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Teacher Wellbeing and Support

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We teachers can support each other!

When I check the news, automatically paying attention to every headline connected with education, I notice the same feature regardless of the country and subject taught. It is “teachers should/must…” Teachers should adapt to the new schedules, be ready to come back to school and then suddenly be sent home for an indefinite period of time. Even worse, teachers must be ready to provide “a combined way of learning”, that is conducting their lessons for some classes in real life, and then continue doing the same for other classes online. In my country, schools work on a six-days-a-week basis; the academic year starts on September 1 from kindergarten to Ph.D. courses. Once the ministry of education announced that teachers can work “on a mixed schedule” for five days and then provide more virtual lessons on Saturdays, there was an uproar.

Hello! Many teachers have their own families. If they work 24/7, who is supposed to take care of their own children? It is a fact universally acknowledged that primary school kids need help and supervision, or their distance learning will turn into a total fiction. And can you imagine any teenagers not using the new schedule to their own advantage, to what they see as sudden freedom from the strict real classroom rules?

Another fact: though it is declared that teachers “must”, there is no mention of, say, at least double pay for ten times the effort, the overtime. Nobody offers to pay for the teachers’ home equipment and web access for instance. I get the same reactions from my colleagues all over the globe; sadly, many teachers resign due to overloads and worries about their families’ wellbeing. This is perfectly understandable.

And yet most of us still manage to continue, as the Russian saying goes, “to sow the good, the sane and the eternal”. We love our profession; even more so, we care about the future of the planet. We are incredibly adaptable. After all if one decides to embark on a teaching career, one quickly learns to always be ready for the unexpected. The internet and the various means of communication are constantly developing, which means that help is just a click away.

Since March I have been writing a series of lesson plans and a sort of advice column based on the real questions and requests for help I receive on a daily basis. They are all published by the national weekly “Teachers’ Gazette”. I also took part in several webinars, gave consultations to my colleagues, met with teachers, parents and students (observing the social distancing and wearing masks). We get enormous help and support from multiple online free resources, TeachingEnglish being one of them. I believe we can do anything. Communication is key; mutual support is a staple of our lives.

Here is the hardest topic, the most excruciating question, the toughest situation we all face. It is bereavement. Though in my town the epidemic is quite mild and there are few deaths, yet very often they concern families, students, parents, teachers alike. Nobody had cancelled all the other diseases, accidents and problems either. We lost a dear friend, 37, to cancer; another friend, 69, had succumbed to the virus; an EL teacher, 42, who had attended my Teacher Training course, died of the COVID complications last week... Any teacher’s death in the middle of a school year has a ripple effect. And of course we know a number of people who are down sick, the outcome still unclear, as does everybody else on the planet.

What happens at school in any such situation? A parent may approach or call any teacher and tell them that a family member had passed away. How do the children behave after such a loss? What about their anxiety level, their slipping grades, their outbursts, their unpredictable behaviour, or their “absence” at our lessons? Another very common scenario: a grieving parent may not give us any advance notice, but any student may suddenly blurt out: “Do you know that Anna’s/Pete’s father (mother, grandparent…) died?” How are we to deal with that? Who provides the much needed psychological support to us?

If we are the ones who suffered a loss, parents and students usually are unaware of that. Is the traditional three-day compassionate leave enough?

How can I help? My own experience plays a large role in such situations. While I mourn my friends, I know how to keep up a brave face and assure a child that no, they won’t die just because someone close to them did. I worked out a number of meaningless soothing phrases; while there is no real answer to the big WHY, we adults can pretend there is something, and assure our students that things will come back to normal with time. We can even believe that ourselves.

Nina Koptyug, Ph.D.