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REL Pacific

Reflecting on Teacher Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

REL Pacific
Tameka Porter
June 22, 2020

parent and child doing school work

It's hard to believe that more than two months have passed since schools across the country suddenly closed their doors as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. As shelter-in-place and stay-at-home directives were issued, districts were forced to make swift decisions that left many teachers with little to no advance notice or instructions about how, and for how long, they would be teaching their students from home.

In the wake of COVID-19, educators are facing unprecedented challenges, including the disruption of established instructional programs and routines, the rapid transition from in-person teaching to remote learning, the emotional toll of isolation due to social distancing efforts, and uncertainty about personal safety and health. While it is difficult to find bright spots in a pandemic, we now have an opportunity to reflect on how to foster teacher wellbeing practices that encourage teachers to build and strengthen caring relationships with one another and with their students and prioritize designing and sustaining classrooms where everyone feels emotionally and physically safe and supported.

Defining Teacher Wellbeing

Teacher wellbeing can be described as the reaction to the individual and collective physical, environmental, and social events that shape how educators respond to their students and colleagues. 1 2 Teacher wellbeing and student wellbeing are often discussed together, as teacher wellbeing can be linked to both teacher effectiveness and student performance.3 Professional factors such as workload, organizational support, school connectedness, satisfaction with professional learning opportunities, and personal experiences like stress, life fulfillment and enjoyment, and health can contribute to positive or negative teacher wellness and wellbeing.4 5 When implementing strategies to improve teacher wellbeing, leaders need to build relationships with their teachers by being aware of their teachers' professional experiences, and to the degree that it is relevant to the classroom and student outcomes, having some knowledge of their personal circumstances.6 Leaders can create a positive school environment that can boost teacher wellbeing and improve academic achievement by respecting educators as professionals, granting teachers autonomy and voice, creating opportunities for relationship building, and setting realistic goals.7

Human Behavior Frameworks and Teacher Wellbeing

Three prominent human behavior frameworks—Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs,8 the Five Stages of Grief and Loss,9 and the Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM)10 —can be used to address the challenges that teachers face when adapting to change and identify approaches to support teacher wellbeing.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs refers to the “pyramid,” or building blocks of fundamental human physical and emotional desires: physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.11 While Maslow's original model suggested that higher-order needs like esteem and self-actualization could not be achieved without satisfying basic physiological or safety needs like food, clothing, and housing, modern frameworks have adapted the hierarchy so that each need supports the others, focusing on integrated wellbeing.12

How can Maslow's framework be used to support teacher wellbeing and burnout? Teachers may be coping with stress due to safety and health concerns, social distancing, and changes in roles and responsibilities at home and within the virtual classroom as a result of COVID-19. When social interactions and community building are established within remote learning environments, higher-level esteem, belonging, and self-actualization desires may be prioritized over physiological and safety needs by both teachers and students.13 While higher-level needs are particularly important within the context of the pandemic, attending to safety needs is also critical. One teacher wellbeing strategy that incorporates Maslow's framework for satisfying safety needs is establishing predictable and consistent schedules and agendas so that both teachers and students can create routines.14 Consistency can foster feelings of safety, especially in times of uncertainty.

The Five Stages of Grief and Loss. The five stages of grief and loss, also known as the Kubler-Ross change curve, are described as denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.15 Often, when a big change occurs, such as the recent rapid shift from in-person to online schooling, the first reaction is shock, followed by isolation and denial. As denial moves to anger or frustration, bargaining, and depression, teaching and learning performance may dip, and both students and teachers may need guidance about how to cope with the grief and loss associated with the change and reassurance that circumstances will improve.16 After teachers and students cycle through the depression phase, teaching and learning may improve as students begin to successfully learn the material and educators realize that they are able to teach effectively despite the challenges they initially faced.

Not all teachers and students will go through grief and loss during the pandemic. Some educators and students may thrive as they shift from in-person to remote learning. For those who are mourning the loss of the classroom, moving through the five stages of grief and loss is not linear, and teachers and students may be in different stages of the grief and loss process.17 Wellness and mindfulness strategies, such as acknowledging the shared traumatic event of living through a pandemic,18 thought breaks that include uplifting mental distractions, providing one another positive comments and feedback, and documenting and celebrating successes may enable both teachers and students to move through the five stages of grief and loss and build respect, resilience, and trust.19 20

Concerns-Based Adoption Model. The Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM) examines how individual attitudes and beliefs can affect how educators teach their students through the lens of three dimensions—innovative configurations, stages of concern, and levels of use.21

Innovative Configurations. The innovative configurations process is used to describe how teachers learn and follow program objectives. Teachers can use innovative configurations to guide and implement teaching and learning strategies through understanding and anticipating expected behaviors.22 For example, if teachers understand that students may be uncomfortable with their new online learning platforms, teachers can “innovate” by preparing for how their students may respond to a sudden shift in how they learn, providing clear yet flexible instructions on how to use the virtual systems, and expecting trial and error as students determine what is expected of them in their new learning environment. It's also important to keep in mind that the way both teachers and students engage in online learning may change as everyone becomes more familiar with the systems. As educators become more knowledgeable about how to provide meaningful and engaging online learning opportunities, teachers may gain a sense of autonomy and ownership of their instruction and pride in their students' performance, which can contribute to teachers' overall sense of wellbeing.

Stages of Concern. The stages of concern consist of seven categories that address the anxieties that teachers may face when undergoing change. In the early stages, educators are likely to be more anxious about how they are affected by the change. As teachers adapt to change, their concerns can shift to supporting colleagues so that everyone can successfully navigate the change.23

Stage of Concern Example Statement
0: Unconcerned “I think I may have heard something about this new teaching approach, but learning more about it isn't a priority.”
1: Informational “I'm curious about this new teaching approach; I will learn more about it.”
2: Personal “I'm worried about how this new approach may affect me and how I teach.”
3: Management “I'm uneasy about how much time it will take to incorporate this approach into how I already teach.”
4: Consequence “How will this new approach affect how my students learn?”
5: Collaboration “I'm excited to share what I have learned with other teachers.”
6: Refocusing “I have some ideas about how to improve the teaching approach.”

As apprehensions are identified and addressed, teachers can move from focusing on self-motivated concerns to feeling like they have a voice in how they provide instruction to their students, while setting reasonable goals and expectations for themselves and others.

Levels of Use. The eight levels of use are behavior characteristics that explain how educators cope with change and become more familiar with new skills and programs.24

Level of Use Example Statement
Nonuse “I'm not interested in learning a new skill or program.”
Orientation “I've heard about this new program and am considering learning more about it.”
Preparation “I went to a workshop and am reading the materials.”
Mechanical Use “I'm organizing my materials and will try to incorporate what I have learned into how teach.”
Routine Use “This semester went well. I may make some changes, but I will mostly use the program the same way next semester.”
Refinement “I surveyed my class to see how they feel about how I use this new program to see where I can make improvements.”
Integration “I'm collaborating with other teachers to broaden the use of the program throughout the school.”
Renewal “This is a great program. I'm modifying it based on my students' feedback to best meet their needs.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has required teachers to become experts in online learning almost overnight. As educators become more comfortable with their virtual teaching skillset and students adapt to their new learning environment, teachers can introduce new teaching and learning strategies to their colleagues to foster connections, build relationships, and collaboratively monitor whether these new techniques boost student achievement.

As the world undergoes the extraordinary experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders can support teachers by introducing teacher wellbeing strategies that establish trust, ensure safety, include teacher voice, empower teachers to make choices that improve both their teaching experiences and their students' learning environments, and increase collaboration among teachers, school leaders, and students and their families.25 26 27 By cultivating teacher wellbeing, teachers and leaders can create happier, healthier, and more sustainable education systems that reinforce relationship building and provide wellness and restoration support to all classrooms while learning remotely and as schools reopen.

Additional Resources



1 Graham, A., & Truscott, J. (2019). Meditation in the classroom: supporting both student and teacher wellbeing? International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 3(13), 1–13.

2 Liu, L. B., Song, H., & Miao, P. (2018). Navigating individual and collective notions of teacher wellbeing as a complex phenomenon shaped by national context. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 48(1), 128–146.

3 Becker, E. S., Goetz, T., Morger, V., & Ranellucci, J. (2014). The importance of teachers' emotions and instructional behavior for their students' emotions— experience sampling analysis. Teaching and Teacher Education, 43, 15–26.

4 Song, H., Gu, Q., & Zhang, Z. (2020). An exploratory study of teachers' subjective wellbeing: understanding the links between teachers' income satisfaction, altruism, self-efficacy and work satisfaction. Teachers and Teaching, 26(1), 3–31.

5 Owen, S. (2016). Professional learning communities: building skills, reinvigorating the passion, and nurturing teacher wellbeing and “flourishing” within significantly innovative schooling contexts. Educational Review, 68(4), 403–419.

6 Coultas, V. (2012). Classroom talk: Are we listening to teachers' voices? English in Education, 46(2), 175–189.

7 Albrecht, N. J., (2019). Responsibility for nurturing a child's wellbeing: teachers teaching mindfulness with children. Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 47(5), 487–507.

8 Hale, A. J., Ricotta, D. N., Freed, J., Smith, C. C., & Huang, G. C. (2018). Adapting Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a framework for resident wellness. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 31(1), 109–118.

9 Corr, C. A. (2019). The “five stages” in coping with dying and bereavement: Strengths, weaknesses and some alternatives. Mortality, 24(4), 405–417.

10 Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2015). Implementing change: Patterns, principles and potholes (4th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

11 Fisher, M. H. & Royster, D. (2016). Mathematics teachers' support and retention: Using Maslow's hierarchy to understand teachers' needs. International Journal of Mathematical Education in Science and Technology, 47(7), 993–1008.

12 Hale, A. J., Ricotta, D. N., Freed, J., Smith, C. C., & Huang, G. C. (2018). Adapting Maslow's hierarchy of needs as a framework for resident wellness. Teaching and Learning in Medicine, 31(1), 109–118.

13 Bishop, J. (2007). Increasing participation in online communities: A framework for human-computer interaction. Computers in Human Behavior, 23(4), 1881–1893.

14 Minahan, J. (2019). Trauma-informed teaching strategies. Educational Leadership, 77(2), 30–35.

15 Malone, E. D. (2018). The Kubler-Ross change curve and the flipped classroom: Moving students past the pit of despair. Education in The Health Professions, 1(2), 36–40.

16 Ibid.

17 Corr, C. A. (2019). The “five stages” in coping with dying and bereavement: Strengths, weaknesses and some alternatives. Mortality, 24(4), 405–417.

18 Liu, L. B., Song, H., & Miao, P. (2018). Navigating individual and collective notions of teacher wellbeing as a complex phenomenon shaped by national context. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 48(1), 128–146.

19 Jennings, P. A. (2018). The trauma-sensitive classroom: Building resilience with compassionate teaching. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

20 Walkley, M., & Cox, T. (2013). Building trauma-informed schools and communities. Children & Schools, 35, 123–126.

21 Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2020). Implementing change: Patterns, principles and potholes (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

22 Hord, S. M., Stiegelbauer, S. M., Hall, G. E., & George, A. A. (2006). Measuring implementation in schools: Innovation configurations. Austin, TX: SEDL.

23 George, A. A., Hall, G. E., & Stiegelbauer, S. M. (2006). Measuring implementation in schools: The Stages of Concern Questionnaire. Austin, TX: SEDL.

24 Hall, G. E., Dirksen, D. J., & George, A. A. (2006). Measuring implementation in schools: Levels of use. Austin, TX: SEDL.

25 Carello, J., & Butler, L. D. (2015). Practicing what we teach: trauma-informed educational practice. Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 35(3), 262–278.

26 Casanova, D. & Price, L. (2018). Moving towards sustainable policy and practice—A five level framework for online learning sustainability. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 44(3). Canadian Network for Innovation in Education.

27 Howell, P. B., Thomas, S., Sweeney, D., & Vanderhaar, J. (2019). Moving beyond schedules, testing and other duties as deemed necessary by the principal: The school counselor's role in trauma informed practices. Middle School Journal, 50(4), 26–34.