J. (2021, March 22). COVID coaches: tutoring only works when backed by quality teaching directed at the students who really missed out. AARE Blog. https://www.aare.edu.au/blog/?...
As a school leader, have you gathered feedback from staff about their experience of teaching and learning during COVID-19? How has the pandemic affected their welfare and morale? How can this knowledge inform your professional learning and staff support planning?