‘Exhausted beyond measure’: what teachers are saying about COVID-19 and the disruption to education



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Louise Phillips, James Cook University and Melissa Cain, Australian Catholic University

All Victorian school students will be learning remotely from Wednesday. Prior to the state’s premier Daniel Andrews announcing a tightening of restrictions over the weekend, only students in prep to Year 10 in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire were learning from home.

But on Wednesday, schools will close for Year 11 and 12 students in Melbourne and the Mitchell Shire, as well as every student across Victoria — except for students in special schools and children of essential workers.

Like with the last remote learning period in Australia, the current uncertainty in Victoria might cause disarray and stress among teachers, parents and students.




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In response to the closures in April, with seven other researchers across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the US, we designed a survey that asked teachers 16 open-ended questions about how COVID-19 affected them and their students.

The teachers ranged from early childhood education through to school and university. We also included other educators, such as at museums.

The survey opened on May 4, 2020 while most countries in the survey engaged in home-based learning. There have been 621 responses to date. Of these, 179 are from Australian teachers, with 65% having over 21 years teaching experience, from which this article reports.


Number of respondents, by sector.
Author provided

Our survey gained rich responses about the sudden closure of schools, transition to online learning, and the difficulties of negotiating social-distancing and increased hygiene maintenance.

Relentless workload

When asked, “How has COVID-19 impacted your teaching and learning?”, responses most commonly referred to technical issues, then the pragmatics of teaching and workload.

Overwhelmingly, teachers from early childhood to higher education experienced a significant increase in their workload. One teacher said the sudden change to online learning created “endless paperwork and programming issues” and “has been relentless”.

Another said

It’s definitely added significantly to my workload and taken the holiday time that would normally provide some respite, meaning I am closer to burnout than ever.

Social distancing requirements also increased teachers’ workload, creating “lots of additional cleaning requirements and having to collect children from the carpark as families are not allowed to enter”.

One teacher said

It is draining. Exhausting. Time consuming. The work never stops.

‘I don’t want to teach anymore’

The impact on the mental and physical health of teachers was the next most frequently expressed — after the technical, pragmatic and workload issues.

One teacher told us:

I struggle to sleep at night for thinking about work all the time. I’m very stressed and anxious; my physical health has been impacted.

Another said:

It has challenged everything I enjoy about teaching.

And another wrote:

All the teachers I work with are EXHAUSTED beyond measure.

Teachers said a lack of voice and agency in decision making made them feel “unmotivated” or “unvalued”.

(we) may have felt more supported had we been consulted and listened to by management and government.

One teacher wrote:

In the beginning, I felt I could have dropped dead at home and my workplace wouldn’t even notice.

Another said:

Going through this, not feeling safe, and then seeing teachers belittled in the media, has made me come to the realisation that I don’t want to teach anymore.

‘It was a scramble’

When asked, “What are the issues you are struggling with and need support with?” some teachers mentioned the management and decision-making concerning school closures.

The word cloud below shows the most frequent words in response to the question.


Most frequent words in response to ‘What are the issues you are struggling with and need support with?’


One teacher said:

Our school closed down at the end of term one. It was a scramble and our management made some decisions which made life harder for teachers.

One early childhood and childcare teacher said:

The government has largely ignored the realities of EC [early childhood] environments, the impossibility of social distancing with children under five, and the fact we have high exposure to bodily fluids.

But the most frequently mentioned struggle for teachers in Australia was maintaining quality in pedagogy and curriculum delivery. Teachers are worried the quality of education might be compromised during this uncertain time.

One teacher said:

We are in social repair time. And you know what — no one cares what we are doing in our rooms — just get through ‘til term’s end.

The teachers named student disengagement, uncompleted work and the disparity of access to online materials as the key challenges to quality.




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The second most frequent struggle was insufficient time to attend to teaching and learning demands. Many reported working 60% to three times more hours than they were contracted and paid. The sudden shift to online required teachers to self manage production and delivery of online teaching and learning materials, without adequate training and resourcing.

In the longer term, this sudden change in education may lead us to think of innovation in the area. But for now, teachers, schools and students are just trying to survive, and they need all the resources necessary to make it through this year — and beyond.The Conversation

Louise Phillips, Associate Professor in Education, James Cook University and Melissa Cain, Lecturer in Inclusive Education and Arts Education, Australian Catholic University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

No wonder isolation’s so tiring. All those extra, tiny decisions are taxing our brains



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Ben Newell, UNSW

Anxiety, depression, loneliness and stress are affecting our sleep patterns and how tired we feel.

But we may be getting tired for another reason. All those tiny decisions we make every day are multiplying and taking their toll.

Is it safe to nip out for milk? Should I download the COVIDSafe app? Is it OK to wear my pyjamas in a Zoom meeting?

All of these kinds of decisions are in addition to the familiar, everyday ones. What shall I have for breakfast? What shall I wear? Do I hassle the kids to brush their teeth?

So what’s going on?




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We’re increasing our cognitive load

One way to think about these extra decisions we’re making in isolation is in terms of “cognitive load”. We are trying to think about too many things at once, and our brains can only cope with a finite amount of information.

Researchers have been looking into our limited capacity for cognition or attention for decades.

Early research described a “bottleneck” through which information passes. We are forced to attend selectively to a portion of all the information available to our senses at a given time.

These ideas grew into research on “working memory”: there are limits on the number of mental actions or operations we can carry out. Think of remembering a phone or bank account number. Most people find it very hard to remember more than a few at once.




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And it can affect how we make decisions

To measure the effects of cognitive load on decision-making, researchers vary the amount of information people are given, then look at the effects.

In one study, we asked participants to predict a sequence of simple events (whether a green or red square would appear at the top or bottom of a screen) while keeping track of a stream of numbers between the squares.

Think of this increase in cognitive load as a bit like trying to remember a phone number while compiling your shopping list.

When the cognitive load is not too great, people can successfully “divide and conquer” (by paying attention to one task first).

In our study, participants who had to learn the sequence and monitor the numbers made just as many successful predictions, on average, as those who only had to learn the sequence.

Presumably they divided their attention between keeping track of the simple sequence, and rehearsing the numbers.

More and more decisions take their toll

But when tasks become more taxing, decision making can start to deteriorate.

In another study, Swiss researchers used the monitoring task to examine the impact of cognitive load on risky choices. They asked participants to choose between pairs of gambles, such as:

A) 42% chance of $14 and 58% chance of $85, or

B) 8% chance of $24 or 92% chance of $44.

Participants made these choices both with their attention focused solely on the gambles, and, in another part of the experiment, while also keeping track of sequences of letters played to them via headphones.

The key finding was not that increasing cognitive load made people inherently more risk-seeking (tending to choose A) or risk-averse (B), but that it simply made them more inconsistent in their choices. Increased cognitive load made them switch.

The fruit salad or the cake? Well, it depends partly on your cognitive load.
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It is a bit like choosing the fruit salad over the cake under normal circumstances, but switching to the cake when you are cognitively overloaded.

It is not because a higher cognitive load causes a genuine change in your preference for unhealthy food. Your decisions just get “noisier” or inconsistent when you have more on your mind.

‘To do two things at once is to do neither’

This proverbial wisdom (attributed to the Roman slave Publilius Syrus) rings true – with the caveat that we sometimes can do more than one thing if they are familiar, well-practised decisions.

But in the current business-not-as-usual context there are many new decisions we never thought we’d need to make (is it safe to walk in the park when it is busy?).

This unfamiliar territory means we need to take the time to adapt and recognise our cognitive limitations.




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Although it might seem as though all those tiny decisions are mounting up, it perhaps isn’t just their number. The root cause of this additional cognitive load could be the undercurrent of additional uncertainty surrounding these novel decisions.

For some of us, the pandemic has displaced a bunch of decisions (do I have time to get to the bus stop?). But the ones that have replaced them are tinged with the anxiety surrounding the ultimate cost that we, or family members, might pay if we make the wrong decision.

So, it is no wonder these new decisions are taking their toll.

So what can I do?

Unless you have had ample experience with the situation, or the tasks you are trying to do are simple, then adding load is likely to leader to poorer, inconsistent or “noisier” decisions.

The pandemic has thrown us into highly unfamiliar territory, with a raft of new, emotionally tinged decisions to face.

The simple advice is to recognise this new complexity, and not feel you have to do everything at once. And “divide and conquer” by separating your decisions and giving each one the attention it – and you – deserve.The Conversation

Ben Newell, Professor of Cognitive Psychology, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.