In Conversation: How an International Survey Can Help Us Understand the Challenges the Coronavirus Poses for Educators

The coronavirus pandemic has tested many parts of modern society, including education systems in the U.S. and abroad. Teachers, principals, and students have had to quickly adjust to distance learning or e-learning—a shift for which no one was prepared. While educators are trying to provide a continuity of services to students, they’re also facing immense challenges in their communities that highlight persistent educational equity issues and disparities in technology access.

Sponsored by the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), the Teaching and Learning Survey (TALIS) covers more than 150,000 teachers and 9,000 principals in 49 education systems. It is conducted every five years.

AIR provides technical and substantive support to the National Center for Education Statistics for the TALIS survey in the U.S., including development of the survey, monitoring data collection, analyzing the data, and reporting and disseminating the results.

OECD Volume 2 was released in spring 2020. OECD Volume 1 came out in summer 2019, along with U.S. highlights.

We can gain insight into systemic challenges and job stress for educators by looking into the past. The spring 2020 release of Volume 2 of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), the largest international survey of teachers and principals, asked nationally representative samples of lower secondary teachers (grades 7-9 in the U.S.) and their principals questions about their backgrounds, work environments, professional development, and their beliefs and attitudes about teaching. Although data were gathered before the pandemic, the results offer insights about teachers and principals that may help us better understand the challenges they are experiencing now and about how to support them.

AIR Principal Researchers Matthew Clifford, Ebru Erberber, and Lisa Lachlan got together virtually to discuss the key findings of Volume 2 of TALIS, including how it might provide some context for education in the age of coronavirus. Excerpts from their conversation follow.

What does TALIS tell us about U.S. teacher and principal preparedness for challenges, such as adapting to distance learning environments?

Lisa LachlanLachlan: In the survey, most U.S. teachers (60%) report that they’ve participated in professional development that builds their skills in using technology for teaching. Normally, once teachers are trained to use a new digital tool, they’re with students in real time to test it out, giving students feedback, and monitoring their progress. If students have trouble accessing or using the technology, the teacher is there to help.

But with schools closed, this is a very different scenario. Teachers were not able to do this testing and monitoring in person. Then there is the issue of access to technology. Many students do not have the technology they need to access their classrooms digitally—and even if they do, caregivers may not be able to offer the support these students need either. Some are essential workers, some are limited in English proficiency, and some have little experience using technology. In such cases, the shift to digital learning is a greater challenge.

What other education challenges have the pandemic and TALIS highlighted?

photo of Matt CliffordClifford: In terms of the pandemic, we are beginning to see significant trauma among school-aged children. Students’ families are facing additional economic hardships, potential loss of family members, increased isolation, and concerns about food sourcing and personal safety. Educators are able to respond to these concerns, but many educators are anecdotally reporting that they feel underprepared to do so.

Social and emotional learning and trauma-sensitive practices, for example, are not well represented in principal preparation and development. Professional learning networks for principals are being repurposed to meet educators’ learning needs. For example, the leadership networks that AIR has helped develop, such as the Tennessee Rural Principals, are now being repurposed from professional learning to sharing practical knowledge for responding to the crisis. This includes community trauma—and positioning schools to handle trauma in the longer term.

Lachlan: In Volume 1 of the TALIS survey, about half of U.S. teachers (51%) report that they teach in classes where more than 10% of students have special needs—among the highest percentages across the OECD countries. U.S. teachers do express more confidence than their OECD peers in their preparation to teach special needs students, which is a positive finding. But the coronavirus will make it harder for teachers to meet the needs of students who are mentally, physically, or emotionally challenged. Teachers know that they are a lifeline for some of their students, and losing that connection is very intense.

Ebru EberberErberber: It’s also worth noting that the level of stress U.S. teachers report in the survey is relatively high. About a quarter of U.S. lower secondary teachers (26%) report they have a “lot of” stress in their work, which is higher than the average across OECD countries. The survey also provides some insight into potential sources for the “quite a bit” or “a lot” of stress teachers experience at work; about one-third of U.S. teachers (36%) cite too much grading and also report being held responsible for student achievement (35%). Interestingly, U.S. teachers don’t consider other issues, such as a lack of resources or extra duties—one of the main sources of stress internationally—as top stress factors.

Lachlan: These results may reflect the U.S. emphasis in education so heavily weighted on student achievement over the last decade or more. The pressures teachers feel are focused on testing and meeting requirements that are often rolled up into their own evaluations, their school’s evaluation, and their district’s evaluation. Now, with the large-scale cancellation of statewide testing, this is really an opportunity to think about what we’re prioritizing when we’re trying to assess the quality of our teachers. Given the challenges in the U.S. public education system in terms of inequity around so many factors teachers have to address every day, we need to start asking some tough questions. Why are we not emphasizing the teacher’s role in impacting student well-being? Should we be examining the effects of teacher support for social and emotional development, as much or more than we do student achievement?

Are there any takeaways from the TALIS findings that help us understand what educators are experiencing during the COVID-19 crisis?

Clifford: In the U.S. and internationally, the vast majority of teachers—more than 90%—report that their motivation to become a teacher was to influence the development of children and young people, according to the survey. Principals, who typically begin their careers as teachers, feel the same way. They see this as their central mission. Most teachers also believe teaching is a way for them to contribute to society. Now teachers and principals have to do this from a distance. I think the work of educators to innovate in response to the crisis is a hidden narrative. It falls on us as researchers to document their contributions.

Erberber: The primary role of teachers is teaching and learning. Arguably their more important role is to support the well-being and social-emotional development of students. Teachers will have to figure out how to support students socially in a socially distant environment. Or this role might be shifted and shared with families and neighbors.

Lachlan: Yes, and AIR is supporting educators with that shift with sessions on resilience and trauma-informed care. We know that there are elements of education that we take for granted—for example, beyond instructional capacity, teachers are a life-changing force for so many students because of the role they play in students’ lives. Yet the TALIS survey shows that only 36% of U.S. teachers believe that the teaching profession is valued in society. Yes, we are being tested with this pandemic, but I see this as an opportunity. The crisis may give us a better appreciation and understanding of the complexity of what teachers and principals do and how, in so many ways, they are an indispensable and vital part of our society.