Bouncing Back From Adversity: A Swiss Study on Teacher Resilience in Vocational Education and Training
Viviana Sappa, Carmela Aprea, Antje Barbarasch
There is a general consensus regarding the stressful nature of the teaching profession, and teacher resilience is an area of growing interest in scientific and political agendas. Based on a Swiss study of vocational-school teachers, this paper presents the multitude of contextual and individual factors that contribute to teacher resilience. The findings emphasise the need to approach teacher resilience in a multi-level and systemic way, particularly by investing in providing teachers with adequate skills to face complex and heterogeneous teaching tasks as well as by nurturing teachers’ sense of vocation and facilitating a collaborative and supportive school environment.
Teaching as a stressful profession and the need for teacher resilience
Teacher wellbeing is a key factor in the effective education as motivated and healthy teachers are necessary for promoting in students a positive and enthusiastic relationship to learning, which in turn is crucial for a lifelong learning perspective (cf. BROPHY/GOOD 1986; KELLER et al. 2014). However, teaching is continually described as a challenging and stressful profession. International surveys report that 20–40 per cent of teachers are at risk of burn-out (cf. HOWARD/JOHNSON 2004), which implies emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and perceived reduced personal accomplishment (cf. MASLACH/JACKSON 1981). According to KÄRNER et al (2016) vocational education and training (VET) teachers are particularly affected by job stress as they experience less work/life balance and higher perceived stress than employees in other professions. Based on those findings, it seems that it is difficult for teachers to stay engaged in their daily job, and so a better understanding of the factors that allow teachers to maintain enthusiasm is an urgent priority in various political agendas. Consequently, there is a growing interest in investigating teacher resilience.
In the field of psychology, the term resilience describes an individual’s ability to maintain a positive adaptation to adverse situations (cf. MASTEN 2001). Recently, resilience has been investigated in relation to various professional fields, including teaching. In particular, teacher resilience has been defined as the ability to bounce back from everyday professional adversity by maintaining high levels of engagement, satisfaction and effectiveness (cf. DAY/GU 2014). While resilience was originally described as an individual trait or ability (the so called resiliency or ego-resiliency BLOCK/BLOCK 1980), more recently a multi-dimensional and context-sensitive view of resilience has progressively arisen in the scientific literature (cf. MANSFIELD et al. 2016). From this perspective, ego-resiliency general traits, including, for example, the ability to persist in the face of adversity and the ability to exercise self-care agency, are to be understood as only components of the resilience process, which results from a complex interaction between contextual and individual difficulties and resources (cf. SAPPA/BOLDRINI/BARABASCH in print).
The Swiss study on teacher resilience
Adopting the multi-dimensional and context-sensitive approach described above, the Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training conducted a five-year study (2012-2017) on teacher resilience and wellbeing among VET teachers in Switzerland (cf. APREA/ SAPPA/BOLDRINI 2014, 2017; SAPPA/BOLDRINI 2018).
Three main research questions oriented the study:
- How do vocational-school teachers feel, and how can teachers be differentiated based on their professional wellbeing and perceived difficulties?
- Which difficulties mainly threaten teachers’ professional wellbeing?
- Which resources mainly support teachers to be resilient despite professional difficulties?
The study employed a multi-phase and sequential mixed-methods research design, combining data collection from in-depth interviews and questionnaires.
Research design and methods
The first Phase (2012–2013) consisted of an interview study aimed to identify perceived difficulties and resources contributing to teacher wellbeing. A total of 37 VET teachers (59% female) in the Canton of Ticino (an Italian-speaking region) were involved in the study. Semi-structured in-depth Interviews were adopted to collect data, which were then analysed by means of categorical analysis (c.f. APREA/SAPPA/BOLDRINI, 2014).
The second (2014–2015) and third (2015–2017) phases consisted of questionnaire surveys in various Swiss Cantons. In the present paper we reported data from the last survey that was conducted in six Swiss regions (including German-speaking, French-speaking and Italian-speaking ones). The aims were to investigate the impact of perceived difficulties and resources on teachers’ professional wellbeing and to identify various profiles of wellbeing. The sample comprised 2.163 (49% female) VET teachers, that is, approximately 25% of the total population of teachers working in the VET field in the selected regions. Multiple quantitative data analyses were conducted (cf. APREA/SAPPA/BOLDRINI 2017; SAPPA/BOLDRINI 2018).
Main findings of the study
PROFESSIONAL WELLBEING AND PERCEIVED DIFFICULTIES?
Survey data collected on 2.163 Swiss VET teachers (see phase three in the box), showed good levels of professional wellbeing, here investigated by means of four single item scales related to teachers’ perceived degree (ranging from 1 to 7) of job satisfaction (M=5.61, sd= 1.19), work engagement (M= 5.73, sd= 1.14), sense of competence as a teacher (M= 5.79, sd= .96) and confidence in facing professional challenges (M= 5.75, sd= 1.02).
For most of the participants, moreover, such high professional wellbeing was associated with low perceived exposure to difficulties. However, some teachers were found to be suffering from difficulties encountered on the job. By means of a two-step cluster analysis, we combined professional wellbeing (the four single items scales mentioned above) with the perceived exposure to difficulties (a single item investigating how often teachers fell exposed to professional difficulties, response range between 1=never and 5=always, M= 2.48; sd=.73). Following such a procedure we identified five teacher profiles which are described below:
- Enthusiastic teachers, who reported high professional wellbeing and very low perceived difficulties
- Fairly at-ease teachers, who indicated medium professional wellbeing and very low perceived difficulties
- Weak teachers, who showed low professional wellbeing and high perceived difficulties
- At-risk teachers, who exhibited very low professional wellbeing in the face of high perceived difficulties
- Resilient teachers, who showed high professional wellbeing together with high perceived difficulties
As shown in the figure 1, the proportion of teachers whose professional wellbeing was threatened by on-the-job difficulties reached 27 per cent (including the categories of weak and at-risk teachers), while 18 per cent of the participants demonstrated an ability to maintain high professional wellbeing (similarly to the enthusiastic group) despite such difficulties, that is, to be resilient.
DIFFICULTIES WHICH MAINLY THREATEN TEACHERS’ PROFESSIONAL WELLBEING
A multitude of difficulties were identified in the interview study as threatening teachers’ professional wellbeing. Based on those findings 25 questionnaire items were drafted (SAPPA/BOLDRINI/APREA, 2017), and then grouped in six factors (validated by a Confirmative Factor Analysis), in order to investigate how often teachers feel to be exposed (answer range between 1=never exposed and 5 =almost always exposed) to each difficulty and what difficulties impact most on teachers’ wellbeing. By means of a multiple regression analysis (Model values: F(4,2158)= 216.298, p<.05; R2adapted= .22) four factors were found to significantly and negatively affect professional wellbeing (here considered as a single factor, including the four variables described in the previous section of this manuscript, M=5.7; sd=.89).
First, job conditions including contractual issues, workload, organizational difficulties (e.g., those related to teaching timetables) and pressure from curricula reforms, contributed significantly to reducing teacher wellbeing (M=2.43, sd=.83, β= -.129, p<.001),. Those difficulties are also correlated with the feeling reported by some participants that the social status of school education and the teaching profession, particularly in VET, is falling lower and lower. Teachers from the Italian- and French-speaking regions seemed particularly to suffer from the decline of the social reputation of vocational teaching and learning by the large society, probably due to the influence of the academic-oriented school culture of Italy and France.
Second, work/life balance is becoming more and more demanding and difficult to achieve (M=2.35, sd=.91). Difficulties in managing family or personal matters while working are relevant stressors for teachers, significantly affecting their wellbeing (β= -.102, p<.001).
Third, difficulties related to teaching and classroom management were found to occur quite frequently (M=2.25, sd=.59), with negative and significant effects on teacher wellbeing (β= -.529, p<.001). On the one hand, many general factors make students or classes hard to manage; these include students’ behavioural and relational problems (including bullying of classmates and teachers), acts of violence or aggressive behaviours and students’ emotional fragility and problematic life scenarios. On the other hand, specific VET-related factors emerged, including the poor professional motivation and engagement of some learners within their chosen profession. Students’ lack of professional motivation and maturity can make it difficult for teachers to find the enthusiasm for interacting and teaching. Finally, a low teaching self-efficacy, from both the didactical and pedagogical viewpoints, contributes significantly to decreased professional wellbeing. In regard to VET paths, one of the more demanding reported challenges was the difficulty of promoting integrated learning by adapting disciplinary or technical knowledge to the practical experiences that students have on the job. Teachers especially who work in apprenticeship programs are asked to be very flexible, as their students’ experience on the job can be very heterogeneous (depending, for example, on the company size), albeit in the same vocational field.
Finally, a difficult relationship with the school leader and colleagues seemed not to be a very frequent perceived difficulty for participants (M=1.7, sd=.68). When those difficulties occur, however, they have a significant impact on teacher wellbeing (β= -.145, p<.001).
RESOURCES SUPPORTING TEACHERS RESILIENCE
Based on the interview data 26 resources were identified that supported teacher wellbeing, including both individual and contextual factors. A questionnaire item was designed for each resource by asking how much teachers feel to be supported by that resource (answer range between 1=not at all and 5=very much). Items were then grouped into five factors (validated by a Confirmative Factor Analysis):
- Teaching and classroom management abilities (6 items; M=3.81, sd=.53)
- Sense of vocation (3 items; M=4, sd=.61)
- School-related resources (4 items; M=3.3, sd=.77)
- Ego-resiliency general traits (8 items; M=3.6, sd=.51)
- Conflict management skills (2 items; M=3.4, sd=.88))
By applying a logistic regression analysis we found three resources as being particularly associated with resilient teachers in comparison to their at-risk colleagues
First, the findings showed perceived teaching and classroom management abilities (e.g. didactical flexibility, capacity to motivate students) as the most significant predictor of a resilient status. In particular, a good subject knowledge, strong didactical knowledge, classroom management skills and didactical flexibility are all factors nurturing resilient teachers.
Second, resilient teachers are moved by a strong sense of vocation, which includes passion for teaching, passion for working with youth and the feeling that they are able to make a difference in students’ lives.
Third, being embedded in a collaborative and supportive school environment (i.e., school-related resources) contributes to making teachers resilient. In particular, positive relationships with colleagues – in terms of both emotional support and reciprocal help in teaching – and a supportive leadership style in the school principal can make the difference when teachers face critical difficulties on the job.
Interestingly, ego-resiliency general traits (i.e. a set of traits related to ego-resiliency as an individual construct, including being able to self-care, a sense of persistence, help-seeking, the ability not to take problems personally, self-control, self-reflectivity and the ability to learn from mistakes) were found to have only a low impact in differentiating resilient teachers from teachers at risk. This finding can be understood as a confirmation that teachers’ resilience does not depend on general individual traits only. On the contrary it is the result of an interaction between various individual and contextual factors.
Finally, conflict management skills were found not to have any significant impact in differentiating resilient teachers from teachers at risk.
Implications for research and practice: The need for multi-level interventions
Our study offers further evidence of the complexity of the resilience process. Multiple risk and protective factors contribute to making teachers more or less resilient in the face of professional difficulties, both at the personal and the contextual level. Based on these considerations, multi-level interventions are needed in order to approach the problem in a systemic way. Certainly, some priorities can be suggested in terms of resources particularly apt to be increased.
First, teaching ability was found to have a crucial role in supporting teacher resilience. This finding emphasizes the need to further invest in teacher training in order to prepare teachers to positively face the didactical and relational challenges of teaching. Second, a strong sense of vocation helps teachers resiliently face professional difficulties. Consequently, a sense of vocation should be an important criterion in teacher recruitment as well as a relevant dimension in orienting people to the teaching profession. This is particularly of concern in the case of professional-subject teachers who very often – at least in Switzerland – move from being employees or freelancers in a given professional sector to being a vocational-school teacher in that sector. Motivations for becoming a teacher should be questioned, and a sense of vocation for teaching and working with young people should be valorised. Third, a supportive and collaborative school climate must be fostered. School leaders need to be aware of the importance of promoting positive relationships and a sense of collegiality in schools and must nurture the development of such a positive climate.
Finally, efforts at increasing individual and contextual resources need to be accompanied by attempts to create better work conditions for teachers in terms of workload, teaching timetables and compatibility with family (or other personal) needs.
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Dr., Senior Researcher and teacher educator, Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET), Switzerland
Prof. Dr., Chair of Business and Economic Education – Instructional Systems Design and Evaluation, Business School, University of Mannheim
Prof. Dr., Head of research area “Current VET/PET context”, Swiss Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (SFIVET), Switzerland