In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston writes, “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” This is, without a doubt, a question year for educators.
Across the country, district plans are constantly evolving, and no one knows quite what the school year will look like. What is certain is this: Most schools will offer at least some degree of distance learning as an option, and there will be teachers going back to school who lack confidence in their ability to teach online. To increase the likelihood of success, administrators should start the year by examining their teachers’ sense of efficacy for online teaching.
What is teacher efficacy, and why is it important? A motivational construct, self-efficacy is a person’s belief that they can succeed at executing a particular task. The stronger a person’s sense of efficacy, the more effort they will exert and the more likely they are to persist in the face of difficulty.
John Hattie, author and director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute, reports that collective teacher efficacy within a school is strongly correlated with student achievement. He lists it as the “new number one influence” related to student success. Thus, if we want our students to flourish in these difficult times, attending to teachers’ sense of efficacy for participating in a mode of instruction that is, in many cases, outside their comfort zone would be a logical first step.
As an instructional coach who supported colleagues through the shift to online teaching and currently teaches both face-to-face and online, I would like to offer four suggestions that can help administrators boost teachers’ sense of efficacy for this new instructional approach.
4 Keys to Raising Teacher Confidence About Distance Learning
1. Go beyond survival mode: Develop a shared vision for distance learning with your teachers that is practical and learner-centered. Then find teachers on your staff who have strengths in these areas to serve as models. Vicarious experiences are one way to build a teacher’s sense of efficacy. If the majority of your faculty believes your new mode of teaching is impossible, they are unlikely to try. But by seeing concrete examples from colleagues who have found success, they are more apt to believe that they, too, can do it.
2. Promote mastery experiences: The most powerful way for a person to build self-efficacy is to master a task. Create a space where teachers feel safe to take risks, but make sure to set them up for success with the right support. Research suggests that planning responsive professional learning as an effective way to support mastery experiences. Providing multiple layers of support for learning new technology would be the best place to start.
Be careful to avoid overload by breaking the learning into smaller chunks and providing coaching support for teachers who are technology novices. At our school, we offered workshops during preplanning at which teachers could receive individualized tech support from a team that included technology specialists, instructional coaches, and other, more experienced teachers. I encourage you to have a robust technology and instructional support team in place as soon as possible.
3. Provide mental health supports: Another way to influence teachers’ sense of efficacy is by attending to their emotional states. Teaching through Covid-19 has made educators weary, and that will likely get worse before it gets better.
When we moved to distance learning last spring, I was in the middle of a book study with teachers, so I transitioned to virtual meetings. After one meeting, I sensed teachers were feeling so overwhelmed that they were unable to focus on the book, so I turned the meetings into opportunities for support instead. Each week, I sent out a discussion prompt in advance (e.g., bring an object that is meaningful to you for show-and-tell), and teachers came prepared to share. It became something we looked forward to and helped us get through a trying time together. It made a huge difference in my own mental health. Why not enlist a teacher or coach to lead a regular gathering where teachers can have a safe space to debrief about challenges and give and receive support?
4. Put people first: Social persuasion is the final way to build a teacher’s sense of efficacy. Recognizing effort and offering praise for small successes goes a long way. Remind teachers how important they are to you, and listen to their concerns. Show that you care about them and their families by making decisions that will help them feel as safe and secure as possible. Be a calm, reassuring presence, and continue to encourage self-care among your staff.
If we are willing to embrace the questions that this school year brings, it could be an opportunity for us to completely reimagine education as we abandon outworn paradigms. By fostering teachers’ sense of efficacy in the process, we can create learning environments where neither students nor teachers feel left behind.