Blog 4: Remote control? Teachers’ experiences of working away from their school environment during the spring 2020 lockdown

Rachel Mathieson, Judith Hanks, Chris Forde

January 2021

During 2020, we invited teachers to talk to us about their experiences of teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic. As 2021 begins with a new lockdown, and schools in England move back substantially to online learning for most pupils, teachers’ testimonies about working from home during the March-May 2020 lockdown provide valuable insights into the working environment to which teachers are more generally accustomed in their schools and colleges.

Stress during lockdown

Teachers’ working lives are known to be stressful (Ofsted, 2019). The most recent report by the charity Education Support suggests that stress levels rose between June/July 2020 and October 2020, with the proportion of teachers saying they felt stressed rising from 62% in the June/July survey to 84% in October. Teacher unions have also reported (NASUWT, 2020) increased workloads and intense pressure on teachers resulting from the pandemic.

Our research indicates that teachers faced considerable pressure during lockdown, particularly from sudden changes and new demands placed on them. As Asbury and Kim reflected in their paper, the perception that teachers were sitting at home with their feet up, having a holiday during the lockdown, was very far from the mark. We have written previously about the stresses of having to convert, literally overnight and with little or no training, to online/remote working, getting to grips with the technology which this involved, and spending more time than usual preparing lessons or activities because of having to present them in this very different format. Teachers also emphasised that, along with many workers sent home from offices and other workplaces, they were often home-educating their own children on top of trying to do their own work, sharing their home working spaces, and struggling with access to devices with other family members.

Positive revelations of working during the lockdown

However, we have also observed some interesting twists in the tale, which speak volumes about the experience which teaching has become in our schools and colleges.

As part of a Nuffield-funded study about teacher anxiety over time, Allen, Jerrim and Sims reported in 2020 that state sector teachers experienced a moment of respite during the March-May lockdown. We can identify, from our qualitative data, that this respite was not due to the workload suddenly lessening or teachers ceasing to teach. Schools remained open throughout the lockdown, although only some teachers and some children were attending in person. Rather, it was because certain aspects of teachers’ ‘normal’ working life, aspects which generally cause teachers frustration and anxiety, went temporarily into abeyance.

Some teachers reported that, although they missed their students and face-to-face teaching, and pressures such as those outlined above were real and present, they felt a sense of relief at not being in school. One department head even reported a feeling of “lockdown nostalgia”, as in the autumn term he looked back on that short period of time as a “little oasis” in his working life.

We have identified three factors which teachers report contributed to a boost in their well-being. First, and most significantly, teachers reported feeling freed from the constant anxiety – the “tyranny”, as a department head put it – of being watched, monitored and judged:

What was missing was…the constant threat of the judgmental ‘learning walk’, the lesson observation…You never know when they’re gonna knock at your door…the removal of all of that was the most enormous relief. I didn’t have link meetings, I didn’t have to produce data, and the management attitude was, just get it done, do your best. And we did…

Another secondary department head explained that, because nobody knew what ‘normal’ looked like any more, nobody could tell them they were not doing things right:

…it’s almost like the pressure was lifted… it felt refreshing…

One teacher, a department head who had been suffering for months from work-related stress, which had resulted in hair loss, told us that her hair had begun to grow back during lockdown. Another sixth form college teacher went so far as to say that she felt “almost liberated and very happy and very enthusiastic in the first few weeks”.

Primary teachers too told us that they had had a weight taken off their shoulders. One said:

It did take a lot of pressure off, jumping through the hoops – what’s going to happen next? What do we have to do now? What do we have to do, what we should have done last week? – was gone, and, we did have contact with school, but not as much as, walking through the office and past the head teacher and the deputy and all these people. That went, which was quite refreshing, to just have that break.

This alleviation of pressure is related to a second factor, which many of our teacher participants identified explicitly: during the lockdown period in spring 2020, despite the changes to working practices, the sudden move to online provision, and possibly even a greater volume of work, their work/life balance shifted. One Early Years teacher, as well as saying she was working extremely long hours providing online lessons and resources as required by the private school in which she worked, told us:

I felt like I found a new rhythm and work/life balance… I probably wish I could [still] do some of the things I did in lockdown like that, like going out for a run or just going for a walk in an afternoon, which you could do, but now it’s back to winter and you’re going to work in the dark and coming back in the dark.

A third factor, permeating what the teachers told us, was that teachers felt a sense of autonomy, creativity and authority which they did not feel in their ‘normal’ practice, or had not felt prior to the COVID-19 crisis. Having to think – having the chance to think – about their practice afresh was liberating; teachers were able to draw on their professional knowledge in problem solving, reconstructing the curriculum, improvising new, online relationships with their pupils, redrawing resources, with a determination to make this new provision work as well as it could. Whilst teachers faced heavy pressures, a recurring theme was a sense of community and a commitment to their common moral purpose: to make a difference to their pupils’ lives. As a primary teacher told us:

One thing to take away from it is how resilient, and how up for it people were to make it work. And I think that’s one of the things about teaching that you do. You work around the problems to make it positive.

The lockdown period was also used to devise ways of continuing hybrid remote/in-person provision in the autumn term, whilst it was not fully understood what the autumn term would bring. A secondary department head reflected in November 2020 on the spring lockdown:

We were working, thinking about what we’re doing, planning together, it almost, it was like a mental reset. We didn’t stop work and we kept working but it was a reset to actually have an improved department happen, create resources to make life easier when we do go back, and that was quite nice. I probably feel happier now in terms of my future and staying in teaching than I did before lockdown, even though my work rate, I’d say that I’m working as hard, if not harder than ever, and still feel tired, but I feel mentally, happier in terms of my, my teaching profession, as it were, being a teacher.

As noted earlier, our data do not suggest that lockdown led to an aggregate improvement in teachers’ well-being. On the contrary: teachers continued to face considerable pressures, from the demands of online delivery, and the dramatically altered face-to-face delivery, not to mention health and safety concerns, for those working in person in schools during the lockdown. However, having the opportunity to exercise and draw on professional expertise, being trusted to exercise professional judgement without constant scrutiny, is something which teachers valued highly. When and where it happened, teachers experienced a positive transformation in their working life. This is surely a lesson worth learning.

Thisis part of a series of blogs and accompanying briefing documents to emerge from a project funded in part by the Leeds Social Science Institute through the ESRC Impact Acceleration Account, in partnership with the two largest teaching unions, the NEU and the NASUWT.