Covid-19: importance of resilience and relationships | Education Support
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Covid-19: importance of resilience and relationships

16th September 2020

In light of our report on the impact of Covid-19 on education staff, Adrian Bethune explores how resilience helps us cope better in the face of adversity and just how crucial relationships and support networks are at times of need.

Teaching is a stressful profession at the best of times but during a global pandemic, it was likely to test the mental health and resilience of even the hardiest education professional. Which was why I found the results of the Education Support's Covid-19 and the classroom report on the impact on the mental health an wellbeing of those working in education during Covid-19 so interesting. The report highlighted some groups whose mental health actually improved, despite the majority worsening, it showed that resilience helps us cope better in the face of adversity and just how crucial relationships and support networks are at times of need.

Who coped, who didn’t?

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic affected education professionals differently. Fifty per cent all education professionals experienced worsening mental health, 29% remained the same and 18% actually showed improvements! Teachers were most likely to suffer the biggest declines in their mental health, whereas senior leaders were most likely to be in the group who showed improvements.

There will be a range of factors for why this was the case. Some educators will have worked in schools and colleges that supported them very well during the pandemic, and where working practices were sensible and reasonable given the context. Other staff will have worked in settings that required lots of them in the form of live online lessons, regular meetings and demanding expectations with the setting and marking of work (students not completing work was one of the most challenging aspects for many staff). Also, staff trying to juggle working from home with childcare are likely to have faired worse than those staff with fewer caring commitments at home.

More resilient = better mental health

It was no surprise to read teachers and senior leaders who reported having higher levels of resilience (defined in the survey as “the ability to adapt and recover after experiencing difficulties or challenges in life”) had better mental health. It’s when we cannot adapt and recover after experiencing difficulties that we start to feel overwhelmed and anxious and depressing feelings start to creep in.

Around two thirds of teachers reported high levels of resilience compared to 72% of senior leaders. This makes sense when you think that roughly a third of teachers leave the profession within five years of qualifying. Are the teachers who leave the profession normally the least resilient ones? Possibly. Or maybe they’re just the most enlightened! Either way, the pandemic has highlighted that in intensely stressful and pressured situations, we need resilience to help us cope and ride out those tough times.

Relationships are the bedrock of resilience

But resilience is often mis-attributed to being some individual trait that you either have or you don’t. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Our levels of resilience are often closely aligned to how strong our social network is. In other words, the stronger our relationships with friends, family and colleagues are, the more we can withstand stressful situations. Relationships build our resilience. It was interesting to see the Education Support data in this regard and how many education workers turned to partners, friends and family and colleagues for support. However, a staggering 24% of those surveyed said they did not access any support during the pandemic. Although not clear from the data, I suspect this group would make up the majority of the education staff who reported lower levels of resilience. It is, after all, other people that help us bounce back from difficult times. At the very least, these colleagues of ours should be made aware of the support offered by organisations like Education Support so they have someone to turn to when things get tough. I have also written before about the need to develop positive relationships in educational settings and how happier schools prioritise connection, fairness, empowerment, challenge and a shared sense of purpose. Whether we are in a global pandemic or teaching in less stressful times, we need to remember these key principles to help our staff and students flourish no matter the circumstances.

Lessons learned?

I can’t help but keep thinking about those teachers in the report whose mental health actually improved during the pandemic. Just think about that for a second. There were some staff who actually felt better working in education during a global health emergency, where a deadly virus was killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world. What does that tells us about teaching in ‘normal’ times? What was unique about the 18% whose mental health improved? It’s hard to say from the data but, anecdotally, I spoke to many teachers who continued to teach during lockdown and really enjoyed it. They broadly said that they loved being able to focus on spending good quality time with children, ensuring they were safe, whilst teaching them stuff. There was no threat of Ofsted, no learning walks, no performance management targets, no pointless meetings, no high-pressured exams. Essentially, it was good teaching without all the accountability and meaningless nonsense. I think we could really learn something from that.

Adrian Bethune is a part-time primary teacher, founder of www.teachappy.co.uk, and created the animation Can School Make Your Happier? during lockdown.

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