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Friday, November 27, 2020

COVID-19 could herald a change for educators, despite survey showing high levels of stress, burnout

The current COVID-19 crisis could see a change in attitudes towards principals and teachers, according to researchers from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) and Deakin University.

Professor of Education Leadership at Deakin University, Philip Riley, said while the swift change to online learning has seen principals and teachers putting in more hours, there could be a silver lining for educators around the country.

“The good news about that is I think for many parents, there’s a new respect for teachers that they had sort of forgotten about.

“Out of a terrible tragedy that could actually be a good positive thing.”

This comes as ACU and Deakin release the results from the annual Australian Principal Occupational Health, Safety and Wellbeing Survey,showing an upward trend in principals experiencing stress and burnout from their jobs.

The research was conducted in 2019, before the bushfire and COVID-19 crises, and found principals were subjected to threats of violence, physical violence and bullying at a far greater rate than the general population, as well as record-high numbers reporting concerns for the mental health of staff and students.

“Last year, school leaders told us they were struggling from many serious work-related issues including stress caused by parents, burnout from the sheer quantity of work, employer demands and student and staff mental health issues,” said Professor Herb Marsh from ACU.    

“The combined impact of record levels of heavy workloads and offensive behaviour by parents and students is a risk to school leaders’ long-term health and even their life expectancy.” 

Professor Riley said the results have been largely consistent over the nine years the survey has been conducted.

“[Stress levels are] the thing that has been trending up across the life of the survey in most places,” he said.

ACT has some surprising results

Locally, he said the ACT has some surprising results, namely with high levels of offensive behaviour, however noted the ACT’s small sample size.

“It surprises me every year that the ACT does very badly on things like offensive behaviour from parents and students.

“We have to be a little bit careful because it’s small, it doesn’t take too many numbers for percentages to change,” he said. 

Secretary of the Australian Education Union ACT Branch, Glenn Fowler, said the results are “disturbing”, particularly reported stress levels, which leave principals vulnerable in dealing with incidents such as violence.

“We should be really concerned about those [stress levels]. It’s an ongoing conversation in the profession,” he said.

Mr Fowler said while a lot of ACT principals have “thrived” in the current environment, the challenge to be so responsive in an unpredictable environment is an “extraordinary load”.

“A lot of our principals have thrived in that environment, but maybe they won’t know the full impact on them at this time,” he said.

Professor Riley said next year’s survey, for which data is to be collected in the third school term, could provide a window into the effects of COVID-19 on educators, and whether attitudes towards them have changed, “quite quickly”.

“People are certainly doing extraordinary extra amounts of work, which presumably will be unsustainable,” he said.

“If we have really got on top of this crisis … and schools start to open up and things go back to normal, there’s opportunities for things to be a bit different.”

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