Covid-19, School Relationships and Staff Wellbeing: Clouds and Silver Linings

Dr. Mags Nohilly (Mary Immaculate College), Dr. Bernie Collins (DCU) and Dr. Veronica O’Toole (University of Canterbury, NZ)

Every one of us has been challenged in the last 18 months to live in a different way. For many, the changes extended into their working lives and none more so than teachers and principals in schools. Going from face to face interactions on a daily basis to virtual teaching online was not something that had ever been envisaged in the Irish school system, yet that seismic leap was made out of necessity once extended school closures were imposed in March 2020.

The authors were interested in finding out in real time what were the effects of this sudden closure on the wellbeing of staff in primary schools, and in particular, principals and teachers. A small-scale research study was undertaken which involved participants completing two questionnaires (Emotional Regulation Questionnaire [Gross and John 2003]; Copenhagen Burnout Inventory [Milfont et al. 2008]), and taking part in an online interview during the first lockdown and another after schools re-opened. This blog focuses on two aspects of the data gathered in Phase One of the study: relationships among school staff, and the wellbeing of teachers and principals. While the sample size was small (12 teachers and 10 principals), and therefore may not be representative, we believe some of the stories told will resonate with staff in schools and other workplaces. We present some representative insights in the form of vignettes based on the stories we were told. All names used are pseudonyms.

RELATIONSHIPS

Maintaining Relationships

… in school we would normally only have a staff meeting once every term or every 4-5 weeks, but now we are having staff meetings every week and I think it has been a great benefit because we have been able to see each other first of all, have been able to communicate with each other, and there aren’t as many issues to deal with, because we are having meetings on a regular basis… (James, principal)

Damage to Relationships

I felt that the staff was the hardest bit because it was just a new way of working, there were many different ideas and you’re trying to be fair to everybody and balance it and also … what caused the most destruction in our school was in teams, one person doing one thing and not necessarily being upfront about it. (Suzanne, teacher)

Relationships on Hold

There are children who just knock on the office door and say hey I want to chat. And that’s fine, if they need to talk to someone that’s fine. Now, they have to go to the phone and they can’t because they have to go to their parents to do that. So their whole support system, that’s all gone. And a lot of children that come here to talk to me don’t speak to their parents so that’s difficult. (Annie, principal)

Usually we’d be having a laugh, having a chat, and it’s not quite the same anymore at the moment. I know that the moment we open we’ll all be back up again … and we get on very well with each other and have a good laugh with each other so that’s nice. So the Zooms… there have been laughs as well, but you know, an hour, get it done, life goes on again… (Noeleen, teacher)

WELLBEING

Silver Linings

I do think back in the first two weeks, the time when we had the two weeks of work prepared, those two weeks, I had them almost to myself. I got up each morning and I checked the computer, checked the email, that type of stuff, then I went to my parents who were living a mile over the road and then we’d just be outdoors and spend a couple of hours there. Those couple of weeks, I look back, it’s time that, as principal over the 8, 9 years I have been caught up in the job so to have those hours to spend over there and do bits of jobs, I’m really grateful for it. I realised that maybe I was missing that, missing wellness, the balance of me and the time that I spend with my parents … I haven’t been spending enough time with them over the past few years. (Jerry, principal)

Yeah. I think I am probably more steady. You know when you work it gets really busy sometimes, with this I am feeling much more steady, because every day is kind of the same. I am not late, things are not flying … like I have been flying … healthy pace of life and not exhausted, never exhausted … (Mary, teacher)

Looking Forward

As a staff, I think, we have to do a little bit of work when we go back on our wellbeing. You know, because there has been a lot of frustration and tension and it’s so hard to communicate that over Zoom. (Seamus, teacher)

… every now and then, you get a text or you get a message or an email from a parent saying thank you for all that you’re doing. And the amount of good that that does is actually shocking, even though you’re thinking there’s 700 kids there, I might get two, they help you actually so so much, it feels that you’re not totally going in the dark, that you’re doing something and you’re helping them, at least it gives you a sense of, continue what you’re doing. (Annie, principal)

All of these comments relate to the first lockdown in schools. Preliminary data from the second online interviews which took place when schools re-opened suggest that, for some principals (one third of participants), burnout became a real issue. Further analysis will be conducted over the coming months and will be shared then.

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