Efficacy in the Face of Adversity - ASCD
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November 1, 2021

Efficacy in the Face of Adversity

What has the pandemic taught us about maintaining teacher efficacy in crisis mode?

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Social-emotional learning
Leadership
School Culture
Illustration of a man in a windstorm, his umbrella turned inside out
Credit: NEIL WEBB/IKON IMAGES

As the early days of uncertainty about the pandemic gave way last year to a prolonged period of stasis, many teachers found the joy they used to associate with teaching diminished. One of the authors of this piece (Alexandra), who was a high school English teacher and doctoral student in educational leadership at the time, found she didn't have the same motivation or focus she had only weeks before. She discovered it was increasingly difficult to maintain confidence and a sense of purpose in her work when she was wiping down desks with bleach, delivering lessons through a mask or a screen, and perpetually worried about health and safety.

As the pandemic dragged on, Alexandra and her colleagues mourned the loss of everyday life in school. Giving a student a high-five in the hallway. Connecting with colleagues over lunch. Handing a student a well-loved book from the classroom library. Adam Grant (2021) describes the feeling of quiet despair that Alexandra and many educators experienced as languishing—an emotion vacillating somewhere between well-being and depression—and posits that it was the dominant emotion of 2021. This is where many educators and school leaders have been mentally for over a year.

With the feeling of languishing hovering in the air for many teachers, we wondered how their self-efficacy was affected. Wood and Bandura (1989) define self-efficacy as "beliefs in one's capabilities to mobilize the motivation, cognitive resources, and courses of action needed to meet given situational demands" (p. 408). Self-efficacy has been found to determine how long people will continue working on a given task, how resilient they will be when they face difficulties, and how much effort they will expend on an activity (Bandura, 2006). On the one hand, you would assume an educator or school leader who had always been self-efficacious in the past would participate more readily, work harder, and persevere longer while teaching through the pandemic. But did this assumption account for the real-life effects of languishing?

Is Self-Efficacy Enough?

While different prevention strategies were recommended to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there were no recommendations for schools to mitigate the potential negative effects the pandemic had on teachers' self-efficacy. Mobilizing one's motivation and cognitive resources during any given day of teaching is hard enough, but it is almost insurmountable during a prolonged crisis.

Most teachers we know found that their pre-pandemic levels of self-efficacy were insufficient for navigating the drawn-out challenges of 2020 and 2021. While self-efficacy serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy, it is more than just a predictor of behaviors. It includes broader effects, as Bandura (2006) argues:

Efficacy beliefs influence whether people think erratically or strategically, optimistically or pessimistically. They also influence the courses of action people choose to pursue, the challenges and goals they set for themselves and their commitment to them, how much effort they put forth in given endeavors, the outcomes they expect their efforts to produce, how long they persevere in the face of obstacles, their resilience to adversity, the quality of their emotional life and how much stress and depression they experience in coping with taxing environmental demands, and the life choices they make and the accomplishments they realize. (p. 309)

The pandemic clearly influenced teachers' instructional practices, capacity to set goals, and stress levels, resulting in challenges both personally and professionally. This extended period of adversity required a particular type of self-efficacy—crisis efficacy—or the belief in one's ability to succeed, not just during everyday life but also during a crisis. One of the lessons the pandemic has taught us is that we should anticipate that uncertainty and challenge are part of the new normal in our classrooms and in life.

Of course, teaching through crises is not new. While Alexandra and her colleagues needed to have high levels of crisis efficacy to teach through a pandemic, coauthor Katie experienced the same need 20 years ago in her first week as a 4th-grade teacher in New York City, which coincided with September 11, 2001. From the "duck and cover" drills of the 1950s to the active shooter drills of today, the need for crisis efficacy has been near constant in education. In their book School Crisis Prevention and Intervention, Brock and colleagues (2016) explain, "Because exposure to a crisis has the potential to negatively affect student behavior, social emotional adjustment, and education, crisis preparedness is essential" (p. 36). Yet we don't remember any teacher education courses that taught us how to be prepared for the physical, psychological, and emotional challenges of teaching through a crisis. Nor do we remember any support as practicing teachers for how to adapt, adjust, prioritize, and create solutions through instability. We were simply expected to learn in the moment.

The feeling of quiet despair that many educators experienced was *languishing*—an emotion vacillating somewhere between well-being and depression.

Understanding Crisis Efficacy

Initially in her doctoral research, Alexandra aimed to study the effect of teacher emotional intelligence on student engagement. However, her dissertation chair recommended a new and urgent topic of study: How were teachers responding to the COVID-19 crisis? And how was it affecting their self-efficacy?

As part of the study, Alexandra began to ask questions to understand what inner resources teachers were drawing upon to be self-efficacious during the pandemic. The participants of the study, who included 140 secondary teachers from three high schools in the northeastern United States, were asked to respond to survey questions that measured their perceived levels of trait emotional intelligence, which encompasses well-being, self-control, emotionality, and sociability. The survey also included questions that would assess the perceived resilience and self-efficacy of teachers. Alexandra was particularly interested in what mattered most for self-efficacy during the pandemic and what that might mean for future crises.

She was also interested in a broader sense of efficacy. Inspired by Bandura's (1986) self-efficacy theory and Petrides's (2009) trait emotional intelligence theory, Alexandra coined the term crisis efficacy, which can be understood more specifically as the combination of self-efficacy, resilience, well-being, emotionality, sociability, and self-control that one draws upon in response to a crisis. Yet, during a crisis, finding strength in all these areas can require superhuman capabilities. While teachers were praised as essential workers at the start of the pandemic, messaging across the country seemed to quickly shift to blaming teachers for being on an extended vacation or unwilling or incapable of returning to in-person teaching.

As the mental health and social-emotional needs of educator colleagues seemed to deteriorate over the course of the pandemic, we began to wonder about the ways in which teacher self-efficacy—and on a greater scale, crisis efficacy—were impacted by the pandemic and what helped teachers to navigate this prolonged crisis.

An Antidote to Blah

In focusing on what influenced perceived self-efficacy during the pandemic, Alexandra discovered that well-being had the highest effect, explaining 23.3 percent of the variance in self-efficacy levels of teachers during the pandemic. This is consistent with Bandura's claim (1977) that teachers with a greater sense of well-being were more likely to be self-efficacious, and that the emotional and psychological well-being of a person may influence how they feel about their personal abilities in particular situations.

Alexandra then further analyzed the data to look more broadly at what variables could affect crisis efficacy in educators. Significantly, Alexandra found that crisis efficacy was even more deeply rooted in well-being. In fact, well-being explained 68.9 percent of the variance in crisis efficacy levels among teachers—having the greatest impact on not only self-efficacy, but also educator resilience, emotionality, sociability, and self-control. In other words, the teachers who valued and nurtured their well-being before the pandemic may have been more confident, more resilient, better able to understand their emotions and the emotions of others, more likely to lead others and be sociable, and have better self-control during the pandemic.

While there is no consensus on a single definition of well-being, it can be understood most simply as the presence of positive emotions, such as the feeling of contentment, and generally judging life positively. As such, crisis efficacy may have supported teachers' ability to cope with the ambiguities surrounding teaching during the pandemic by helping them be more confident and optimistic about educating their students and finding the good in difficult days. We posit that teachers may have been able to better combat their state of languishing if they were habituated to prioritize well-being. To do so, teachers may have taken any number of actions during the pandemic, such as journaling, staying connected to friends and loved ones to maintain positive social relationships, and finding ways to rest and recover each day.

The teachers who prioritized wellbeing seemed to be better able to cope with the ambiguities surrounding teaching during the pandemic.

To prioritize educator well-being, particularly in advance of the next crises, we have three specific suggestions rooted in the data from Alexandra's study:

Emphasize balance in life. Particularly for those of us who have lost loved ones, the pandemic has magnified the fact that life is short and unpredictable. A teacher or school leader with a full life outside of the classroom has the potential to model a life well-lived for students. School leaders are uniquely positioned to notice and nurture well-being for the school community by modeling how they find balance in their own lives. They can start by sharing stories about how they are prioritizing time to play, laugh, rest, and recover. This will encourage work-life balance for everyone in the community and can reduce shame that teachers might self-inflict about leaving work behind at the end of the day.

Create meaningful gatherings. A year of faculty meetings over Zoom has taught us that how and why we gather has changed. For some, a year of virtual meetings made us miss the kinds of connections fostered by meeting in person. For others, virtual meetings magnified the ways in which we may have been gathering in the past without a clear purpose. Moving forward, we need to think strategically about how gatherings can be productive and purposeful rather than routine.

In The Art of Gathering, conflict negotiator Priya Parker (2018) argues that our gatherings have become lackluster and unproductive—the very definition of most faculty meetings. To prioritize well-being, gatherings should enrich and energize, rather than deplete or demotivate. To do so, the future of gatherings, be they faculty meetings or special school events, requires the creation of meaning-driven, memorable rituals that reflect the beliefs and values of the school. Consider whether meetings should begin with expressions of gratitude or opportunities for participants to share both successes and challenges. Encourage outdoor walking meetings for small teams to get outside and get moving. Ask for input from teachers and then make intentional changes.

Model vulnerability. For all its disadvantages, life on camera has had the benefit of reminding us of the imperfections and daily challenges of being human. Many of us had young children and pets appear at awkward moments. All of us had to be reminded, "You're on mute." During the pandemic, Katie lost her younger brother and found herself suddenly in tears on several occasions with colleagues, while teaching her graduate students, and during staff development presentations she led. Rather than deny her feelings, Katie leaned into vulnerability and found others to be generous in their response. Her openness also allowed others to share their own losses, challenges, and fears. Vulnerability is a part of teaching, learning, and living, whether we want it to be or not. Educators cannot be well if we expect positivity at all times, particularly during an extended crisis where the full range of human emotion is naturally on display.

From Languish to Flourish

As we continue to navigate through this current crisis, we hope that schools become places where self-sacrifice is no longer the measure of an effective educator. Rather, one clarion call from the hardship and loss of the pandemic is that if we want teachers and school leaders to be effective, they must be well. Thus, as we embark on forging a new path forward in education, it's time to recognize the promise of prioritizing well-being, which may be the greatest insurance for cultivating crisis efficacy. We cannot ask teachers to simply adapt to the next crisis and then expect them to stay in the classroom. Rather, teachers and school leaders deserve to work in schools that see them as whole people, whether they are seeking purpose during a pandemic or connection during some future crisis. They deserve to be given the most important tool in reaching crisis efficacy: well-being.

References

Bandura, A. (1977). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review84(2), 191–215.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Hoboken, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bandura, A. (2006). Guide to the construction of self-efficacy scales. In F. Pajares & T. Urdan (Eds.), Self-efficacy beliefs of adolescents (pp. 307–337). Greenwich, CT: Information Age.

Brock, S., Nickerson, A., Reeves, M., Conolly, C., Jimerson, S., Pesce, R., et al. (2016). School crisis prevention and intervention: The PREPaRE model. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

Grant, A. (2021, April 19). There's a name for the blah you're feeling: It's called languishing. The New York Times.

Parker, P. (2018). The art of gathering: How we meet and why it matters. New York: Riverhead Books.

Petrides, K. V. (2009). Psychometric properties of the Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire (TEIQue). In C. Stough, D. H. Saklofske, & J. D. A. Parker (Eds.), The Springer series on human exceptionality. Assessing emotional intelligence: Theory, research, and applications (p. 85–101). Berlin, Germany: Springer Science + Business Media.

Wood, R., & Bandura, A. (1989). Impact of conceptions of ability on self-regulatory mechanisms and complex decision making. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology56, 407–415.

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