Teachers experiencing stress and Burnout with virtual teaching during COVID-19
By: Alleiya Tinglin-Dystant
A day in the life of a teacher looks completely different than it did one year ago. Teachers from all education levels have been affected with burnout and stress when teaching virtually.
Catherine Telesca, a Early Childhood Educator at Humberwood Downs Junior Middle Academy in North Etobicoke remembers her last day in the school. The teacher’s lunchroom was packed with about six people per table, snacks were set up by the sink for everyone to enjoy. It was a regular day.
“I was enjoying lunch with my colleagues then looked towards the TV that had CP 24 in the background and read the headline the province had declared a state of emergency,Telesca said.”What was expected to be a work from home for a two week period kept getting extended and forced teachers to adapt to this new reality of structuring lessons from home and balancing home and work life.
Teachers have had to quickly adapt to an online teaching environment and balance the challenges of everyday life. Ericka Dyck, History Professor at the University Saskatchewan said COVID-19 has affected work flow and productivity and changed her attitude negatively and has not provided opportunities for productivity and resulted in academic coping.
Prior to COVID-19 Dyck was on a routined schedule which incorporated balancing co- parenting for her two young children and balancing her academic work around school activities.
“I appreciated having the ability to have time to research, write and keep up with emails, now I am unable to focus and often find my mind wandering and thinking about groceries and dinner, Dyck said.”
COVID-19 changed the way Dyck perceived goals and she is now using a survival approach making sure her family was safe and understood what was going on with the pandemic.
The approach is also being used towards her students by making sure they were okay as they worried about coursework, tuition, and guilt for being unproductive, so she decided that those deadlines did not matter.
Academic coping was a strategy used for letting go of the feeling of failure and guilt from missing deadlines. During this difficult time it is important not to add extra stress and do what is necessary to cope. “ As teachers we are playing many roles and taking on many responsibilities which cause stress within an academic system especially with COVID-19, she said.”
Teachers who work with younger children have also felt anxiety, frustration, and stress with online teaching and building engagement through a screen. Depending on the student population many teachers have had to rearrange lessons in ways that students would be able to understand adding to the frustration.
“Working from home is draining and rough as my students require extra attention and hands on learning, Telesca said.”
The students that she teaches are four to six years old and are developmentally delayed and have behavioural issues making it difficult to interact with others. The challenge has been structuring lesson plans for austic and non-verbal students as they all have different learning speeds and capacities. Telesca was reminded that she needed to be very involved and in constant communication with parents to make sure someone would be able to oversee the child with online learning.
“ When I am online I must use lots of visuals and go at a slow enough pace to allow for understanding, she said.”If a parent or guardian was not around to supervise and make sure the child when logged on then no lesson would take place affecting the child’s learning and put pressure on Telesca’s teaching to get that child up to date with what was missed.
Teachers have been put in a hard place noticing students not being able to interact with students in an in-person setting which limits the way in which a teacher could help. There have been ongoing discussions with the Ontario government to allow schools to open for in-person learning as teachers and parents have expressed frustration.
Teachers in the Toronto region have moved back to in person learning on Feb.16,2020 which have allowed for a more personalized approach especially with the students who require more personalized hands on learning and helped with some of the frustrations with virtual teaching.
In person teaching has continued to be a challenge as case numbers have risen within schools resulting in closures on April 12, 2021 due to stopping and slowing community spread and the return of remote learning causing frustration of teachers picking up where they left off to adapt to the ongoing changes.
A study was conducted by the Western University University research ethics board focusing on burnout and teacher compassion fatigue was taken into consideration as an under researched area for Canadian educators.
Burnout is described as a long- term chronic state of stress that involves three components: emotional exhaustion,lack of personal accomplishment, and depersonalization.Emotional exhaustion involves a lack of energy that negatively impacts a person’s ability to care about the people they work with. Lack of personal accomplishment is the feeling of not being able to relate to the group they are working with. Depersonalization is about an individual’s experience that is related to a sense of detachment and lack sympathy towards others. Compassion fatigue is also addressed throughout the research and often used as a means to understand stressful situations.
Compassion fatigue is described as an emotional and behavioural reaction from a person experiencing a traumatic event which adds stress caused by trying to help traumatized people.
During this time Telesca was able to put herself in the role of the parents who had to as well cope with their child’s temper tantrums due to the lack of understanding of COVID-19.
“ I have had multiple meetings with a parent who’s son refused to wear a mask for in class instruction”,she said.” It became very apparent that the student did not understand which was causing the parents frustration as well as well as herself.
At one point Telesca had to have a conversation with the principal to discuss this issue further as she became fearful for the safety of other students and herself. The principal suggested that students stay at home for a couple of days and they would come up with a
plan of how that student would get reintegrated back into the classroom with the use of videos, parent instruction, and eventually following the other children.
“I really felt for this child because I know how much he struggles as he is non-verbal and requires so much hands on interaction and attention”,Telesca said. With keeping to social distancing measures she tries her hardest to focus on small successes and grasping their understanding before moving on. It is important to not take on the stress of them not understanding but instead be a support system that is adaptable.
The compassion fatigue and burnout study polled 64 Canadian educators across south western Ontario participating in a two hour voluntary workshop on emotional labour and consequences experienced by educators.
It revealed that teachers felt the most stressed over certain job aspects like time constraints,performance evaluations,and school politics. Overall, educators who experienced burnout and compassion fatigue were negatively affected even though teachers are doing well so will their students. Job loss and security has been a major stress associated with COVID-19 and recent budget costs.
Job losses in the profession of teaching have been impacted by budget cuts put forward by the Ford government which have caused so much uncertainty for what classrooms will look like in the future. “COVID-19 has added stress to the uncertainty of new and contract faculty which has resulted in losing about 10 teachers,”Telesca said.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) is Canada’s largest school district and budget cuts mandated by the province impact class sizes and reduce funding from the government. An attrition fund of $1.6 billion was announced by the board of education to protect teachers positions as class sizes will expand over the next four years.
In high schools the average will change from 22 to 28 and in elementary school from grades four to eight it will be from 23 to 24 students. Over the next four years the government plans to cut 3,500 teaching positions through retirement and resignation; however it will put more stress on teachers during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“ Imagine thinking you were guaranteed contacts and now they are gone, this is the reality so many of my colleagues have had to face prior to and during COVID-19,”Telesca said.
Job security during this pandemic has been brought to the forefront. People who were expected to have contacts extended or fulfill new positions were suddenly being laid off. Dyck, who is a full time professor, says she has been working in a tenure position which provides her with a substantial amount of security that not many people have. “There have been many wage rollbacks and academic positions being cut all together and it is difficult to imagine the academic routines that may be in store for us after COVID, she said.”
The pandemic in many ways has forced people to to acknowledge unrealistic standards of productivity and performance were being put in place Dyck said. It has also caused a shift in thinking and reflecting has made a difference in the way inequalities within a school system were addressed. Ben Anderson-Nathe is a professor in child and parent studies at the University of Portland and said many students who are living in lower-income neighbourhoods have posed challenges with COVID affecting social services that were once provided by the school. During this time the school has overlooked these challenges by not addressing access.
With all the social distancing measures and lockdowns in place Nathe said the school assumed that everyone had computers when in actuality many students relied on computers in a school or public setting and as a result could not access classes or complete homework.
Technology has brought on other challenges Nathe says which include adapting to home learning schedules often putting parents in the role of a teacher to make sure their children did not fall behind with learning and following along with zoom lessons. Research has shown there is a lot of pressure felt and placed on children to perform as they would usually within a school setting.
“I watched one of my students have a tantrum online as she struggled to unmute and raise her hand. I felt so helpless as I could only use my voice to try and navigate the student and most of the pressure is placed on the student and parents, Telesca said.” Nathe says this way of thinking is not fair to parents and students because it forces them to adjust and navigate this new way of learning and does not consider that all students, especially those with disabilities do not learn at the same pace.
In many ways COVID-19 has altered the student role Nathe said this is because the role has become extended and a part of a parent’s role that has accommodated it. Online learning has been a frustration for many parents who may have concerns with exactly what the children are learning, how to navigate using some of the technology and the skills teachers are using. Parents have felt so overwhelmed with the pressure to navigate that they have resulted in online tutoring to help. Tutoring platforms provide a personal experience geared towards each student’s specific needs.
(Image Courtesy of Lorenzo Raquio)
Lorenzo Raquio, Accounting Tutor at Tutor Doctor said many parents have been reaching out to the facility to keep up with the demand of online work. Raquio has about three students he tutors on a weekly basis as he specifically teaches accounting and math. “I have spoken with parents who have disclosed math is not their strong suit and to avoid confusion and frustration a tutor was needed, he said.” The period when demand was the highest was from January to April as he taught a mix of high school students who were on a semester based schedule and some elementary students.
Tutor Doctor is a personalized tutoring service that is available in -person and online that caters to each student’s learning style and needs and then a child is matched with a suitable tutor that is approved by a parent. Raquio has been a Tutor Doctor since 2019 and feels the COVID-19 pandemic really altered the tutoring experience. “Prior to the pandemic I was going to students housing and building rapport with them and their parents and get a bit of insight into their living environment, “he said. Raquio felt that when a student was comfortable in their environment they were able to really open up and feel comfortable discussing areas within their work that they struggled with.
In an online setting this may be a little difficult especially for new students Raquio said because meeting someone for the first time through a camera can be awkward and there is less monitoring. “ It takes longer for the student to warm up and some students choose not to show their face on camera so it’s difficult to see engagement,” Raquio said.
When tutoring he went in with an open-mind , read chapters of accounting and practiced solutions to keep on top of skills. Throughout the online experience Raquio reflected how much he learned as each student varied from one another.
“ I had one student who was very dedicated to doing well and would contact me in advance to get help with assignments which I really appreciated and helped me to organize lessons,” he said.
The results of test scores were the most positive when students put in the most effort Raquio said which gave him a sense of satisfaction in his work. On the other hand he also had some students who would email him last minute to go through chapters often for tests the next day. “I often felt pressure to try and motivate students like this to reach out to me sooner which was affecting my mental process of how to prepare,”Raquio said.
Many teachers can experience burnout when trying to produce results under pressure which is unhealthy and unrealistic. Raquio quickly realized that it was up to the student to properly prepare and possibly ask in advance if they wanted positive results.Teachers need to remember that they can only focus on what they can control Raquio said and to avoid burnout not to take on the stress of results associated with how a student prepares.This proves that a student can also have an impact on the quality of their education.
In a virtual setting there is a focus on ongoing professional development around online teaching and learning practices. Teachers have had to sit down and go over curriculum and see what could be transferred to an online setting. “When transferring to online we had to decide what students could do, how we engage students, and support challenges associated with different age groups and cognitive development,”said Telesca.
When discussing school from K to 12 during COVID-19 and student success results may vary depending on age and instruction environment.Younger children often require more supervision in comparison to older students who have the ability to work independently. Research supported by the Jama Pediatrics Association said that virtual learning is not for everyone. Students individually have to be motivated and supported and differences in their environment and access to instructional support can cause variations in success. Raquio found that students’ successes also depended on age and environment.
“I felt that my younger students really needed the hands on approach that would be better suited within a school setting as there was constant parent facilitation to make sure quality of education was accessed,”he said.
The quality of teaching is viewed as a significant problem during COVID-19 Telesca said this because of inequalities within education that pose challenges for teachers to find solutions.
The journal of education and research found that quality teaching is considered a source for teaching methods to construct the learning outcomes of teachers. Promoting quality research is an effort that has to be addressed on three specific levels institutional,program, and individual.
Institutional focuses on policies, designs, and supports the institution. The program level consists of activities that are used to evaluate content and delivery of programs through the department.The last is the individual level which focuses on initiatives to support teachers to achieve goals by encouraging innovation to help students improve learning utilizing a student-centered teaching learning approach.
Supporting quality teaching at the program level is the most important and a key element in improving teaching Throughout a students development they are being prepared for the next step in advancement until they enter the workforce. During this time of uncertainty teachers are focusing on student learning outcomes and a student centered learning environment. (Image Courtesy Irfan Aslam)
Irfan Aslam, Professor at York University in Nursing said they had to incorporate theory with practicum which has been a challenge.
“One of the biggest challenges with online teaching is that the human component is missing which causes frustration when explaining simulation scenarios,” Aslam said. Students have said they felt simulations were not real and they were many glitches when they were practicing making it unrealistic.
Within a traditional school setting skills like taking blood pressure, feeding, bathing, and administering medications would be learned by practicing and discussing any questions and concerns as a group.“I feel an immense amount of pressure to go out of my way to make this experience better as I find myself using spare time to find youtube videos, and games that have that human component,” he said. Often to help with the stress of being overwhelmed and trying to find strategies to cope he asks the students what would work best to help with a student centered learning.
The pandemic has really been an eye opening experience for Aslam as he felt compelled to volunteer at a long term care home to help understaffed nurses and PSWs. “ It became quite clear to me that I was suddenly juggling an insane workload as I was working my full time position, volunteering part-time and taking care of my family and feeling so burned out,” he said. It came to a point where Aslam was putting himself last which grew concerns of stress and he slowly began to isolate himself.
A meeting was held with all of the teachers to discuss their stress and figure out strategies to help. Feelings of isolation and mental health have been common amongst teachers throughout the pandemic and is something no one should have to go through alone.
A study from the University of British Columbia in the school of mental health took place examining the relationship between quarantine, mental health, and suicidal ideation. The study took place from May 14 to May 29 , 2020. It surveyed 3,000 Canadians randomly selected through Maru a national polling vendor. The study found that participants’ experience resulted in higher levels of suicidal ideation and self harm within the first two weeks before the survey. “When the pandemic first began people became anxious as they were all of a sudden forced to adapt to isolation with no timeframe,”Aslam said.
Research had shown that depression, anxiety, and other mental health impacts caused by the pandemic not to mention the fact that there were growing concerns about increased suicide rates on a global scale and as a result of the constant lockdowns. “ Many people thought the lockdowns would help case numbers to be lowered but they have continued to get extended and teachers have continued to feel these effects,” Aslam said. Mental health will continue to be accessed as the pandemic continues. People will quarantine, research that shows that accounting for the reason for quarantine made a difference in measures used to reduce mental health impacts this experience caused.
Some findings in the research were individuals who have quarantined due to recent travel did not report worse mental health or suicidal ideation compared to those who have not quarantined. Details do still need to be provided for how mental health is handled as a result of quarantine that showed increased risk during and after quarantine. As the pandemic still continues over a year later research recommends that associations between COVID-19, mental health and quarantine still need to be monitored. “It is important to remember we cannot stop following restrictions and procedures,there are people out there who still do not believe this pandemic is real and it’s really taking a toll on the mental well being of frontline workers like myself.”, Aslam said.
Despite feeling the impacts of mental health and COVID-19, teachers and other professions are looking for ways to manage and cope with stress and burnout that has arisen with virtual teaching he said. The pandemic has really brought teachers together as they are now checking in with one another through meetings on a frequent basis Telesca said.
“What has helped me get through being stressed and out of my lowest point was looking at the little things I had like health, my job, and often used humour to cope,”Aslam said.
Humour was considered an important factor that helped with wellbeing and is viewed as a factor in the relationship associated with social support to help with burnout in school teachers. A study was conducted and surveyed 539 school teachers in Hong Kong examining direct and indirect effects of humour. It found that higher levels of humour had lower levels of emotional exhaustion and higher levels of accomplishments. When Aslam began to watch some of his favourite shows like The Daily show which covers satirical news internationally he began to feel more at ease and be able to find humour in stressful situations.
The research related to the study has shown that humour is believed to not only help with burnout but also help with rising awareness about coping using supportive resources which boost self-esteem and social support. When staff meetings were held, suggestions were made by Telesca to start implementing humour within meetings for professional development as it would continue to help teachers.
In many ways teachers have had to become resilient and navigate all the constant changes.
COVID-19 has allowed for the overcoming of challenges and allowed for opportunities to become resilient. “ This pandemic has pushed me to work on my technical skills that I would rely on my children to help me with and I still continue to learn which is important,” Telesca said.
The University of British Columbia has looked at rethinking education amid COVID-19 and creating new opportunities.The research has shown that COVID-19 has allowed the classroom to progress forward by allowing students to work at their own pace with recorded lectures where students could go over the lesson multiple times for clarification. As students continue to adapt to changes many have requested accommodations for completing assignments and dealing with personal issues Aslam said.
“ As students are learning more on an independent basis lectures are being recorded so that they are able to go back and reference material that would not be available within a classroom setting, he said”.
Research has also proven that COVID-19 has created endless opportunities as teachers, students, and parents have adjusted and responded to the needs in a time of crisis which probably may have not been considered before the pandemic. Whenever schools completely return to in-person learning it is important to have takeaways learned from COVID-19 and be able to apply them within a future school setting post pandemic.
“ I have learned so much about myself and how to cope on a mental and physical level by planning and scheduling,” Raquio said. It is important to be patient and pay attention to your body when dealing with challenges and do not let them go unnoticed, he said. There are many resources that are available for stress to help teachers and other individuals.
It is important to be cognizant of the fact that COVID-19 has changed everything and has allowed for education to be remade and make sense in spite of the pandemic which has evolved.
“ Changes are never a permanent thing in life. This virus if anything else has proven that you have to keep changing,” Aslam said.
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