In the second part of this three-part interview, Jacek Pyżalski draws from his own research to discuss the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the well-being of students and teachers in Poland and discusses some specific steps that teachers and schools could take to support their students. In Part 1, Pyżalski provides an overview of the school closures in Poland and how the education system responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. Part 3 will focus on how the Polish education system has responded to the influx of refugees caused by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Jacek Pyżalski is the Professor in the Faculty of Educational Studies (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan). He is experienced in researching the problems connected to social and educational aspects of ICT usage by children and adolescents. He was a pioneer in Poland in the field of cyberbullying research, and he has extensively studied the impact of crisis remote education on wellbeing of students, teachers and parents.
Thomas Hatch: I want to turn now to what you’ve learned in your research in terms of the effects of the pandemic and school closures on teachers and students in Poland. Are there a couple of things that you want to highlight?
Jacek Pyżalski: The information is that it touched not only the students, but all the other groups. When we did our research in the thirty-two schools, we used a couple of indicators of mental health and also dynamic indicators. For example, “Do you feel better, worse or the same as before the pandemic?” Although people were mostly publicly talking about the young generation, when we used the same indicators for all three groups – parents, students, and teachers – for mental and physical health the teachers felt the worst, then the parents, and then the students. So in some indicators adults were touched by the situation more severely than young people (Polish teachers’ stress, well-being and mental health during COVID-19 emergency remote education).
The second thing is it’s not justified to say that everybody in each group was touched the same. For young people, I would say that about 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 [about 15-20%] were touched severely. A lot of them were more or less indifferent as if nothing happened. But for 1 in 20, this was almost a blessed time, and they reported a lot of advantages. Some people wondered how in such an apocalyptic time anyone could have responded this way, but we found it was very consistent. In all the questions we asked, there seemed to be the same group of 4-5% percent of people saying “I feel better”; “I have a better relationship with my peers”; “I’ve got a better relationship with this student.”
it’s not justified to say that everybody in each group was touched the same. For young people, I would say that about 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 [about 15-20%] were touched severely. A lot of them were more or less indifferent as if nothing happened. But for 1 in 20, this was almost a blessed time, and they reported a lot of advantages.
We said, “What’s going on here?” And we went deeper. When I was meeting teachers, I asked “Do you have any students who are getting better?” Nearly all the teachers could think of such students. I asked the details, “Who is in this group?” and I learned there were young people who were totally withdrawn, socially withdrawn, before the school closures; they would never say a word during the lesson before the school closed. Now with the computer mediated communication, it was easier for them to respond to their teacher. There were also some young people who were the target of school bullying, and this was a time when they were physically protected. They could be cyber bullied, but it’s easier to be protected physically. Additionally, some students from the autism spectrum were able to adjust the volume and the pace for example. There was a lot of diversity in this group. For these kinds of students, the threat was to go back. To go back and to sit at the table in the class means they could lose everything they had achieved. For example, you are not talking before the pandemic. You started talking and being active in education and in contact. What does it mean that you go back to the state you were before the pandemic when you go back to school? Some said this not a lot of people, but still it’s real people that are coming back, and for them, it was a real threat. As a result, when I was preparing the teachers for reopening, I was also saying “identify those students and give them specific support, because those are the ones that need the support the most.”
There were some other general things we learned about. Everyone was saying that peer relations generally declined, but really it was about 50% of young people who said so. About 40% of students said their peer relations were the same, the same level and quality as before the pandemic. Why? One thing was that they were using computer mediated communication but the contact was not always that different. Some were meeting physically outside school for instance. There was also this five percent saying my relationships are better than before. It was the same with teacher-student relations. It was not everybody that said those relations declined a lot, the majority stayed the same. It was interesting, and in our research we found correlations between the quality of the important peer and student-teacher relationships and the mental health indicators. Those who said their relations declined suffered from lower indicators of mental health in many respects. So if anybody asked me, what would you do? I would invest in the quality of relations because this seems to be a factor that most profoundly impacts the well-being and mental health status of young people.
[I]f anybody asked me, what would you do? I would invest in the quality of relations because this seems to be a factor that most profoundly impacts the well-being and mental health status of young people.
Thomas Hatch: Earlier you mentioned the book you and your colleagues wrote: Education in the time of Covid-19: With distance to what we do as the teachers. Can you tell me about some of the advice you gave and the work you did to help teachers respond to the pandemic?
Jacek Pyżalski: We were really very practical in the book. We said let’s start with wellbeing, with contact with the students. What are some small things you can do in the lesson, not only to teach, but to create and keep the community in the classroom? We were really focusing not only on the teacher as the producer of the lessons, but as the context. Of course, it was not only us, there were also big NGOs supporting schools. For example, this book was followed by a series of webinars that went deeper into each chapter. Live, during the webinars, we might have 4,000 participants, and when we looked the next day we might see that it was opened by 60,000 people. It was so needed. People were so lost in this new reality and were looking for solutions to achieve basic educational goals. There were a lot of these kinds of initiatives. People were organizing things like workshops where teachers would present some techniques and methodologies they used to keep the classroom together or to engage the students online.
People were also having a lot of problems, specific problems. For example, I would say one of the problems I heard many times from teachers of all levels was the issue of young people switching off the cameras. Some teachers were very angry about this, because for them, that was a sign that the students were not engaged and they wanted to withdraw from the lessons. But for me, it was not clear. So, with a colleague at my University, we asked our students anonymously if they were for or against switching off their camera. We were interested in the justification of both answers. What we learned was that those who were switching off their cameras were not just those who were lazy or who wanted to disengage, but they had many other reasons. For example I remember one student wrote something like: “I’ve got a scar on my cheek and normally it’s not seen in the physical classroom. But online, it’s magnified, and everyone can see it. So if I switch on my camera, I’ll think about nothing else.” Or young people said, “my home situation is not okay, and during the lesson someone could come in and scream or do something strange and everyone would witness it.” We learned that not everything is as easy as it seems. The most important thing during the pandemic was to have this kind of feedback, and to get the learners’ perspective, because sometimes we, as teachers, force our own understanding of what’s going on and it’s not necessarily true. It’s better to go deeper with other perspectives.
Thomas Hatch: Did you do a webinar that focused on how to deal with turning off the camera? Did you have a particular recommendation on how teachers could deal with students turning off the cameras?
Jacek Pyżalski: Yes, I had a lot of recommendations. The starting point is diagnosis, really asking how it looks in the student’s microenvironment. Then I would talk with teachers about things like using a step by step approach. They could ask their students, “Okay, if I’m talking directly to you, please switch the camera on.” That’s easier than having it on all the time. Some of the students also gave the argument that if everybody switched on their cameras and they see everybody moving, it’s harder to concentrate. So, step by step, and sometimes to find something funny. For example, tell the students “tomorrow, let’s have everyone wear something yellow. Maybe what I’m saying is very plain, and very modest, but actually those small things matter.
Also, I told them that it’s not that easy to make big generalizations like, “remote education is not engaging students.” For example, you can give a task like recording an interview with your grandmother, publishing it, and then listening to them and discussing them as a class. Or when we are teaching new vocabulary in a foreign language, go to the kitchen and take a photo of some equipment, and then we could create a PowerPoint Presentation together, showing photos with subtitles we’ve written underneath in Spanish, or any language. Generally, our message for the teachers was that remote education is what you make it. You can make it work based on your educational goals.
Our message for the teachers was that remote education is what you make it. You can make it work based on your educational goals.
Thomas Hatch: Despite some concerns about well-being in the US, I don’t think there has been as much talk about teacher-student and peer relationships, though I suspect we might find these same kinds of results. These relationship factors might help explain some of the findings related to learning loss. Have there been discussions of learning loss in Poland?
Jacek Pyżalski: There were a few threads of this discussion, including how to measure it. There was a big pressure on lowering the standards for the exam, because they said, “Okay, it’ll be impossible to use the same standards as in traditional learning.” They did some of this, and then they learned there was some loss. Another thing was the issue of assessment, that it’s not fair because you can cheat. It might not be mirroring the real situation because of this.
There has also been a big general discussion about whether you can do online education that is at the same level of traditional education. There was also the big question, to what extent should we use online education afterwards at all levels of education (university, secondary, primary, kindergarten, levels). We are so “zoom fatigued” that young people have problems with this. They use it too much, they use it at night, they use it all the time, they are multitasking. There are some indicators of this lack of digital wellbeing. We also had an interesting finding that these indicators were sometimes even more prevalent in teachers than they were in students. What is normally understood as the younger generation’s problem is also ours. So if you ask me about the most important factors for the wellbeing of all interested, I would first name the quality of important relations, and the second one, the quality of digital wellbeing.
So how do we tackle ICT? How do we tackle technology in our life in terms of multitasking and the length of what we are doing? This was also for teachers, things like work-home balance, there were a lot of factors. Not only Poland, but a lot of countries, took care of young people forgetting that the mental health of teachers is also really impacting young people even though we know there is a connection. You cannot aim for high quality wellbeing for young people without thinking about how the teachers feel, the teachers emotions, and how the teachers cope. I think it was neglected.
You cannot aim for high quality wellbeing for young people without thinking about how the teachers feel, the teachers’ emotions, and how the teachers cope.
Thomas Hatch: This is really fascinating. Are there any other promising innovations from the Covid era in schools or other lessons that you think we should remember?
Jacek Pyżalski: Oh, yes. I think there are some hybrid methodologies like design thinking, projects or some things like innovative usage of technologies for cooperation or technologies for producing some common things by the students. But I would say that the COVID situation was really a kind of cold-water bucket on the heads of Utopian people who thought that just digitizing education would be a big step into the future. They learned that that technology itself is nothing, and I think we learned, and we are more realistic about what technology can do, what it cannot do, and how to use it. I think that those who are wise should have learned – and I know that some of them have learned – that we really have to learn how to use technology.
Pyżalski, J., & Poleszak, W. (2022). Polish teachers’ stress, well-being and mental health during COVID-19 emergency remote education–a review of the empirical data. Lubelski Rocznik Pedagogiczny, 41 (2), 25-40.