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December 1, 2020
Vol. 78
No. 4

Research Matters / Restoring Teachers' Efficacy

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Professional Learning
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On top of the myriad anxieties of life during a pandemic—worrying about loved ones getting sick, partners losing jobs, stir-crazy kids bouncing off the walls, and chaotic schedules worsened by Zoom-fatigue—a subtle, yet pernicious dynamic appears to be further chipping away at many teachers' well-being: loss of professional efficacy. Amid the mix of emotions stirred in teachers by the sudden shift to online learning was a profound sense of helplessness (Bintliff, 2020).
Feeling powerless dampens teachers' sense of efficacy, which is linked to well-being (Klassen, 2010). Studies find that teachers experience more job satisfaction and less burnout when they feel competent and confident in their roles (Zee & Koomen, 2016). However, if they cannot contact students, deliver effective learning experiences, or address students' basic needs, educators' feelings of professional worth and competence are apt to take a hit, adding stress to a job that, even before the pandemic, 6 in 10 teachers rated as highly stressful (AFT, 2017).
So how do leaders help teachers restore some sense of efficacy and improve their well-being, especially during these challenging times?

Create Conditions for Efficacy

First, a caveat: Before focusing on efficacy, education leaders need to make sure teachers are healthy. In our work with mental health providers in school districts, we've seen many school systems that focused mainly on addressing technological challenges and student needs in transitioning to digital learning and did little to support teachers' well-being. But teachers cannot master new instructional challenges unless they are in a good state emotionally and physically. So it is important to proactively offer support and professional help to teachers.
Once such supports are in place for teachers, leaders can focus on their efficacy, which emerges from a variety of sources, including personal mindsets, lived experiences, and organizational conditions (Bandura, 1997). Although there's no simple checklist to follow, two decades of research points to a handful of fundamental actions that schools that support teacher efficacy do, including these:
  • Help teachers connect with one another. In many places, teacher collaboration became an early casualty in the shift to online learning, leaving many teachers with few formal ways to support each other. Research finds, however, that such "depersonalization" (feeling distanced from colleagues and students) is linked to lower levels of teacher well-being (Pillay, Goddard, & Wilss, 2005). Conversely, access to supportive professional networks is linked to higher levels of teacher efficacy (Moolenaar, Sleegers, & Daly, 2012) and lower levels of burnout (Lim & Eo, 2014). So, one of the most important things schools can do right now is ensure teachers continue to connect with one another—even something as simple as 30-minute video-call team meetings.
  • Frame professional conversations around problem solving. As Bandura (2000) notes, efficacy can be threatened or enhanced by a few influential or vocal teachers. Therefore, it's important to keep teacher conversations productive—focused on both listening to as well as solving one another's problems to build a shared sense of optimism and efficacy.
  • Help teachers achieve small successes. According to a study that tracked daily experiences at work of 238 employees, people were happiest when they felt they were making progress—even small steps—toward meaningful goals (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). According to the study, these workers didn't need everything to go swimmingly to feel efficacious—it was enough to feel they were making strides toward overcoming challenges.
  • Help teachers learn from one another. Efficacy often emerges from "vicarious experiences"—seeing people we relate to overcoming challenges like our own (Bandura, 1997). This suggests formal professional learning isn't the only, or even best, path to building efficacy; it may even backfire if it makes teachers feel more overwhelmed or incompetent. What is likely more helpful is giving teachers time to learn from one another through (virtual) classroom observation or collective problem-solving.

Support Collective Efficacy

By creating these conditions, school leaders can help their educators develop a shared sense of efficacy—what's often called teacher collective efficacy—a belief that together, they can help students succeed. According to a meta-analysis of 26 studies (Eells, 2011), teacher collective efficacy is more strongly linked to student success than a student's socioeconomic status.
However, as researchers note, collective efficacy can plunge in schools that experience a sudden "shock to the system" (Eells, 2011, p. 95). As most schools have recently experienced just such a shock, leaders need to help their teachers regain some sense of efficacy and rebuild their school's overall sense of collective efficacy. The most successful leaders to do this are "transformational leaders," those who maintain high expectations while supporting teachers with coaching and intellectual stimulation (Ross & Gray, 2006). What's most needed right now, then, is a "softer" approach to leadership, one that focuses on finding and celebrating bright spots, encouraging experimentation and reflection (not perfection), and instilling a sense of optimism among school faculty that together, teachers can take small steps to overcome challenges and help students learn.

Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business Review, 89(5), 70–80.

American Federation of Teachers. (2017). 2017 educator quality of work life survey. New York: Author.

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Bandura, A. (2000). Exercise of human agency through collective efficacy. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9 (3), 75–78.

Bintliff, A. (2020, September 8). How COVID-19 has influenced teachers' well-being. [Blog post]. Psychology Today.

Eells, R. (2011). Meta-analysis of the relationship between collective efficacy and student achievement. Unpublished Ph. D dissertation. Loyola University of Chicago.

Klassen, R. (2010). Teacher stress: The mediating role of collective efficacy beliefs. Journal of Educational Research, 103 (5), 342–350.

Lim, S., & Eo, S. (2014). The mediating roles of collective teacher efficacy in the relations of teachers' perceptions of school organizational climate to their burnout. Teaching and Teacher Education, 44, 138–147.

Moolenaar, N. M., Sleegers, P. J., & Daly, A. J. (2012). Teaming up: Linking collaboration networks, collective efficacy, and student achievement. Teaching and teacher education, 28(2), 251–262.

Pillay, H., Goddard, R., & Wilss, L. (2005). Well-being, burnout and competence: Implications for teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 30(2).

Ross, J. A., & Gray, P. (2006). Transformational leadership and teacher commitment to organizational values: The mediating effects of collective teacher efficacy. School Effectiveness and School Improvement, 17(2), 179–199.

Zee, M., & Koomen, H. M. (2016). Teacher self-efficacy and its effects on classroom processes, student academic adjustment, and teacher well-being: A synthesis of 40 years of research. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 981–1015.

Bryan Goodwin is the president and CEO of McREL International, a Denver-based nonprofit education research and development organization. Goodwin, a former teacher and journalist, has been at McREL for 15 years, serving previously as Chief Operating Officer and Director of Communications and Marketing. 

He has authored or co-authored several books, including Simply Better: Doing What Matters Most to Change the Odds for Student SuccessThe 12 Touchstones of Good Teaching: A Checklist for Staying Focused Every Day, Balanced Leadership for Powerful Learning: Tools for Achieving Success in Your School and The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. Goodwin also writes a monthly research column for Educational Leadership magazine. 

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