- Year 2022
- NSF Noyce Award # 1540794
- First Name Meena
- Last Name Balgopal
Laura Sample McMeeking
Elizabeth Diaz-Clark, Colorado State University
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the crucial need for science literacy in the U.S., while simultaneously severely disrupting our educational systems and the individuals within them. Teachers were asked to learn new skills, take on expanded responsibilities, and reimagine what their roles as teachers mean. The overnight change in expectations was exhausting for some educators, and anxiety about teaching in these new modalities was a significant contributor to teacher burnout during the pandemic. These responses are concerning because if teachers feel unsupported, unprepared, or unhappy with the profession, it may exacerbate teacher shortages. Teacher attrition, especially in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), has been a concern for teacher educators and school districts, even before the pandemic. Responding to crises requires that actors within and across systems demonstrate some level of professional resilience, enabling the system to withstand both local and more expansive turbulences. Hence, it is critical that the professional resilience of high-quality STEM teachers, those most vulnerable to leaving the teaching profession during a global crisis, is understood. With these and other COVID-era studies, the broader STEM community can make informed decisions of how to best support and advocate for the professionals who can encourage diverse students to enter STEM early in their educational journeys.
With the overall goal of better understanding professional resilience of STEM teachers, our four studies focused on exploring the perceptions of their own professional resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic by trying to identify what variables affected high-quality and professionally committed STEM teachers’ intentions to remain or leave the teaching profession (Balgopal et al., 2022). This analysis was extended to include a look at how STEM teachers at different professional stages both perceive (the system and their success) and respond to their professional landscapes (by remaining or leaving) during the unexpected crisis (Wright, 2021). Integral to the understanding of how teachers respond to changes and uncertainty within a system is an evaluation of their agency. We sought to unpack the challenges and capitals that teachers identified as impacting their professional choices in order to better understand what factors may influence their ability to achieve agency within their nested professional system, and therefore their decisions to remain or leave (Balgopal et al., in review). Adjacent to achieving professional resilience, are the potentially powerful forms of inspiration for teachers that can lead to transformation and persistence rather than burnout during typical disturbances, as well as world-wide crises. We aimed to learn how we can build capacities for critical hope to support teacher agency and professional resilience (Weinberg et al., 2022).
The COVID pandemic provided us an opportunity to survey STEM teachers, but it also required that we create novel instruments to feasibly answer our overarching research questions. Surveys included a combination of closed- and open-response items, which varied with each survey, to measure teachers’ perceptions of the educational environment within which they were working and how it impacted their personal and professional decisions, especially to remain in or leave the teaching profession. The longitudinal survey design included the dissemination of three online surveys (in Spring 2020, Early Fall 2020, and Late Fall 2020). Following the three surveys, participants were invited to semi-structured focus groups in Winter 2021 to elaborate on their experiences. Each of the four studies examined a different combination of the rich data gathered during our longitudinal survey and focus group interviews. The open response questions and focus group transcripts were analyzed using content analysis, and thematically coded within Dedoose (v8.3.44) based on the emergent themes informed by each individual study research question and the associated theoretical frameworks. The theoretical frameworks used included a resilience systems framework, social cognitive theory, agency theory, capital theory, and a critical hope framework. As appropriate, the closed response questions were analyzed using t-tests and one-way ANOVA with SPSS (v27).
We found that in response to the unexpected disruption of the pandemic teachers perceived the education system responded by prioritizing the reorganization of instructional delivery, the shift in instructional delivery decreased teachers’ perceptions of their own success, and that in spite of the major disturbance to their traditional methods for interacting with students, teachers intended to remain in the classroom for the short term (Wright, 2021). Respondents in our study indicated that their feelings of being connected to their professional communities, including university professors, helped meet their own and students’ needs (Balgopal et al., 2022). Early career teachers are already juggling many expectations, both professional and personal. Teachers who were aware of how to balance various needs and expectations, and were able to identify the capitals accessible to help them manage their challenges, were able to achieve agency (Balgopal et al., in review). When we analyzed the threats to agency and critical hope, we found that teachers felt a sharp disconnect with administrators when their values conflicted with those expressed by their superiors. The key implications we determined were that teachers need role clarity, a structure for foregrounding relationships in any contingency plans, and teachers need to have the autonomy to leverage cultural and social realities in their classrooms (Weinberg et al., 2022).
Our findings can help mitigate further STEM teacher attrition that may occur as a result of stresses created during the pandemic. STEM teacher educators and school districts should work collaboratively as a community of educators to support early career teachers in developing professional resilience. If we do not heed the concerns of teachers now, during a global crisis that is straining our education system, we are sure to witness not only a greater teacher attrition but a shortage that cannot be filled with new recruits. The internal capacities of teachers will keep them teaching in the short term as we found in our surveys and interviews. Teachers persist for the long term when they feel connected to and supported by their school and are given opportunities to flourish. Teachers whose intentions are to persist in the classroom, perceive that their personal capacities play a role in their professional feelings of success thereby connecting them to the education system. When the actors in a system remain consistent, the system is more likely to be resilient. Professionally resilient STEM teachers are better equipped to model for students how to see turbulence as opportunities to discover their own adaptive capacities. To ensure that high-quality STEM teachers have the best opportunities for success, we encourage our academic colleagues in natural sciences to collaborate with teacher education programs and school districts to promote teacher professional resilience.