PETALING JAYA, March 19 ― The Covid-19 pandemic has rewritten the syllabus for the 2020 and 2021 school years.

While stress isn’t new to educators all over the world, what they’re experiencing now makes their usual stress seem like a walk in the park.

A study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, titled Motivation and Continuance Intention towards Online Instruction among Teachers during the Covid-19 pandemic discovered that some 980 teachers in Romania experienced burnout and “technostress” between April and May last year while adjusting to the virtual learning environment.

The study also said that the teachers had to cope with many stressors within their professions including the ambiguity of their roles, difficulties in class management and exhaustion from teaching online.

Another research conducted by Mental Health Research Canada found that the pandemic and its effects on school closures have had a huge impact on stress and anxiety amongst teachers in particular, with participants indicating that their anxiety had increased from five to 25 per cent.

And, well, who can blame them?

Whether it’s in the primary, secondary or tertiary level of education, educators have had to adjust to a new and unfamiliar way of teaching during the pandemic.

They’re overwhelmed with e-mails and messages from students and parents, grappling with unfamiliar tech, having to reinvent their lessons and also find different ways of doing things that have become almost second nature to them.

On top of that, teachers are regular people too, living regular lives like the rest of us and have to juggle with their own responsibilities at home, while getting used to the new normal of teaching.

Many teachers have struggled to conduct classes online after doing it face-to-face for years. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon
Many teachers have struggled to conduct classes online after doing it face-to-face for years. ― Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

Hard to feel good about teaching

Sue (not her real name), who has 24 years of experience teaching at primary and secondary school level, told Malay Mail that it’s been “harder than ever” to teach since the pandemic hit, as online learning has taken a lot out of her.

“It’s hard to feel good about teaching right now. Preparing for this new year was physically and mentally exhausting,” said the 51-year-old.

“Teaching online is very demanding and uncomfortable. It’s not that easy to talk to a screen of multiple blank and muted tiles all-day.”

She added that with Form Five students returning to school this year, there’s also been an increase in workload for some teachers, like herself, as they have to conduct classes both online and face-to-face ― which isn’t really boosting their morale.

“Teachers generally aren’t trained for e-learning since it isn’t included in the curriculum. But now we have a new checklist of things to do for online classes.

“We find ourselves having to learn how to create and manage virtual classrooms, and make the Form Five students feel as safe and normal as possible back at school at the same time. It’s just really draining,” she said.

Sue also said that she’s frightened to make a mistake during online classes, such as leaving herself on mute, as she wouldn’t be able to handle the embarrassment of such a mistake.

“Half the time I have to ask my kids for help to use these online platforms because I’m terrified of making a silly mistake and having my students be angry at me for not knowing how to do things online.”

Some teachers are having to handle accommodating Form Five students at school and conducting online classes as well.  ― Picture by Firdaus Latif
Some teachers are having to handle accommodating Form Five students at school and conducting online classes as well. ― Picture by Firdaus Latif

She also said that there’s a lot of added stress when it comes to carrying out tasks like grading or providing feedback on student work digitally.

Sue, who hails from Subang Jaya, added that even when she gets the hang of going online to teach, the internet connection always seems to fail her and her students, making it a lot more frustrating for all parties.

“Imagine you’re explaining something to the students and you get disconnected. You lose your train of thought and now scramble to get yourself back online, hoping that your students haven’t already left,” she said.

“It gets annoying after a while. There have been occasions when I’ve been disconnected from the Internet at least three to four times a class. Throughout the day students will also come in and out of our virtual classrooms because their Internet fails.

“But we can’t blame them either because not everyone has Internet access or the tools to study online.”

Questioning ability as educator

The stresses of online teaching affect educators at tertiary institutions as well, as private university lecturer Amir (not his real name) noted that he’s also had a hard time teaching online, and often questions his ability as an educator.

Amir said that he feels he’s not able to meet the needs of his students or help them understand concepts, due to the limitations of virtual classrooms.

Many people often don’t see the extensive prep work done by teachers behind the scenes, to make the learning experience better for their students. ― Picture via Pexels.com
Many people often don’t see the extensive prep work done by teachers behind the scenes, to make the learning experience better for their students. ― Picture via Pexels.com

“It’s so hard to teach online. In the world of Zoom and Google Classrooms, all you see are blank backgrounds with names. I can’t observe body language or see what they’re doing,” he said.

“I don’t even know if they are listening or able to absorb the information most of the time. It’s like I can’t help my students anymore. Like I’m not the lecturer I worked so hard to be.”

The 46-year-old added that he also gets sad when students don’t turn up for online classes, as teachers and lecturers often go to great lengths to smoothly reintegrate the syllabus digitally and do their best to stimulate their students.

“I’ve made a perfect corner in my room to have my virtual classes and even bought a special light so that the students can see me clearly. Basically I’ve moved everything around so that I have the perfect set up to be able to teach efficiently,” he said.

“So it does get a little demoralising when there are ‘no-shows’, especially when you really try your best to make things easier for them.

“In normal times, I’d reach out to them to try and understand what’s going on. But now, with everyone going through so many difficulties like their parents losing their jobs or having to care for family members at home, I just don’t want to be another problem or source of stress for my students.”

Recovering from burnout

Faith Foo, a certified Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapist and professional counsellor said that there are a number of ways educators like Sue and Amir can deal with the added stress and anxiety they are experiencing.

Foo said that one of the important steps to practice to deal with burnout is to “psychologically detach” yourself from your work.

“Psychological detachment is core to recovery but it’s not easy to achieve. You have to do activities that don’t encourage you to think or stress about work.

“Dealing with burnout is about healing yourself rather than focusing on becoming more productive or better at work itself,” she said.

“You have to find time and space for yourself so that you don’t have to engage in things that are work-related or stressful.”

She said that socialising with friends and family can be a good way to help educators cope with being deprived of the social connection they usually have with their students.

Spending time with your loved ones is a great way to detach yourself from work. ― Picture via Pexels.com
Spending time with your loved ones is a great way to detach yourself from work. ― Picture via Pexels.com

“Feeling connected with our friends and family is one of the most important predictors of our physical health and emotional wellbeing. We are social animals. It’s not okay if we don’t socialise and our brains react negatively when we feel isolated or excluded.”

However, educators should refrain from “complaining about work” to their loved ones when socialising, as it will inhibit the psychological detachment process.

Foo also said that educators should prioritise doing activities that make them happy and fit their schedules around the things that make them happy.

“Joyful activities must be present in your life on a consistent basis. Joy should become your priority. If you wait until you have time to do things you like, you will rarely have the time for it,” she said.

“You have to make a mental shift to make things that make you happy an essential part of your schedule, where everything else must fit around those activities.”