What can schools do to support teacher wellbeing?
Rebecca J. Collie
Teacher wellbeing is receiving growing attention from teachers, education systems, and researchers. This increasing interest is being driven by awareness that it is essential that teachers are faring well at work for their own health and wellbeing. Interest in teacher wellbeing is also growing because there is expanding evidence connecting it with beneficial outcomes for both students and schools.
Making efforts and necessary changes to support teacher wellbeing is an imperative many schools and educational systems now recognise. In this article, I will discuss recent research that I have conducted on teacher wellbeing, including some specific factors that schools and education systems can focus on in their efforts to support the wellbeing of teachers and other school staff.
What is teacher wellbeing?
Before discussing the research, it is important to define wellbeing. In my research, I define teacher wellbeing as a “combination of feeling good and functioning effectively” at work (Huppert & So, 2013, p.838). The “feeling good” part of the definition is captured by factors like job satisfaction, a sense of vitality at work, and low stress and low burnout at work. In contrast, the “functioning effectively” part of the definition is captured by factors like work engagement and occupational commitment.
The role of the school context in teacher wellbeing
Over the past few years, researchers have begun to look more closely at factors that support teacher wellbeing. Many of these studies use a framework called Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) theory (Bakker & Demerouti, 2017).
JD-R theory highlights the role of contextual factors in either supporting or hindering employee wellbeing. Job resources are factors within the school environment that support teacher wellbeing, such as strong teacher-student relationships and school leadership support for teachers. In contrast, job demands are factors within the school environment that can hinder teacher wellbeing, such as high workloads and disruptive student behaviour.
JD-R theory also establishes that job resources become even more important for wellbeing when job demands are high—this is because employees rely on job resources more when they are under pressure. For example, strong collegial relationships play a stronger role in boosting job satisfaction when teachers are facing high levels of challenging student behaviour. This is because strong collegial relationships can provide teachers with social support, different strategies for classroom management, or new ideas for engaging students in learning.
What does the research say?
As noted above, there is growing research looking at job resources and demands in relation to teacher wellbeing. Below, I summarise a couple of recent studies. These studies provide examples of modifiable job resources that can potentially be used by schools to better support teacher wellbeing.
The role of job resources in teachers’ occupational commitment
The first study (Collie, 2021a) involved a multi-nation examination of teachers’ occupational commitment using data from the OECD’s Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) 2013. Occupational commitment refers to teachers’ sense of attachment to the profession and can be considered a form of teacher wellbeing by way of “functioning effectively.” Notably, occupational commitment is also relevant to teacher retention, which is a growing concern for many educational systems worldwide.
In total, 12,955 teachers from 827 schools across Australia, Canada, England, and the United States were involved in the study.
Three job resources were examined to investigate how they are associated with teachers’ occupational commitment.
- Helpful feedback was rated by teachers and refers to their perceptions that the feedback that have received in their job has been useful for improving their teaching practice.
- Input in decision-making was also rated by teachers and refers to their perceptions that they have opportunities to provide input in the decisions made at their workplace.
- Principal support for discipline was rated by principals and refers to the level of support they provide to teachers for help with classroom management or discipline issues.
Alongside these three job resources, a job demand commonly experienced by teachers was also examined.
- Disruptive student behaviour was rated by teachers and refers to student behaviour that creates challenges for effective learning and teaching to occur (e.g., calling out, being noisy, distracting other students).
The study investigated how the job resources and job demand were associated with teachers’ occupational commitment across the four countries. In addition, by examining the job resources and the job demand together, the study was able to test whether any of the job resources played a stronger role in supporting occupational commitment among teachers who faced high levels of disruptive student behaviour.
What did the study find? The results of the study showed, as expected, that teachers who had received helpful feedback reported higher levels of occupational commitment. That is, when teachers felt supported in terms of feedback, they were more likely to be committed to the profession. Similarly, teachers who felt they had more input in decision-making and whose principals indicated they provided greater discipline support also reported higher levels of occupational commitment.
As anticipated, the opposite was found for disruptive student behaviour. Teachers who experienced greater disruptive behaviour reported lower commitment to the profession.
An interesting finding was that while helpful feedback was important at all times, it appeared to be even more crucial when teachers faced high levels of disruptive student behaviour. Helpful feedback, then, may be one way to support teachers to navigate disruptive student behaviour and reduce any detrimental impact it may have on occupational commitment.
Another notable finding was that the results were comparable across the four nations involved in the study: Australia, Canada, England, and the US. It appears, then, that these job resources have a similar role to play for teachers in many different educational systems.
Research example looking at impaired wellbeing during COVID
The second study (Collie, 2021b) focused on Australian teachers’ experiences during the first wave of COVID-19 in May 2020.
This second study examined one job resource that has been shown in numerous studies to be critical for teachers’ wellbeing at work.
- Autonomy-supportive leadership practices were reported by teachers and refer to teachers’ perceptions that their school leaders support their initiative and empowerment at work.
Alongside the job resource, the study assessed a personal capacity called workplace buoyancy.
- Workplace buoyancy was rated by teachers and refers to their sense that they can effectively navigate the common challenges that occur as part of teaching (e.g., the time crunch of report writing time, overlapping task priorities; Martin & Marsh, 2008).
The study also looked at three impaired wellbeing factors—that is, factors that indicate an individual is not faring well. The three factors were all rated by teachers:
- Physical symptoms, which refer to common health complaints such as headaches, joint pain, and fatigue.
- Stress related to change, which refers to teachers’ sense that recent changes at work have left them feeling stressed, worried, and pressured.
- Emotional exhaustion, which occurs when teachers feel emotionally drained from work and is considered a core dimension of burnout.
The first aim of the study was to see whether autonomy-supportive leadership practices were associated with greater workplace buoyancy. In turn, the study investigated whether workplace buoyancy was associated with lower levels of impaired wellbeing.
In total, 325 teachers from across Australia participated in the study. About one third of the teachers were teaching in-person as usual (and so experiencing no COVID-19 restrictions at the time), one third were teaching fully remotely due to COVID-19, and the others were hybrid teaching (in-person to essential workers’ children and remotely to other students due to COVID-19).
What did the study find? The results showed that teachers who felt their school leaders used autonomy-supportive leadership practices reported greater workplace buoyancy. That is, the teachers felt better able to cope with the challenges at work.
In turn, teachers who reported higher levels of workplace buoyancy reported fewer physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, joint pain, and fatigue), lower levels of stress related to change, and lower levels of emotional exhaustion.
Together, these findings suggest that autonomy-supportive leadership practices may be one way to support workplace buoyancy and, in turn, reduce impaired wellbeing among teachers during COVID-19—and beyond (e.g., Collie et al., 2018).
Another interesting finding was that participants who were hybrid teaching due to COVID-19 reported higher stress than teachers who were teaching fully in-person (i.e., business as usual; no COVID-19 restrictions). Although the finding is understandable, the same was not true for teachers working fully remotely due to COVID-19. That is, teachers working fully remotely did not report elevated levels of stress compared to those working in-person as usual. These findings provide evidence to support many teachers’ anecdotal experiences of the difficulties of hybrid teaching during COVID-19. Future research that examines these findings is important to see if it bears out with other samples of teachers, but it does suggest that we should pay attention to the impacts on teachers of different working configurations during educational disruptions in future—either for COVID-19 or other events (e.g., bushfires).
What can schools do to support teacher wellbeing—during COVID and beyond?
The two studies described above provide knowledge about several job resources that schools can focus on in their efforts to sustain and support teacher wellbeing:
- Helpful feedback
- Input in decision-making
- Autonomy-supportive leadership practices
- Principal discipline support
Prior research provides several ideas about how these job resources can be supported within schools.
Starting with helpful feedback, it is important that this advice is based on evidence, targeted and specific, and focused on actions that can be implemented by teachers (Brinko, 1993).
Input in decision-making and autonomy-supportive leadership have a lot in common. To boost both of these job resources, school leaders may want to increase opportunities where they:
- invite teachers to provide input in relation to decisions and school policies that are created;
- offer teachers control over when and how they undertake their work when feasible; and,
- offer justifications or rationales for the purpose of tasks or duties that are assigned to teachers (Collie et al., 2018).
Turning to principal discipline support, an interesting feature of this job resource in the study above (Collie, 2021a) is that it was reported by principals—that is, principals’ perceptions of the support they provide to teachers. To boost this job resource, principals (and other leaders within a school) may want to ensure there are open lines of communication so that teachers can obtain support for ongoing disruptive behaviour in the classroom and, as part of this, seek advice from teachers about what support they need.
For schools that are interested in implementing or updating their policy on teacher wellbeing, please see the freely available chapter here: https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003025955-23. For more information about the studies discussed above (including open-access versions), please visit: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rebecca-Collie.
Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2017). Job demands–resources theory: Taking stock and looking forward. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22(3), 273–285. https://doi.org/10.1037/ocp0000056
Brinko, K. T. (1993). The practice of giving feedback to improve teaching. The Journal of Higher Education, 64(5), 574–593. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221546.1993.11778449
Collie, R.J. (2021). A multilevel examination of teachers’ occupational commitment: The roles of job resources and disruptive student behavior. Social Psychology of Education, 24(2), 387-411. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11218-021-09617-y
Collie, R.J. (2021). COVID-19 and teachers’ somatic complaints, stress, and emotional exhaustion: Examining the role of principal leadership and workplace buoyancy. AERA Open, 7(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1177/2332858420986187
Collie, R.J. (2021). Teacher wellbeing. In K.-A. Allen, A. Reupert, & L. Oades (Eds.), Building better schools with evidence-based policy: Adaptable policy for teachers and school leaders (pp. 169-175). Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781003025955-23
Collie, R.J., Granziera, H., & Martin, A.J. (2018). Teachers’ perceived autonomy support and adaptability: An investigation employing the job demands-resources model as relevant to workplace exhaustion, disengagement, and commitment. Teaching and Teacher Education, 74, 125-136. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2018.04.015
Huppert, F., & So, T. C. (2013). Flourishing across Europe: Application of a new conceptual framework for defining well-being. Social Indicators Research, 110, 837-861. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-011-9966-7
Martin, A. J., & Marsh, H. W. (2008). Workplace and academic buoyancy: Psychometric assessment and construct validity amongst school personnel and students. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 26(2), 168–184. https://doi.org/10.1177/0734282907313767
Rebecca J. Collie is a Scientia Associate Professor of Educational Psychology in the School of Education at the University of New South Wales. Rebecca conducts research in the broad areas of motivation, wellbeing, and social-emotional development using quantitative research methods. Rebecca has published over 80 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters, along with a co-edited book, "Social and Emotional Learning in Australia and the Asia-Pacific.” She is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Educational Psychology. Previously, she worked as a primary school teacher in Melbourne. Website: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rebecca-Collie
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy