As COVID-19 brings uncertainty, stress for teachers, it's time we foster mechanisms that support them
With the changing face of educational systems and processes, it is important to acknowledge the systemic and structural underpinnings of teacher and educator stress that are very unique to this time period.
Note: This piece was collated through interviews with teachers from SSC, ICSE and IGCSE schools in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata. Names marked with “*” are pseudonyms in order to ensure teacher anonymity. The narratives and experiences of these teachers are only a glimpse into the stressors experienced by teachers across the country and are in no way representative of experiences of all teachers.
The recent suicide of a student from Kerala drew attention to the socio-economic disparity in accessibility to education and while student mental health is on the decline, it’s crucial to see its interconnectedness with teacher mental health. Several studies have highlighted the stress and burnout teachers and educators experience. One such example is the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) report that found teachers experiencing an immense amount of occupational stress in comparison to other professionals.
The trajectory of an academic calendar is something we all are extremely familiar with, even if we are not part of the system as employees. With COVID-19 in our lives, the beginning of this academic year looks a whole lot different for those involved in school systems — from teachers, parents, students as well as school administrators. With the changing face of educational systems and processes, it is important to acknowledge the systemic and structural underpinnings of teacher and educator stress that are very unique to this time period.
The shift to online modalities of learning has seen an increase in documentation, a restructuring in the way content is curated and delivered, and a rapid change in the job roles and expectations of teachers. For Roshni, a school administrator in Chennai, revisiting the idea of routine that a school structure is assumed to provide was extremely stressful. “Sometimes, there are siblings using the same device, or we need to pace the amount of screen time for the kids, the very idea of ‘school as an institution that provides, a shared sense of familiar routine’ is being challenged in these times,” she says.
For teachers of low-income schools whose students have either gone to their native villages during the lockdown or are deprived of basic necessities like food, reaching out to them is a main area of concern; “padhana toh door ki baat hain," (teaching is the last of their priorities) asserts Mayuri, Sr Program Manager, Apnishala, a foundation working on socio-emotional learning in municipal schools and organisations in the M-west ward and L-ward in Mumbai.
While the socio-economic disparity in accessibility to technology has forced low-income schools to rethink how they prioritise otherwise unquestioned beliefs of ‘completing syllabi’, it was interesting to note how net connectivity, absence of home laptops and negotiating one’s ease with technology is a source of immense distress even to teachers of middle-income and high-income schools. Lalita, a 54-year-old teacher of a government-aided school in Mumbai, narrates how stressful her experience has been while working with technology to support her students’ learning, “I had a few classes on Zoom and now Google Meet, I was struggling to send invites... even now I am scared, anxious and get disturbed sleep... I struggle to make my PPT."
Even with experience and familiarity of content, some teachers feel pressured and individually accountable to think “out of the box” and create new ways to deliver their content within the scope of online platforms. For instance, video sessions have forced Natasha*, a music teacher from Mumbai to rethink her lesson plan and the way she accommodates her classes to meet the limitations imposed by video sessions. She explains, “I used to play the video and kids used to sing... I could make them sing together, right now I can't make them sing together; because of individual net connection, voices lag and it's a big mess.” In addition to these limitations, teachers express a sense of dissatisfaction at not being able to pick up on non-verbal cues, get timely feedback and responses from students that are vital in giving them an idea about students’ level of comprehension. That being said, an overall supportive school management can go a long way in easing these stressors, as many teachers also point to how peer learning, technology training, and supportive supervisors have helped them cope with this transition better.
As in most work-from-home cultures, the blurred line between work and life has been a source of distress and anxiety for many professionals during the lockdown. For instance, Daniel, a teacher in a low-income school, says, “Just because everything is happening online it is assumed that everyone is checking their phone all the time... things are informed at odd hours of the night and at short notice.” As teachers make themselves available to answer calls from students, parents and school management, the assumption that teachers can go about their workday as usual, in the absence of the physical environment of the school, doesn’t hold true in reality. While for many teachers, an increase in caregiving load and related chores is an added burden, a lack of physical workspace conducive to attend video calls or record instructional videos is also a pressing issue.
To add to these pressures, there remains a looming sense of uncertainty about the way forward in the academic year — for how long can we carry out online classrooms? How and when will schools function as ‘normal’ and what will ‘normal’ look like in the classroom? These are questions set in a sense of panic, especially for those involved in school systems that in a country like ours, thrive on learning through classroom engagement with technology used merely as an assistive modality, if at all. There is no denying that these stressors that have an impact on teacher mental health are environmental and structural, and emanate from a system that is further draining teachers’ sense of autonomy and empowerment. While the uncertainty of the pandemic takes on a life of its own in the months to come, it becomes crucial to foster mechanisms that support, allow room for error, peer-learning and reframe the narrative that romanticises the emotional labour teachers and educators put into their jobs.
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