Practice Worth Sharing: Staff Identity and Wellbeing in Changing Times

Image Credit: Originals: Unsplash, Radek Grzybowski and Dimitar Belchev, Remix by Joe Arton.

In this Spotlight on Practice Worth Sharing series post, Deborah Holt from the Moray House School of Education and Sport, shares the discussion around change and identity that emerged from the PWS sessions on the sudden move to digital teaching.  

In our Practice Worth Sharing sessions we usually discuss and explore a specific element of our practice as educators, with teaching at the forefront. Our latest session explored who we are as educators rather than what we do. We looked at the impact of the sudden move to digital teaching on our identity and the relationship between identity and wellbeing. There are no perfect solutions but there is consensus that we need to acknowledge that change does not just have practical implications, it also has a significant impact on professional identity and wellbeing.

We considered some key claims relating to change.

Change takes motivation, resilience, time and commitment. In discussion, participants explained that they felt a greater motivation towards this sudden change from face to face to digital teaching because of the context in which it was being done. Everyone understood why and in that respect, for many of us this makes the change, however challenging, easier to approach and embed.

Highly motivated educators with positive professional self-efficacy tend to be more interested in implementing change, particularly if they can see how it improves the learning of students.

We agreed that motivation was context related but we then explored how competent in our roles we felt. This is where the notion of identity has a real impact on how we embrace and embed the current changes. We may be skilled in our subject area or particular role but we can suddenly be left feeling deskilled because the medium through which we apply our skills has changed to one in which we may need support. This can erode our original self-confidence and professional identity if we are not careful.

Retaining our self-identity as we enact change is essential for the maintenance of self-esteem, commitment and passion. The way we feel reflects our professional identity. If we are unable to be the educator we want to be this can cause internal conflict.

Our driving force might be to enthuse others with a passion for our subject area and facilitate their knowledge and skills development in this discipline. If we see our ability to do this changing or diminishing, it can be a source of dissatisfaction, insecurity and stress. Our specialism feels like it is no longer enough. Our emotional commitment to our work can be threatened when change challenges our identity in this way.

Speaking personally, I have managed to maintain my identity and tackle the technical challenges of the change with confidence and a determination to continue to do my best. I am aware that I also have that other characteristic essential to change; I am resilient. Most of my teaching is about building relationships and supportive environments. My way of being an educator is to form positive relationships with students, to be a trusted member of staff, with an open door policy. The real challenge for me has been on how to build these relationships and create these environments without any face to face contact. It is an enjoyable challenge because I believe I can do it and am convinced of the benefits for students.

Communities of Support

…but this is not just about me. Through Practice Worth Sharing we are building a professional community of practice.  It is much harder to cope with change when you are working in isolation but as part of a professional learning community, we have more opportunity to develop a shared understanding of what is needed and greater sense of control. Being part of a community of support is fundamental to both effective teaching and our ability to thrive. The support gained through being in such a community can increase our resilience, sense of belonging and ability to cope with the demands of change. The change is less likely to have a negative impact on wellbeing.

Within our PWS community, some of the issues we discussed were the importance of having time to prepare, with technical support and resources; clarity of expectation and supportive leadership. We recognised the importance of making the emotional risks and the challenges explicit. If the rhetoric ignores the personal, emotional and identity-related nature of the change, it makes it harder for people to admit they are struggling in these areas; colleagues may believe they are alone in feeling this way and they will be less likely to seek help; their self-efficacy and wellbeing are likely to fall further.

There is so much uncertainty and so many new things at once with no end in sight. This can become overwhelming. A first step is to accept that this is how life is and talk about it. We also need to help our students achieve this acceptance. Many are asking for a certainty we cannot give because we need the freedom to reflect on how things are going and be responsive in our planning. We would all benefit from a culture of tolerance of uncertainty.

In summary, it was good to acknowledge the identity-related and emotional impact of the current changes and to be part of a supportive professional community as we pooled strengths, shared ideas, discussed challenges and the ways we are overcoming these.

Deborah Holt

Dr Deborah Holt is a Bicentennial Fellow in the Moray House School of Education and Sport. Since 2010, she has been working in a range of Initial Teacher Education programmes as lecturer, course organiser and programme director. Her research is in positive mental health promotion in education and she specialises in pupil wellbeing and health and wellbeing teaching in primary education.

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