For this Team Design Challenge, London and I partnered up to address teacher burnout and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a part of our solution we created a slide deck for professional development, Design Solutions for Teaching E-Learning Burnout and Maintaining Well-Being, as well as a Digital Toolbox for strategies and tools that teachers and students can access when teaching and learning online.
Teaching in the twenty-first century has presented ubiquitous challenges for teachers and students. With unprecedented times, teachers are being asked to take on additional roles and responsibilities, such as; counselors, mediators, social workers, and technologists. Teacher shortages are not uncommon. Teachers are under more stress than ever before as front-line support for students (Crichton & Kinsel, 2021). Osher et al. (2019) claimed that “teacher-reported stress is among the highest (46% of teachers reported great daily stress) of all occupation groups including nurses and physicians” (p. 211). Osher et al. stated that 59% of teachers claim to be under significant stress. With the looming return to online learning, it is now more important than ever to address teacher and student well-being to reduce burnout. Through an educational lens, design thinking principles were applied to derive a solution to teaching students engaging lessons while maintaining teacher and student well-being without reaching burnout.
Schwab et al. (1986) defined teacher burnout as “a condition caused by depersonalization, exhaustion, and a diminished sense of accomplishment (as cited in Haberman, 2005, p. 153). Kokkinos (2007) suggested the burnout occurs as a result of “complex interactions between individuals characteristics and issues in the work environment” (p. 230). Teachers often have empathetic qualities that leave them susceptible to the stressors that lead to burnout. The prominent factors that influence teacher burnout include “interpersonal demands, lack of professional recognition, discipline problems in the classroom, the diversity of tasks required, bureaucracy, lack of support, workload, time pressure, the amount of paperwork required and lack of resources provided (Kokkinos, 2007, p. 230). Understanding what creates teacher burnout was the foundation in the design thinking process for building a solution to prevent teacher burnout.
Additionally, a solution to teacher burnout promotes student well-being. If teachers are unwell, they can not teach their students to the best of their ability. Haberman (2005) claimed “when teachers feel good about their work, and student achievement rises” (p. 154), therefore teachers’ perception of their work directly reflects how students participate in their learning. Focusing on teacher well-being is a beneficial place to start to increase student achievement. Osher (2007) suggests that supporting teachers to develop social and emotional competencies (SEC) effectively helps teachers manage learning environments to “create a more productive and engaging environment” (p. 211) for students. Haberman (2005) argued that teachers “with low coping skills were most at risk of burnout or leaving” Our solution works towards providing teachers with a toolbox of strategies to help them overcome the stressors of teaching in a digital learning environment to prevent teacher burnout.
The proposed solution is to equip teachers with the tools and strategies to acquire social and emotional competencies to support their well-being and engage students in learning. It can be thought of as a toolbox. Each tool can help teachers “fix” a problem. Tools in the teacher burnout toolbox include information and communication technologies (ICTs), self-care strategies, signs of burnout, and mental health resources.
Our approach was to consider design thinking as an ecosystem that emphasized the importance of identifying the impacts of shifting to remote online teaching and learning. Our primary focus was on how these impacts directly affected teachers and students. In response to the stress and anxiety, and multiple roles educators are required to take on during COVID-19 (Crichton & Kinsel, 2021), we wondered how we could best help teachers adapt to this volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) environment (Pultoo & Oojorah, 2020), while maintaining well-being. Specifically, we wanted to address the consequences of a complete destabilization of the learning environment:
Teachers were placed in complex situations, both personally and professionally. They are the front-line support for many students, and as teaching moved online and into homes, educators were required to provide emotional support, tech support, and education not only to the students but the families as well. (Crichton & Kinsel, 2021, p.12-13)
We began by acknowledging the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, challenges (SWOC) in online learning during crises (Dhawan, 2020). Our respective teaching experiences provided a base from which we were able to derive a foundation supported by literature supporting the benefits of teacher training and the role of working conditions in creating a sustainable sense of success (Kraft et al., 2021). For example, in their 2020 study on the United States teacher working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Kraft et al. surveyed 7,841 teachers across 206 schools and nine states, and found that teachers,
were less likely to experience declines in their sense of success when they worked in schools that communicated effectively, provided targeted professional development, recognized teachers’ efforts, facilitated meaningful collaboration, and held fair expectations during the pandemic. (2021, p.729)
Our research further uncovered the benefits of including teacher training (Pozo-Rico et al., 2020), quick and small decision-making (Pultoo & Oojorah, 2020), collaboration (Kraft et al., 2021), and teacher preparedness (Dhawan, 2020). We decided on a proactive approach: to collate a set of tools and strategies that could be placed into a metaphorical digital toolbox, to be used to create a sustainable working and teaching environment for all.
We have considered these impacts as causes of burnout on educators to inform our design case. As educators, it was essential that we considered how teachers could facilitate lessons for learner engagement without depleting energy reserves. Our recommendations include incorporating information and communication technologies (ICTs), opportunities for teacher preparedness such as professional development and teacher collaboration. We collated these tools and strategies into a digital toolbox to reduce stress and anxiety caused by VUCA environments while simplifying the process of sourcing and generating new content. Our design case is underpinned by transformational teaching practices centered on well-being so that teachers can identify the signs of burnout, make time for self-care, seek out resources, and provide the best digital learning environments they can for their students.
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