Op-Ed: New Jersey students aren’t the only ones to experience learning losses

John Kellmayer | September 20, 2021 | Education, Opinion
Teachers are facing a loss of self-efficacy and other pandemic-related challenges
John Kellmayer

New Jersey is beginning a third school year that will be impacted by the pandemic. While much has been written about the learning losses that New Jersey students have experienced, teachers have also suffered pandemic-related losses that are just now becoming apparent. Perhaps the most serious of these losses involves the concept of teacher self-efficacy, which teachers will need to relearn.

I was a New Jersey public school administrator for 30 years and estimate that I performed about 3,000 formal teacher observations and a greater number of brief, walk-through visits where I may have spent five minutes observing a lesson. One characteristic that all effective teachers seemed to share was a significant sense of self-efficacy. The effective teachers demonstrated it. The not-so-effective teachers did not.

The concept of self-efficacy is derived from Albert Bandura’s social-cognitive theory of behavioral change and within an education setting refers to a teacher’s belief in his/her ability to successfully instruct, engage and motivate students. Many studies have demonstrated the importance of teacher self-efficacy on overall teaching effectiveness, instructional practices and for students’ academic achievement. Teachers with high levels of self-efficacy experience higher levels of job satisfaction, lower levels of job-related stress, and are more effective in administering discipline. Students with self-efficacious teachers demonstrate greater on-task behavior, increased engagement and more positive attitudes toward learning.

Self-efficacy measures

In addition, teachers with a high level of self-efficacy:

  • value continuous intellectual development and practice critical reflection to improve their teaching practice
  • set achievable and realistic goals
  • create supportive classroom climates
  • promote student growth and deeper learning
  • don’t become disenchanted through difficult teaching assignments

When I retired as a school district superintendent, I began to teach organizational leadership in doctoral programs and serve as a dissertation chair. Many of my students are incumbent school administrators who have shared their challenges, frustrations and even their depression in trying to effectively lead schools during a once-in-a-century health crisis. However, it was not until a few months ago when one of my students successfully defended her dissertation, that I realized how profoundly teacher self-efficacy has been damaged by the pandemic.

The study occurred in Texas, where elementary school teachers were administered a self-efficacy survey. Teachers’ scores on these surveys were then correlated with the reading achievement of their student on two standardized assessments. A large body of research on teacher self-efficacy and student achievement indicates that there should be a strong and statistically significant correlation between teacher self-efficacy and student achievement. However, this was not the case.

During her defense presentation, my student described the teacher self-efficacy scores as “shockingly low.” The only explanation for this highly unusual finding was that the survey was administered during the pandemic. Additional recent studies have indicated that increased levels of stress, burnout and emotional exhaustion as well as a feeling that teachers are not reaching their students have been associated with the pandemic.

Technology, scheduling, family challenges

I still have many teacher contacts in New Jersey and reached out to some to investigate this same question. Teachers commented on the stress of suddenly being faced with unexpected technology challenges at the time of school closures. Some teachers mentioned the difficulty of simultaneously trying to teach some students face-to-face and other students online and the lack of consistency in pandemic-associated school protocols. One teacher remarked that distance learning obliged him to be available in his teaching capacity throughout the day with no real distinction between work hours/space and personal life. Several teachers remarked that they had to manage concurrent responsibilities, including home schooling their own children and taking care of vulnerable family members while preparing and implementing both in-person and distance learning lessons for their students.

Without exception, every teacher I spoke with reported high stress and expressed the belief that they were failing in reaching many students, especially those students who come from less-privileged circumstances and who even prior to the pandemic had been struggling academically. Though none of the teachers I spoke with mentioned self-efficacy, they were clearly describing a significantly diminished sense of it.

Once the pandemic finally subsides, the hope and expectation that teacher self-efficacy will quickly return to prepandemic levels is unrealistic. The staggering learning losses that have occurred during the pandemic will persist for years. Even the most positive and optimistic teachers will experience stress and frustration as they begin to address an achievement gap that may be of unprecedented proportions. While New Jersey school leaders have plans to diagnose and begin to remediate student learning losses, they should not ignore the loss of self-efficacy that teachers have experienced. The development and restoration of teacher self-efficacy should become an integral theme in the design and implementation of in-service training, and school leaders should do all that they can to support teachers through such a difficult time.

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