Support for educators during COVID-19

Issue: Volume 99, Number 6

Posted: 15 April 2020
Reference #: 1HA71o

Education unions share with Education Gazette the importance of teachers prioritising their own mental health and wellbeing in order to be effective in helping their students, whānau and communities.

Putting wellbeing first

Teachers will need to put on their own ‘oxygen masks’ before they can help their students, whānau and communities during the current COVID-19 crisis, says Jack Boyle, president of the PPTA (Post Primary Teachers Association).  

Over the past few years, the Ministry of Education has been working alongside teacher unions PPTA and NZEI Te Riu Roa to develop a Wellbeing Framework to better support teacher wellbeing. The framework had been planned for school use early in 2020, however the COVID-19 crisis overtook the rollout of the resource.  

Both education unions are focusing on providing advocacy; wellbeing, employment and professional advice to members during the crisis, say Jack and Liam Rutherford, the president of NZEI Te Riu Roa.  

Connectedness vital  

Jack says the work done by sector leaders and the Ministry on the Wellbeing Framework now seems particularly relevant.  

“When we built that framework, nobody thought we would be in lockdown in March 2020. The themes that we thought were really important point to a model of wellbeing which we are starting to see in communications around COVID-19. That’s the idea that connectedness is an absolutely fundamental domain of wellbeing. Making sure you nurture family, friendships, relationships is crucial to mental health – especially now that we are working in isolation,” says Jack.  

“It’s important that all of a school’s employees can meaningfully engage with colleagues and those relationships that are fundamental to teaching and learning. Everybody within a school community needs links to information and support around mental wellbeing.  If you feel like you’re not coping, it’s really important to talk to someone(external link),” he says.  

Liam says that schools and early learning services will continue to be the most important support network for education professionals during the coronavirus crisis.  

“We can’t lose sight of the fact that the top priority right now is to stop the spread of COVID-19. But it’s so important that we’re all having those regular, deliberate interactions to break up the isolation and make people feel that they are still connected as a team. It’s important schools and centres are reaching out to their staff, offering advice about how to support wellbeing and connectedness and encouraging them to access the different types of support(external link) available,” says Liam.  

Advocacy for wellbeing  

The biggest impact the teacher education unions can have on their members’ health and wellbeing through the crisis is to advocate for those working in education to get a fair deal, so they know they can continue to be paid and support their families,” says Liam.  

“This is especially important for those that are in less secure work, like many of our teachers in early childhood, support staff and relief teachers. We’ve been in constant contact with Government as they work through how they are responding in education,” he says.  

What constitutes good at-home learning?  

Like the rest of Aotearoa, says Liam, teachers are dealing with multiple practical issues around working from home. Besides being able to support their families, a main concern for teachers will be the expectations for what good at-home learning is going to look like, as well as supporting parents who may feel they need to replicate the role of a teacher.  

“Managing the digital divide will be a challenge. The response to this crisis can’t be one-size-fits-all, and each school will know their local community the best. But even within their communities there will be lots of varying needs and different levels of access,” he says.  

Support for educators  

PPTA and NZEI are working with the CTU (Council of Trade Unions) around fair work expectations while under lockdown. For example: is it possible to set up a workspace that’s separate from the rest of the household – can you close it off and forget about it for a while?   

“Working designated hours and stopping when those hours are finished is really important,” says Jack. "We are working from home, caring for our family/whānau and children and getting used to the changes and impacts caused by COVID-19. While teachers absolutely want to support the continued engagement and opportunities delivered through this difficult period after the holidays, they also need to focus on their own work-life balance.”     

NZEI is busy working to create opportunities for its members to come together via video conference and webinars to work through a range of professional conversations that everybody in the sector is grappling with, like what home learning looks like. These will be shared directly with members.  

“We’ve got amazing skill and knowledge amongst our membership, so it’s important that the good ideas can get shared around,” says Liam.   

Realistic expectations  

It’s important that expectations are realistic in this ‘new normal’ environment and teachers shouldn’t be expected to provide a full teaching and learning programme for every student they taught face to face prior to the nationwide lockdown, says Jack.  

He describes an onslaught of offers from online education providers as unhelpful.   

“Actually the mental health and wellbeing of the children, whānau, workforce in education should be paramount and the idea that you’ve got a new platform, a new product that will enable you to continue doing what you have done previously through distance or online provision is unfortunate,” he Jack.   

Consistent messaging  

Representatives from the PPTA, New Zealand Principals’ Federation, NZEI Te Riu Roa and Ministry of Education have been holding regular Zoom meetings and are connecting with school boards to ensure that messaging about COVID-19 is consistent and doesn’t create undue stress and anxiety.   

“Beyond the immediate planning for a few weeks or beyond that, some of those conversations are around an acceptable level of expectation and the provision of PLD (professional learning development). We are discussing with NZQA assessment and the impact on NCEA this year, and how to mitigate some of the stress for those students whose programmes have been affected and the teachers who will have to try to come up with something new.” says Jack. 

Silver lining   

The COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented and Jack says that unfortunately the education sector is well accustomed to dealing with crises in their schools and communities, as for example in the Canterbury earthquakes and the 2019 Mosque shootings in Christchurch.  

But he hopes there is a silver lining.  

“I think there is a real opportunity for us to all get together with a singular social purpose because I believe the social purpose of learning really is about connectedness, the understanding of relationships and the wellbeing of individuals and society." 

Resources and information   

The Teaching Council of Aotearoa New Zealand says the quality of learning experienced by children and young people is dependent on teachers’ own mental health and wellbeing. The Council suggests having self-care strategies in place as people get used to school closures, working from home and physical distancing from others as a result of COVID-19. 

Helpful resources

Online support and community   

A group has been created by CORE Education, He Kohinga Rauemi Tautoko - Support Resources for Schools, Kura and EY Centres(external link).   

This group can be accessed from edSpace, a dedicated professional learning community which anyone can join to connect with others, stay informed and receive and share ideas, resources, advice and support.   

This is an opportunity for edSpace(external link) community members to curate and create resources to support teacher wellbeing and the facilitation of distance learning. This space is evolving every day – all educators are welcome to join, contribute, use or share.  

For more information, please contact online facilitator Tessa Gray.  

Mindfulness strategies for surviving lockdown  

Taking a minute to check in with our rational mind and not letting our limbic system do a free-for-all is important during stressful times.   

So what can we do to calm our limbic system (a set of structures in the brain that deal with emotions and memory) if it’s on high alert?  

Marcelle Nader-Turner (MNZAC), counsellor at St Hilda’s Collegiate in Dunedin, suggests some mindfulness strategies for managing the nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19:   

  • The first thing is to notice how you’re feeling and name it: “I’m noticing I’m feeling anxious’, and then make a rational statement about how you are now: ‘But I am safe”.  
  • If there’s a nagging doubt about that safety, take a minute to acknowledge all the things you are doing to stay safe and the actual likelihood of being at risk, ie – I wash my hands carefully,  
  • I stay away from groups and I wash surfaces regularly.  
  • Any time we are hijacked by anxiety, we need to take a minute to get back into the 'now' - the moment.
  • An important thing to remember is that our thoughts are not who we are – they may not be linked to real threats – and we have to be careful which ones we choose to engage with. Try saying: “I am safe – I do not have to believe my thoughts –  
  • My thoughts do not control me – Worrying will not change the outcome – This is anxiety. It will pass.”  
  • Remember that everyone responds to events in different ways. We all have our own experiences which shape the way we respond to new ones. If you are finding this difficult and scary – that’s ok.  
  • Take the time to put your hand on your heart and say: “This is a moment of suffering; suffering is a part of life. I am not alone with this. May I be kind to myself in this moment. May I give myself the compassion I need.”  
  • Finally, find fun ways to stay connected, do things that make you feel good: laugh, exercise, listen to music.   
  • Be kind to others, but remember to also be kind to yourself! 

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 3:13 pm, 15 April 2020

Get new listings like these in your email
Set up email alerts