Imagine the most calm, resilient, stress-free person you know. No situation can shatter the rationality with which they act; no problem is too challenging or beyond their capabilities; no apparent signs of crippling self-doubt and anxiety interfere in their day-to-day life.
Now imagine putting this person in a school.
Would their resilience, rationality and confidence protect them from the challenges that we face on a daily basis? It’s difficult to say. Certainly, the school environment is a unique place to work: it can be internally competitive without outwardly admitting so; it can be exceedingly hierarchical without obvious personal ambition; but it can also be one of the most prominent causes of stress and anxiety, as well as a refreshing antedote, at times.
Let’s face it: it can be chaos! Many people offer a sympathetic ‘awh’ or a sharp intake of breath when we tell them that we’re teachers. But is it possible to conceive of a way in which personal character traits, innate or self-taught, can mitigate the chaotic, stressful school environment?
In a previous post, we’ve explored the facts around teacher retention and the problems associated with the school environment in how it induces stress. But when reflecting on this, we started to consider whether perhaps certain personality traits like self-efficacy, and techniques, like mindfulness, can mitigate against teacher burnout and promote wellbeing.
Self-efficacy: what is it and why is it relevant to teachers?
Self-efficacy is a concept originally proposed by psychologist Albert Bandura who describes it as a personal consideration of “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”. Essentially, how much belief you have in the power to affect situations. Of course, a teacher who believes strongly in their own efficacy will be resilient, able to solve problems, reflective and able to learn from their experiences.
However, without this, a teacher can harbour feelings of self-doubt, anxiety and a sense of being ineffectual. Simply put, self-efficacy is key to a teacher’s sense of wellbeing.
The question now becomes: how on earth, if at all, can we improve our sense of efficacy?!
Mindfulness: could it reduce stress and support self-efficacy?
One of the most prominent terms in the zeitgeist of millennial culture is the concept of mindfulness. This term is used to refer to a state of intentional awareness of the present, without judging the moment in any specific way. Being mindful often means ‘living in the present’ without agonising over the past or worrying about the future. And, to accompany the burgeoning invasion of technology, it’s no wonder that there are many ways in which technology attempts to tap into this movement and offer ways of becoming more mindful. Some of these include meditation apps, such as Calm or Headspace, and podcasts, such as Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s ‘Feel Better Live More’ and Fearne Cotton’s ‘Happy Place’.
The irony that technology, the very thing that induces anxiety for many, can offer an antedote to modern-day stressors is not lost. But personally, I have found these to be helpful, albeit temporarily, in aiding a sense of escapism from the stress of a busy, cold, dark January day in the classroom.
Initially, the research seems promising. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the 1970s by Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, used mindfulness techniques to attempt to reduce stress. Overall, it showed a significant reduction in general stress after completion of the stress reduction intervention.
However, the results are a little more damning in the long term. A study published in the Dove Press journal: Psychology Research and Behavior Management aimed to explore whether mindfulness could impact self-efficacy (remember: self-efficacy is the kryptonite of wellbeing). It concludes that mindfulness had some impact on self-efficacy in the short-term but ultimately states that “the mindfulness intervention significantly decreased self-efficacy”.
Is mindfulness a type of tertiary intervention that simply isn’t up to the challenge of tackling deep-rooted personality traits and systematic work-place flaws?
But it’s not black and white; there are some more promising studies. For example, research published in the American Journal of Education (November 2018) investigates teachers’ experience with stress and the mechanisms of change related to developing resilience following a mindfulness-based intervention program, Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE).
Fascinatingly, the study concludes that:
“The results suggest that the amount of stress teachers experience is less important than how they conceptualize their stress. Teachers who developed resilience exercised mindful awareness and nonreactivity coupled with a healthy distress tolerance and sense of efficacy.”
It goes on to state that:
“These results suggest that CARE may cultivate resilience by improving teachers’ awareness, emotional regulation, and collegiality, which, when coupled with healthy distress tolerance and efficacy, operates as a protective factor against burnout.”
As a final point of interest from this study, it offers some suggestions regarding the adaptations that could occur in the way that schools are run, claiming that mindfulness through the CARE program could facilitate a better mindset of efficacy in its employees through shifting its focus in professional development.
We’re veering slightly away from the mindfulness that’s popularised by millennials now. But there is something to be learned here. Could an environment that cultivates self-efficacy, whether or not it can be stimulated through mindfulness, be a solution to teacher burnout?
I want to finish by drawing upon one final study: a survey, named Teacher Self-efficacy, Voice and Leadership, commissioned by Education International Research Institute in February 2012. The purpose of the survey was to enable teachers to express their views about responsibility, leadership and autonomy in schools. It also enabled teachers to comment on the policies that would enhance self-efficacy. There were 175 participants from across the world.
The results make for an interesting read. Words that come up again and again: collaboration, influence, transferring knowledge, coaching and mentoring, relationships, community.
The conclusion: a sense of collective self-efficacy empowers teaching staff. The more a group of people nurture and develop their professional skills together, the more likely they are to feel more resilient, calm and confident. That person you imagined at the beginning? That can be a teacher, after all!
So, what can schools be doing to create collective self-efficacy and, as a result, reduce the likelihood of burnout?
- Allow staff the opportunity to be continually learning; development of professional knowledge enables a sense of self-efficacy.
- Offer time for collaboration in the development of the curriculum; teachers who work together feel collectively empowered.
- Integrate opportunities for mindfulness where possible: whether a five minute pause during a two hour CPD for meditation, or a more established mindfulness program; establish a sense of being present in an environment that is continually reflecting on past mistakes and looking towards future exams.
- Allow opportunities for mentoring and coaching beyond the Trainee and NQT level; a more relational school is a more resilient and confident one.
- Encourage discussion: a community of teachers who feel that they are working towards a common purpose is a powerful tool to mitigate the radically isolating feeling of stress and anxiety.
Thank you for reading and continuing to follow us in our endeavour to explore teacher wellbeing.
Rachel and Sam
Interesting links and cited literature:
‘A systematic review of the relationship between self-efficacy and burnout in teachers’, Carol G. Brown
DovePress, ‘Mindfulness and self-efficacy in pain perception, stress and academic performance. The influence of mindfulness on cognitive processes’
‘Stress and Release: Case Studies of Teacher Resilience Following a Mindfulness-Based Intervention’, American Journal of Education, November 2018
‘TEACHER SELF-EFFICACY, VOICE AND LEADERSHIP: TOWARDS A POLICY FRAMEWORK FOR EDUCATION INTERNATIONAL’, John Bangs and David Frost University of Cambridge Faculty of Education