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How can school leaders maximise teacher resilience?

Written by: Natasha Raheem
10 min read
Natasha Raheem, Assistant Vice Principal, Dixons Teaching Institute, UK

Teaching during the pandemic has challenged the ‘everyday resilience’ needed by teachers to maintain their commitment and effectiveness (Day et al, 2011, p.5). Ostensibly, COVID-19 impacted on recruitment and retention positively with slightly higher recruitment and retention rates. However, this was a short-term gain (Worth, 2022). Recent data paints a bleak picture, with teacher training applications down by 24 per cent (Worth, 2022); one in three teachers intending to leave teaching within five years due to increased workload, and 95 per cent concerned about the impact of teaching on their wellbeing (Weale, 2021). 

To improve wellbeing, there can be a narrow focus on reducing workload through whole-class feedback and efficient data systems. While this is helpful, it may not adequately address work-related stress, depression or anxiety, of which teaching staff and education professionals report the highest rates in Britain, compared with other occupational groups (Ofsted, 2019). An increased awareness of presenteeism is also needed, as this may delay school support, affecting overall teacher effectiveness (Day et al., 2011) and exacerbating mental health issues (Robertson Cooper, 2022). All teachers require a commitment from their school to ‘protect, promote and enhance’ wellbeing (DfE, 2021, p. 2). If school leadership considers how resilience can be maximised and this imbues daily thinking and implementation, teachers are more able to maintain equilibrium when tackling personal and professional challenges. 

This article will discuss the difficulty with conceptualising resilience, and share risk and protective factors through the lens of self-determination theory (SDT). SDT is one of the most robust and empirically supported theories of motivation (Udalowska, 2020), and it is most often applied to student success. It suggests that people are motivated to grow and change by three innate psychological needs: autonomy (the experience of volition and willingness), competence (the experience of effectiveness and mastery) and relatedness (connecting to and feeling significant to others) (Vansteenkiste, 2020). When each need is satisfied, there is ‘enhanced self-motivation and mental health’ (Deci and Ryan, 2000, p. 68), and this strengthens inner resources, thus developing resilience. Given the significant challenges of COVID-19, SDT will provide a useful and holistic insight into teacher interaction. Throughout the article, recommendations will be shared, supporting school leaders to maximise resilience, thereby securing job satisfaction and ‘quality retention’ – teachers who maintain motivation and commitment to their own learning and the learning and achievement of their students (Gu and Day, 2007, p. 1314 ).

Defining resilience remains problematic as it is a ‘multifaceted and complex’ construct (Beltman et al., 2011, p. 195). Without a concise and comprehensive definition, the misconception that it is solely the individual who is responsible for developing resilience is perpetuated, absolving organisations of responsibility for reducing challenges.

Resilience has been defined as: 

  • ‘The capability to maintain high performance and positive well-being. Resilient individuals are able to sustain successful performance and positive wellbeing in the face of adverse conditions, and to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.’ (Robertson Cooper, 2013, p. 2)
  • ‘Not simply an individual trait, but a capacity that arises through interactions between people within organisational contexts.’ (Day, 2011, p. 3)
  • ‘A dynamic process or outcome that is the result of interaction over time between a person and the environment’ (Bobek, 2002; Day, 2008; Sumsion, 2003; Tait, 2008; all cited in Beltman et al., 2011, p. 195)

 

Even though there are similarities between the definitions, such as being flexible and adaptable, differences exist regarding the interplay between individual and contextual factors. The first definition suggests that resilience is fixed, innate and almost a superhuman characteristic for which the individual has responsibility. The next definition describes resilience as a ‘capacity’, emphasising growth and development. This reinforces the idea that the characteristics of resilient teachers can be learnt (Howard and Johnson, 2004, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). The final definition focuses on resilience as something that is always in a state of flux, reflective of our lives, and again requiring a strong relationship between the individual and their environment. Before beginning any professional development focusing on resilience, there must be a shared understanding of its conceptualisation within the school context, and the dual role of the individual and the organisation in developing this capacity must be considered.

There is a powerful link between the perceived autonomy of an individual and their resilience to perceived challenges (Birkbeck, 2011, cited in Day et al., 2011). Having a strong moral purpose and intrinsic motivation for teaching are the most important individual protective factors for teacher resilience (Beltman et al., 2011). Research shows that teachers tend to have positive feelings about the profession and see it as a vocation (Ofsted, 2019). Nevertheless, external factors (society’s view of teaching, lack of funds and involvement in policy) cause teachers to feel de-professionalised (Ofsted, 2019). Although school leaders have limited influence over external factors, adaptations to professional development can be made so that teachers feel autonomous, rather than pushed in an unwanted direction, pressurised and conflicted (Vansteenkiste, 2020). For professional development to be impactful, it should aim to be ‘well-designed, selected and implemented’ and include key mechanisms (EEF, 2021, p. 4). To motivate teachers and foster autonomy, mechanisms such as agreeing on goals should be used (EEF, 2021).

The most frequent professional challenge to teacher resilience is related to heavy workload (Beltman et al., 2011), especially when teachers spend more than half their time on lesson planning, marking and administrative tasks rather than teaching (Ofsted, 2019). Investing in staff so that they are trusted and feel that they have greater control of their professional lives engenders feelings of autonomy (Handscomb, cited in Day et al., 2011). Careful implementation of new ideas, with more time in the ‘explore’ stage (EEF, 2019), through pilots, working groups and opportunities for staff feedback, can satisfy collective autonomy. An autocratic style of management should be avoided (Ofsted, 2019) and teachers should be able to ‘exercise professional agency in everyday decision making’ – and, to do this, expertise is needed (Day et al., 2011, p. 26). School leaders should enable discussions around mechanisms and processes to share best practice, so that interventions intended to reduce workload (e.g., whole-class feedback) have impact for all teachers. 

Another key protective factor for teacher resilience is self-efficacy, and a lack of confidence or negative self-belief is the most frequent individual risk factor (Beltman et al., 2011). Self-efficacy is defined as ‘The belief in one’s capabilities to organise and execute the courses of action required to manage prospective situations’ (Bandura, 1995, p. 2). High self-efficacy links to competence when there is the requisite knowledge and skill. When teachers encounter and overcome challenges in their teaching (Beltman et al., 2011), self-efficacy is enhanced, and its development is at risk if there is limited support from line management. Teachers especially value help with resolving issues such as heavy workload, success being recognised, useful feedback being provided, and encouragement and support of their development (Ofsted, 2019). 

As teachers gain success in their work, self-efficacy increases, and this ‘consistently interacts with the growth of their resilient qualities’ (Beltman et al., 2011, p. 195). Nonetheless, research shows that self-efficacy can vary at different stages of career progression (Bandura, 1978). While this may not be applicable in all contexts, the six professional life phases relating to experience – rather than age or responsibilities – are useful in highlighting some common challenges: that individuals might face (Day, 2008, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). The six phases are: 

  • 0–3 years – commitment: support and challenge;
  • 4–7 years – identity and efficacy in the classroom; 
  • 8–15 years – managing changes in role and identity: growing tensions and transitions; 
  • 16–23 years – work–life tensions: challenges to motivation and commitment; 
  • 24–30 years – challenges to sustaining motivation; 
  • 31+ years – sustaining/declining motivation, coping with change, looking to retire’

 

To assess whether these phases have any resonance for teachers in schools, listening campaigns, focus groups and opportunities for staff voice enable leaders to investigate any perceived challenges, and this is especially important for teachers in vulnerable retention groups; for example, female teachers, aged 30 to 39, represent the largest group of teachers leaving the UK state education system after retirees (Simons, 2016, cited in MTPT Project, 2021). With the Early Career Framework (DfE, 2019), teachers new to the profession are receiving regular robust support and guidance. This is especially beneficial because new teachers’ efficacy beliefs are most easily impacted and less susceptible to change once established (Tait, 2008, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). Furthermore, early career teachers are strongly influenced by contextual factors, and school leaders should ensure: class allocation is suitable; they feel appreciated and valued and they have sufficient resources (Bobek, 2002; Hirschkorn, 2009; Sumsion, 2004; all cited in Beltman et al., 2011). To foster high self-efficacy, professional development programmes, especially any intended for early career teachers, should promote personal skills, e.g. managing stress, self-regulation, challenging cognitive distortions and coping behaviours (Chan, 2008; Klusmann et al., 2008; both cited in Beltman et al., 2011). Senior leaders should be aware that there can be lower levels of wellbeing among more experienced teachers (Ofsted, 2019) and that teachers who stay in the classroom after their first five years do not experience increased autonomy unless they enter leadership roles, and this is in contrast to other professions (Worth and Van den Brande, 2020). A system of distributed leadership, modifications of professional development programmes – for example, the use of instructional and facilitative coaching models –and appraisal, focusing on growth rather than on performance, are helpful in supporting teachers in different phases, as they have the potential to be bespoke and responsive. This involves significant staff training and school leadership commitment. 

Moreover, competency can be affected by the ability of a teacher to manage the behaviour of disruptive students, and this is the most frequent challenge to teacher resilience in the classroom context (Beltman et al., 2011). In some contexts, there is a perceived lack of support from senior leaders, especially in behaviour management, and teachers appreciate leaders working with teachers to solve discipline problems, a consistent approach to managing behaviour (Ofsted, 2019) and practical and visible support being provided (Goddard and Foster, 2001, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). While there is a limited evidence base, the work of Diverse Educators (www.diverseeducators.co.uk) highlights the often unspoken, complex behaviour challenges faced by teachers with intersectional identities. Raising awareness about how to tackle this in schools is crucial so that biases are addressed effectively by teachers of all profiles, reducing any feelings of isolation for teachers who experience them.

The second most frequent personal risk factor to teacher resilience is a difficulty in asking for help (Beltman et al., 2011). To encourage help-seeking behaviour, strong relationships are needed, especially as colleagues enable teachers to cope with work difficulties and sustain their commitment (Brunetti, 2006, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). There cannot be the assumption that strong support networks exist within schools, and teachers new to schools are at risk of isolation. To develop relatedness, leaders should increase formal and informal staff interaction (Jarzabkowski, 2002, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). Examples of formal interaction include professional collaboration or co-planning and regular purposeful CPD, and meetings and leadership training on promoting a collaborative school culture is needed to increase effectiveness (Fantilli and McDougall, 2009, cited in Beltman et al., 2011). Examples of informal interaction include a buddy system or shared interest groups and social events, and leaders should exercise caution when planning social events so that they do not exclude people due to cultural reasons or lifestyle choices. When relationships with senior leaders positively impact on wellbeing, this is because leaders make time to listen, provide support and communicate well, with an ‘open door policy’ (Ofsted, 2019). There is an appreciation of the whole person and, by modelling vulnerable behaviour, leaders create a space in which staff may feel more confident to ask for help. Leadership training on global listening and identifying stress responses can help to facilitate help-seeking behaviour. At times, teachers may require external assistance, and this can come from organisations such as Education Support that provide free and confidential support for teachers (Armstrong and Stanley, cited in Day et al., 2011).  Promotion of such organisations is crucial to destigmatise asking for help (DfE, 2021) and to remind teachers of where they can seek external help if needed.

In conclusion, there are many opportunities for the reduction of risk factors and the enhancement of protective factors to maximise resilience. An SDT lens allows school leaders to determine whether each basic need has been satisfied and to then prioritise support accordingly, especially during times of change. While there are common contextual and individual risk factors, leadership teams should be aware of individual and phase-specific challenges and the challenges faced by diverse groups within their context. Compassionate and supportive leaders, bespoke and impactful professional development, the teaching of personal skills, and the promotion of efficient mechanisms and processes maximise individual and collective resilience, and this is essential so that teachers thrive and ‘quality retention’ is secured (Gu and Day, 2007, p. 1314).

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