Results of the teacher survey analysis are displayed in Tables 4, 5, 6 and 7 and depicted visually in Figs. 1 and 2. Table 4 displays the mean for each outcome and the response rate in each school term. Response rates in relation to the number of participants at baseline were similar for both cohorts at the Term 3 timepoint (~ 62% of baseline), however a greater proportion of the 2020 cohort (66%) completed the final survey (Term 4) than the 2019 cohort (53%). This was likely due to the special request to complete the survey and the lack of other data collection at the time due to cancellation of the RCT. Overall, response rates were high.
Table 5 outlines the differences for individuals with complete and missing data, respectively. While not statistically significant, effect sizes greater than d \(\pm\) 0.10 were observed between completers and non-completers for the outcomes of engagement, morale and appraisal in the 2019 cohort. Experience levels and school ICSEA were also significantly lower for those who did not complete all surveys in 2019. Given that the available data appeared to have some relation to the missingness, analysis proceeded under the assumption that data were missing at random.
Appendix 1 presents the mean result for each group at each timepoint for the original, complete and imputed data. The imputed data do not display any consistent pattern in relation to the other groups of data with no sign of extreme values being created by the imputation process. The statistical analysis of the trends among outcomes for both cohorts is presented in Table 6.
Analysis of the original data demonstrated significant negative effects for teacher efficacy in relation to student engagement and for teacher morale. The 2019 cohort displayed a small, non-significant increase in engagement and morale between Term 1 and Term 3 (Change over time—2019 cohort), with a significant lift in both outcomes to the final time point (Term 4). By comparison (Change over time—2020 vs 2019), teachers in the 2020 cohort displayed almost identical results for engagement efficacy between Term 1 and Term 3 and a marginal drop in their engagement efficacy to be significantly below the 2019 cohort at the Term 4 time point (− 0.28; 95% CI − 0.52 to − 0.04; p < 0.05). Similarly, for the morale outcome, the 2020 cohort displayed a small but consistent downward trend across the year and was significantly lower than the 2019 cohort at the Term 4 time point (− 0.24; 95% CI − 0.41 to − 0.08; p < 0.05).
Expressed as an effect size, the differences between 2019 and 2020 cohorts for both the engagement efficacy and morale outcomes were approximately d = − 0.15 at Term 3 and d = − 0.30 at Term 4. While these differences were statistically significant, the effect sizes are considered small. When considering the scales associated with the questions banks (Efficacy = 1 to 9 and Morale = 1 to 5), the differences between the groups at the final time point represent a mean response of 7.51 for the 2019 cohort and 7.25 for the 2020 cohort for engagement efficacy and 4.29 versus 4.07 for the average morale response among 2019 and 2020 cohorts, respectively. These differences may or may not represent a practically significant impact on the efficacy and morale of the 2020 cohort, but they suggest a negative trend. No significant effects were found for teacher efficacy in relation to instructional strategies or classroom management, or for appraisal and recognition.
In terms of evaluating bias within the data due to missingness, the significance values for both engagement and morale changed minimally between the original, complete and imputed data (likely an effect of the different sample sizes). However, the small amount of variability between the year-by-time parameter estimates for the different data sets provides confidence that there is an underlying effect among the 2020 cohort for these outcomes.
Figures 1 and 2 provide a graphical illustration of the trends and highlight the enormous variability among individual teachers, evident in the finer lines depicting change over time for each participant. Despite this variability, overall there is evidence of a downward trend for morale and engagement efficacy in 2020 relative to 2019.
In the following section, we analyse the interview data to better understand how teachers and school leaders were impacted during and after the learning from home period. When provided with an opportunity to discuss their experiences during the first wave of the pandemic, two overarching themes emerged despite no direct questioning about these matters: flagging morale and declining self-efficacy. Representative extracts are used to highlight these key themes and serve to illuminate the small but significant findings from the quantitative analysis.
During the remote learning period, teachers delivered lessons in a variety of modes—through online programs of work, by creating paper-based learning resources for students with limited access to technology, as well as classroom supervision for children of essential workers. Although schools differed in their use of technology and resources, school leader Kylie’s description of lesson delivery during the closedown period captures the intensive experience of many of the participating teachers during this time:
We made sure that every child had access to some learning, so we hand-delivered paper packs to families who weren’t engaging online. The teachers created a weekly, and then daily, schedule of suggested outcomes, suggested learning, and that was posted online or delivered in the paper packs. We sent lots of letters home to parents just saying, you know, “Do what you can, but make sure, or try and make sure, your child does some online learning or some paper learning”. We gave out stationery, exercise books, readers, some sport equipment, and basically, we wanted the parents to show the teacher that they’d done some work. (Kylie, school leader, school 9, major city, mid ICSEA)
Prior to COVID, the intensification of work (Williamson & Myhill, 2008), deteriorating morale (Mackenzie, 2007; Stroud, 2018; Whiteoak, 2020) and the rise of performativity (Ball, 2003; Sullivan et al., 2020) were already affecting the teaching workforce in NSW. The intensification of labour described by Kylie contrasts sharply with the usual classroom-based practice of most primary school teachers, and clearly demonstrates how COVID not only amplified workplace issues but added a new layer of pressure. Teachers reinvented lesson plans to allow for different forms of delivery and pivoted to new ways of working with a constant eye on how to keep their students engaged. As one classroom teacher put it, “the workload was really overwhelming, and I felt like we had to reinvent the wheel each day” (Chris, teacher, school 11, major city, mid ICSEA).
Many teachers also reported struggling in their dual roles as parents and teachers. With the combination of increased school workloads and their own caring responsibilities, they felt apprehensive and undervalued. One school leader explained, “There were some [teachers who] were highly, highly anxious; there were ones who were juggling elderly parents…their own kids, in different schools” (Rachel, school leader, school 13, major city, high ICSEA). Another recounted that, overall, staff were “demoralised and not valued”, “They just felt they didn’t count” and would “walk away” from the profession if they could (Lauren, school leader, school 6, major city, mid ICSEA).
Contradictions in government policy that advocated social distancing and working from home while simultaneously asking students (and therefore teachers) to return to school led to teachers feeling vulnerable and confused. Classroom teacher Daniel, for example, said:
I didn’t understand how it was that social distancing had to be observed, hygiene had to be observed, everybody had to self-isolate and work from home if they could, and yet you were going to put me into a room with 30 kids! That worried me. … I suppose it was frightening to know every other workplace had been told that they can’t sit next to each other and “work from home if you can”, and yet I just had a kid sneeze in my eye. And that’s okay because you’re telling me that I can’t catch it off a kid? I found the mixed messages there – telling society one thing and teachers another – that was quite hard to deal with. (Daniel, teacher, school 6, major city, mid ICSEA)
This mixed messaging during the height of the pandemic in 2020 increased teachers’ feelings of unease. Daniel’s use of the term frightening conveys a deep concern about contracting the virus in the workplace.
In many schools, flagging morale was exacerbated by perceptions of poor communication and lack of support from the government and the Education Department.
I think the Department [was] caught between a rock and a hard place. As a principal, I didn’t feel particularly well supported. We were doing extraordinary hours, and it was … you know, the changing landscape, and the time they were communicating with us as principals, at 11 or 12 o’clock at night. …They felt they’d ticked the box by getting it out late at night, but that doesn’t mean you can have that up and running for the next day at school, because there’s turnaround [time needed] in communication. (Rachel, school leader, school 13, major city, high ICSEA)
As an experienced principal, Rachel acknowledges the constraints on the Department, caught between a rock and a hard place. She also vividly captures the extraordinary impact on school leaders. Receiving imperatives to send and receive messages late at night was viewed as impossible to implement.
For teachers in rural communities, the communication challenges were even more fraught. Poor infrastructure, limited access to 4G networks and to quality teaching resources from the Department left some teachers feeling undervalued and adrift. Teachers, like Andrew from an outer regional school, felt frustrated by not providing students with the same quality learning experiences received by children in major cities:
I think the Department really worked on thanking us more than anything, and we didn’t need thank you because we were doing our jobs. What we needed was that support, [to be told] “what you’re doing is okay”. I don’t think they really got that message out. It was more like a “this is what we have to do, this is the benchmark”, sharing all the top things that teachers were doing. But those teachers have access to 4G networks and, you know, social hubs within urban areas. And we couldn’t really match that at all. So, very quickly myself and the principal saw inequalities in what we were delivering to our kids, very quickly. And that crushes the spirit when you’re truly really trying to give, like provide a quality education. So yeah, I saw a really big imbalance about what our kids were going to receive out here as opposed to kids in urban areas. …That’s where I feel like that we weren’t supported. (Andrew, teacher, school 4, regional, low ICSEA)
Clearly Andrew is more concerned about equity for his students than gratitude for his efforts. He and his principal worried about being unable to match the delivery of online teaching that they perceived to be occurring in metropolitan schools to such an extent that it crushes the spirit. As an educator committed to his students’ learning, he reports being acutely aware of disparities that he felt were not acknowledged by the system.
Most interestingly, life did not necessarily improve for teachers once students returned to school. As Lauren, a school leader in an urban location, points out, the increased workload was unrelenting and did not dissipate at the end of the 8-week learning from home period:
Double the workload. I think I’ve seen that in nearly everyone. Double the workload. Teachers now feel like now we’ve come back to school, they now feel like they have to catch up on all the content that they missed due to our overcrowded syllabus... So, teachers are now very stressed that they have to catch up on this syllabus. Teachers, myself, my DP [Deputy Principal], we’re all struggling with the behaviour of students, and this is affecting teachers’ wellbeing hugely, absolutely hugely. We're in-school suspending, we're evacuating classrooms. The behaviour has really ratcheted up a notch. (Lauren, school leader, school 6, major city, mid ICSEA)
Lauren’s sharp commentary conveys the stressful context of return. Repetition of double the workload and pressure to catch up shows already exhausted teachers trying to cope. The bleak picture is further exacerbated by troubling student behaviour leading to classroom evacuation and suspension from school.Footnote 1
While the survey analysis revealed a significant negative impact on teacher morale, these interviews with teachers and school leaders exposed a multitude of factors that adversely influenced their morale during 2020—the intensification of labour, a perceived lack of support during learning from home and challenges once teachers returned to face-to-face teaching.
Declining teacher self-efficacy
It is widely documented that teachers with greater self-efficacy are more resilient when faced with challenges than colleagues with lower self-efficacy (Tschannen-Moran et al., 1998). Nevertheless, during times of crisis, we might expect teachers to experience role overload (Kuntz et al., 2013), as illustrated above, leading to lower self-efficacy (Seyle et al., 2013) and reduced sense of success (Kraft et al., 2020). While our statistical analysis found little change between 2019 and 2020 in teachers’ efficacy in relation to classroom management and instruction, there was a significant difference in how well they felt able to engage their students. The interviews provide a more vivid picture, with teachers expressing feelings of inadequacy, frustration and limited ability to engage their students—both during learning from home and upon return to school.
For example, Andrew, a classroom teacher from an outer regional low ICSEA school, reported feelings of inadequacy as he grappled with the rapid move to learning from home:
There were times when I felt, I did feel inadequate. There were times where I thought “I can't help these kids”… There were times I thought “oh, I’m really not doing my job well”, you know “you should be really prepared for any type of learning”, and I didn’t really feel like that at all. (Andrew, teacher, school 4, regional, low ICSEA)
Andrew wrestled with his sense of efficacy throughout the learning from home period as the sudden shift to a new way of teaching left him feeling ill-prepared. Other teachers, such as Chris, a teacher from a mid ICSEA school in a major city, articulated not only his exhaustion but ongoing frustration at feeling powerless to deliver content in ways that were satisfying and educationally sound.
I think we all share the same frustrations. We were all exhausted. …as well as feeling like you’re not providing good content and then the students aren’t learning the way they should be. And then also not being able to teach in the way that you feel best. I think those were all shared frustrations between the whole group. (Chris, teacher, school 11, major city, mid ICSEA)
Despite flagging morale (previous section), exhaustion and perceived lack of support, teachers were committed to the education of their students. But the frustrations of working under entirely unfamiliar conditions led some teachers, like Chris (above), to question their efforts. Here, Daniel, a classroom teacher from an inner regional area, offers a grim description of a staff meeting to discuss teachers’ widespread concerns with student engagement:
We kind of all felt as though it wouldn’t really matter how much effort we put in on our side, or how much time or money was spent on resources, or whatever it may be, because ultimately the engagement really wasn’t there from both kids and their families. And so, it was sort of like, is it worth breaking our necks to try and do more, or do we ride this out for a couple of weeks longer? Because it’s not, possibly, going to make a difference. (Daniel, teacher, school 6, major city, mid ICSEA)
This is a bleak picture indeed. Rapidly declining student engagement and lagging self-efficacy in teachers led to recognition that teaching doesn’t really matter and won’t make a difference to student achievement. And this is after only an 8-week period of learning from home.
Particularly worrying is that teachers saw little improvement once students returned to the classroom. Poor student engagement in classroom activities continued to challenge teacher self-efficacy, as Mateo, a classroom teacher from an urban area illustrates:
And even the engagement, their concentration levels really, really dropped off a lot. Focusing... they can’t sit still for more than a minute and like I said, normally before COVID, they were fine. They were able to participate in class discussions. And all of a sudden now, engagement... they can’t sit still anymore. They’ve always got to be up. Focus and concentration floats in and out… routine is gone, it's not there anymore. (Mateo, teacher, school 13, major city, high ICSEA)
Mateo paints a vivid picture of fractured classrooms with disengaged students and a lack of routine. The ability to focus, to sit still and concentrate are preconditions for learning, but students (like their teachers) appeared very tired, ‘not engaging as much, lots of behaviour issues’ (Samantha, teacher, school 1, outer regional, low ICSEA). While there is limited research examining student engagement in learning during COVID (Borup et al., 2020; Khlaif et al., 2021), our evidence suggests that disengagement not only continued after students returned to face-to-face schooling, but had an ongoing impact on teacher self-efficacy and their power to deliver quality teaching.
In summary, many of the teachers we interviewed were unable to teach in a way they felt was appropriate for their students and, despite their best efforts, felt they were unable to have a positive impact on student engagement, including during the period when students returned to school. Declining teacher self-efficacy, underpinned by feelings of inadequacy, frustration, exhaustion and poor student engagement impacted significantly on teachers during COVID. Rekindling teacher self-efficacy will require positive support for teachers and recognition of the remarkable role they played in educating students during the pandemic.
Not every teacher in our study was impacted negatively by the challenges of the pandemic. There is some evidence that unexpected change, such as that brought about during crisis situations, can also have positive effects (Haski-Leventhal, 2020). As signalled by the variation in responses to our teacher survey (Figs. 1, 2), and despite the changes to teaching imposed by the pandemic, some school leaders reported positive outcomes and growth in teachers’ confidence as a result of having to transform their teaching practice on short notice. School leader Katherine praised the resilience and ability of her teachers to engage with new technologies and develop new forms of pedagogy capably and efficiently.
We learnt that we could do many things, very difficult things, very quickly. Some of my staff who were not tech [savvy]… got really, not afraid of Zoom, [but] they had to learn something that was very foreign to them, and many of them were very petrified, but they did it, and they’re not afraid of that anymore. So that’s a big bonus. (Katherine, school leader, school 12, inner regional, mid ICSEA)
A second example comes from school leader James who detailed how the learning from home period improved the quality of pedagogical practice:
Probably the only positive that we can pinpoint as a staff …is … it forced us to be adaptable. It forced us to not just sit with what we had traditionally done and say we’re always going to do that. So, it was the force of change if that makes sense and we found that a positive in that we were really questioning our delivery of our teaching… So, we went “okay, we’ve actually got to think about our delivery of our teaching and learning to ensure that what we want to be learnt is being learnt”. (James, school leader, school 4, outer regional, low ICSEA)
Clearly teachers had to move away from traditional forms of teaching during the shutdown period, yet for some it led to greater introspection and adaptability, and new insights into their practice. James is quick to point out, however, that this was the only positive benefit.
Overall, the qualitative data not only confirm the patterns from the statistical analysis of reduced morale and self-efficacy (engagement) for the teachers affected by COVID during 2020 relative to the 2019 cohort. The interviews also fortify these effects, with the themes of morale and student engagement paramount in teachers’ accounts of how COVID impacted on them and their teaching.