We recently reported on our research that catalogued in detail the experiences of 15 teachers based in England from diaries they were asked to keep during the first half of 2021. This blog describes how the research team set about collecting the data and sets out some of the insights the teachers provided.
"I can't switch off, my mind races a lot on all the things I need to do”: Teachers’ diary reflections of working during the pandemic".
Scope of the research project
The pandemic has raised many questions about education – from reflections of how we use digital tools for learning and assessment(1) to concerns about national system responses to disruption(2). Our interest lay in capturing the lived, everyday experiences of a group of teachers during the first five months of 2021, to better understand what changed for them.
No one could anticipate how education would develop as the pandemic unfolded, but we wondered whether the things that were happening in schools could be affecting things like teacher wellbeing or educational equity.
We decided that the best way to capture emerging practice was to ask a group of teachers from a range of schools in England to keep diaries of their experiences.
Figure 1. The time frame of the diaries in the context of the education timeline in England. Feb 2020 – Aug 2021
We worked with 15 teachers, with different subject backgrounds, who submitted six diaries over a 14-week period (February to May 2021).
This was a period of significant change for anyone working in schools in England, as it covered a further period of school closure and then reopening. It was also a period during which there was emerging information about how teachers would need to deal with exam cancellations, by providing teacher assessed grades.
What they told us
Our teachers described how they had to change some of their teaching and assessment practices (see table below) and how this impacted their workload, with consequences for their wellbeing.
Many of the teachers had explicit concerns, based on their experiences, about the potential for increased educational inequity among students.
Table 1. Changes made by teachers to taught content, teaching approaches and assessment practices during the pandemic
It was common for the teachers we surveyed to describe how tiring it was to be teaching during this stage of the pandemic. Their diary reflections capture various issues that they were juggling, and how they impacted their sense of professional achievement.
"I feel as though I am working very hard - but the monotony of doing it all by just sitting in front of a screen probably isn't helping. Certainly, what I'm doing at the moment doesn't feel like the essence of what good education should be all about."
[English Teacher, Diary 1]
"My workload has been teetering on the side of unsustainable, as the time spent on marking and feedback has increased in the pandemic."
[English Teacher, Diary 1]
"I have always enjoyed my job but in the last few weeks I can honestly say I have been dreading going into work because of the demands being placed on us."
[Science Teacher, Diary 5]
Impact on wellbeing
The teachers also described how working during the pandemic affected their wellbeing. Teachers identified blended (hybrid) learning, increased social isolation from peers, and ongoing assessment uncertainty as being particularly damaging to the mental wellbeing of peers and students.
"Older students and teachers are stressed and low due to uncertainty about assessment routes this year… and are finding the monotony of online learning pretty miserable."
[English Teacher, Diary 1]
We could also see that these issues were affecting the physical wellbeing of some teachers, which itself had knock-on implications for workload.
"Teacher 'absence' through illness is very high. Lots of colleagues are phoning in unable to deliver lessons due to headaches, migraines, etc."
[Science Teacher, Diary 1]
"I have been battling a migraine this week, with only one day of feeling ok."
[Science Teacher, Diary 3]
Our teachers’ concerns about how the pandemic was potentially affecting educational equity were common with other research (e.g., students’ differential access to learning resources, and variances in absence levels for some student groups).
"Live lessons are difficult for students [with multiple siblings in the house] as either their living space cannot accommodate live lessons for all the siblings, or there simply are not enough electronic devices to allow all siblings to attend these lessons live. For some students, laptops have been given out by the school but sadly the demand is still outweighing the supply."
[PE Teacher, Diary 2]
And our teachers were concerned about how the potential ‘over-focus’ of attention on students in the examination years was to the detriment of learners’ opportunities in other years.
"My additional workload has made me seriously consider leaving the teaching profession over the Easter period. I have questioned my ability to support students effectively across all year groups and I think that the time we will have to use to complete the Teacher Assessed Grades will be to the detriment of our teaching of other year groups."
[Science Teacher, Diary 6]
Overall, we found very consistent experiences among the teachers completing the diaries irrespective of the school in which they worked, or subject they taught, allowing us to draw some general recommendations for the future. These would appear to be particularly apposite given the potential impact of the Omicron variant:
- Targeted support for students and schools – teachers have concerns about particular groups of students, and targeted support for the most marginalised is important. More research that identifies the students who are most vulnerable during remote learning (and in the aftermath of the return to in-person teaching) would help to inform the targeted support for such students.
- Future disruption – uncertainty was a significant source of workload for teachers, and it contributed greatly to undermining their wellbeing and that of their students. In the event of future disruption to assessment, greater decisiveness and earlier decision making is crucial to enable teachers to plan more effectively.
- Digital assessment – as possibilities for digital assessment in the future are discussed it is important to remain mindful that not all students and schools have the same level of access to technology or proficiency in technology skills. Many schools attempted digital assessments during the pandemic, with varying degrees of success, which has highlighted concerns around fairness and validity.
If you would like to read the full report, it is available online on the Assessment Research and Development webpages.
This blog forms part of our series of blogs into principles for the future of education.
1↩ What do we mean by 'digital' and how does that impact assessment? 2021, Sarah Hughes, Cambridge University Press & Assessment.
2↩ Prior to pandemic, was England getting worse? 2021, Tim Oates CBE, Cambridge University Press & Assessment.