How To Support Teachers' Well-Being During COVID-19? Prioritize Relationships With Students.

Our guest authors today are Kristabel Stark, postdoctoral research associate at the University of Maryland, and Nathan Jones, associate professor of special education and education policy at Boston University. 

As schools around the country get ready to reopen this month, we’ve heard a lot of talk about masks, ventilation systems, tablets, and internet access. But in the midst of these logistical conversations, it’s been easy to overlook the thing that matters most for a successful return to school: teachers.  For teachers, factors associated with COVID-19 have challenged core dimensions of their work. As school gets underway this year, and building and district administrators strategize how to go about rebuilding again in the midst of a pandemic, our research suggests that one action is critical: prioritizing relationship building between teachers and students. We find that, of all of teachers’ daily activities, it is their work with students that is most strongly associated with positive emotions. And, this relationship actually intensified in the early months of the pandemic.

We did not set out to write a COVID paper. In the fall of 2019, we set out to conduct a longitudinal study of teachers’ daily work experiences, including how they budgeted their time across activities and how their emotions varied within and across schooldays. In the study, nearly 250 teachers in two urban school districts completed time diary surveys in which they recorded how long they spent on various activities, who they spent their time with, and how they felt during these activities and interactions.  We wanted to understand how teachers’ emotions were associated with specific professional activities, and how those emotions changed over the course of a school year. But of course, we didn’t foresee that, midway through data collection, a global pandemic would emerge, temporarily transforming the nature of teachers’ work lives and professional experiences.

It’s easy to forget how quickly the ground shifted underneath schools. The teachers in our sample, like many others across the country, were told on a Thursday afternoon in March 2020 that school buildings would close on the following Monday. Educators, students, parents alike hoped that the closures would be temporary. Within a week, teachers were familiarizing themselves with online learning platforms, adapting instructional materials for circumstances they were not meant for, collaborating with colleagues and administrators to navigate greatly reduced instructional minutes, and, crucially, working to make sure that their students were safe and accounted for, as well as able to access remote instruction.

Our study results speak to teachers’ resilience in the face of these changes and, ultimately, of the importance of teacher-student relationships. Prior to the pandemic, the single activity most strongly associated with positive emotional experiences was working with students. Interestingly, once the pandemic hit, the intensity of their positive emotions when interacting with students was actually higher during the weeks immediately following school building closures, than before. While teachers have been accused of not stepping up to the plate, we found that teachers in our study felt more determined to meet their students’ needs in the weeks following COVID-related nationwide school shutdowns.

We’re not alone, or the first, in noting the urgency of teacher-student relationships in the wake of the pandemic. But while many researchers have focused on the importance of these relationships for students’ emotional wellbeing and academic progress, our research demonstrates that student-teacher relationships are just as important and meaningful for teachers.

Why should we care so much about teachers’ emotions? Prior research demonstrates there is a connection between teachers’ emotional well-being and their willingness to stay in the profession; teacher shortages and teacher retention are longstanding issues that have only increased during the pandemic. But teachers don’t have unlimited emotional resources—and we don’t have unlimited teachers. While teachers in our study rose to the occasion, prioritizing and deeply investing in their students as the pandemic upended their work and their lives, we don’t know how long they were able to sustain this initial response.  Other studies have shown that, as the pandemic wore on, teachers across the country reported feeling demoralized and emotionally depleted. With ongoing teacher shortages, particularly in high-needs neighborhoods, which were hit particularly hard by the pandemic, we can’t afford to lose our teachers.

So what can administrators do? Prioritize—and support—teachers’ efforts to build relationships with their students. They can limit the extent to which additional planning and administrative responsibilities are placed on teachers in efforts to respond to the pandemic. Such efforts alone will likely not be enough to combat the levels of stress and burnout teachers have experienced this year.  But in the midst of so many technical solutions to address the current situation – e.g., high dose tutoring, extended days, summer school –our research gently reminds administrators to make space for relationship building, which has always mattered but appears even more central in times of upheaval and uncertainty.