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In March 2020, schools in England were closed to all but vulnerable children and the children of key workers, as part of a national effort to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Many teachers were required to work from home as remote learning was implemented. Teaching is primarily a relational profession, and previous literature acknowledges that supportive relationships with peers help to maintain teachers' resilience and commitment during challenging periods. This paper reports on findings from a small-scale study conducted in England during the first national lockdown beginning in March 2020, which explored the impact of the requirement to teach remotely on teachers' identity and peer relationships. A discourse analysis, informed by the aims and practices of discursive psychology, was conducted in order to explore the association between constructions of peer support and responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Findings indicate that teachers who presented their professional self-identity as collective rather than personal appeared to have a more positive perspective on the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. These findings, which have implications for policymakers and school leaders, contribute to the growing field of research on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education by showing the strong association between teachers' constructions of identity and their capacity to respond positively to the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
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published: 20 August 2021
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.703404
Frontiers in Psychology | 1August 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 703404
Edited by:
Karin Gehrer,
Leibniz Institute for Educational
Trajectories (LG), Germany
Reviewed by:
Frank Hellmich,
University of Paderborn, Germany
Caterina Mamprin,
Université de Moncton, Canada
Kathryn Spicksley
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
Educational Psychology,
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 30 April 2021
Accepted: 28 July 2021
Published: 20 August 2021
Spicksley K, Kington A and Watkins M
(2021) “We Will Appreciate Each
Other More After This”: Teachers’
Construction of Collective and
Personal Identities During Lockdown.
Front. Psychol. 12:703404.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.703404
“We Will Appreciate Each Other More
After This”: Teachers’ Construction
of Collective and Personal Identities
During Lockdown
Kathryn Spicksley 1
*, Alison Kington 1and Maxine Watkins 2
1School of Education, University of Worcester, Worcester, United Kingdom, 2School of Psychology, University of Worcester,
Worcester, United Kingdom
In March 2020, schools in England were closed to all but vulnerable children and
the children of key workers, as part of a national effort to curb the spread of the
Covid-19 virus. Many teachers were required to work from home as remote learning
was implemented. Teaching is primarily a relational profession, and previous literature
acknowledges that supportive relationships with peers help to maintain teachers’
resilience and commitment during challenging periods. This paper reports on findings
from a small-scale study conducted in England during the first national lockdown
beginning in March 2020, which explored the impact of the requirement to teach remotely
on teachers’ identity and peer relationships. A discourse analysis, informed by the
aims and practices of discursive psychology, was conducted in order to explore the
association between constructions of peer support and responses to the Covid-19
pandemic. Findings indicate that teachers who presented their professional self-identity
as collective rather than personal appeared to have a more positive perspective on the
difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. These findings, which have implications
for policymakers and school leaders, contribute to the growing field of research on
the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education by showing the strong association
between teachers’ constructions of identity and their capacity to respond positively to
the challenges brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Keywords: teacher identity, social identity theory, COVID-19, lockdown, remote teaching, collegiality, teacher peer
relationships, discourse analysis
Covid-19 and Education in England
The pandemic spread of the Covid-19 virus in 2020 created unprecedented disruption to education
on a global scale. School buildings were reported to have closed in 188 countries by April 2020
(UNICEF, 2020). In England, schools closed in March 2020 except for those children considered
vulnerable and children of key workers (BBC, 2020). Restrictions were imposed quickly leaving
little time for teachers and schools to prepare; on the 13th March, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary
of State for Education, spoke to school leaders at the Association of School and College Leaders
(ASCL) Conference, saying that “[i]n the overwhelming majority of situations, there is absolutely
no need to close a school” (Williamson, 2020, n.p.). On the 18th March, only a few days later,
Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
Williamson ordered all schools to “shut their gates [and]
remain closed” from 20th March (UK Parliament, 2020, n.p.).
Examinations were canceled and teaching was moved online,
with teachers required to educate pupils remotely from home;
most pupils did not return to school until September 2020
(Ofsted, 2020). Research is beginning to detail the negative effect
that this initial lockdown and subsequent disruption has had on
the well-being and attainment of many pupils (Young Minds,
2020; Rose et al., 2021).
Less attention has been paid to the impact on teacher peer
relationships, although there have been indications that teachers
sought out supportive relationships with their colleagues in order
to maintain resilience during this challenging time (Kim and
Asbury, 2020; Klapproth et al., 2020), and that senior leaders
reorientated their attention toward relational aspects of schooling
(Ferguson et al., 2021). The requirement to teach online had an
impact on pedagogy (Greenhow et al., 2020; Spoel et al., 2020;
Carpenter and Dunn, 2021), attainment (Ofsted, 2020; Rose et al.,
2021), student motivation (Ofsted, 2020; Zaccoletti et al., 2020),
and student–teacher relationships (Jones and Kessler, 2020; Moss
et al., 2020; Wong, 2020). Headteachers reported that their
strategies of leadership shifted becoming more closely aligned to
an ethic of care, recognizing the traumatic nature of the crisis
(Beauchamp et al., 2021).
This article explores how teachers discursively constructed
their relationships with peers during the first lockdown in
England (March 2020), and how this impacted on their
perspectives on the crisis and their construction of a professional
identity. Findings show that teachers who constructed a salient
social identity portrayed more positive perspectives on the Covid-
19 crisis, whereas those who constructed a salient personal
identity had more negative perspectives. The reasons why these
teachers chose to construct their professional identities in these
ways are also touched upon. We show that senior leaders used a
social identity to present a positive professional identity, and that
teachers who were considering leaving the profession discursively
justified their loss of commitment through the foregrounding of
a personal identity.
Teachers’ Mental Health: Stress and Social
The association between teaching and mental health difficulties
is long established (Blase, 1982; Kalker, 1984; Kyriacou, 1987;
Guglielmi and Tatrow, 1998), and consequently a vast literature
exists documenting teacher stress and burnout. Before the Covid-
19 pandemic, teachers stress was already recognized as a serious
problem (Johnson and Birkeland, 2003; Johnson et al., 2005;
Newberry and Allsop, 2017), causally linked to teacher burnout
and attrition (Betoret, 2009; Jones and Youngs, 2012; Skaalvik
and Skaalvik, 2016; Ryan et al., 2017). Teacher stress has been
attributed to negative relationships with pupils (Aldrup et al.,
2018; Harmsen et al., 2018), insufficient support within school
or negative relationships with teaching colleagues (Troman,
2000; Van Dick and Wagner, 2001; Yuan and Lee, 2016), and
accountability procedures leading to increased workload and
loss of agency (Perryman, 2007; Brown and Manktelow, 2016;
Towers and Maguire, 2017). The Covid-19 pandemic brought
additional stressors for teachers, including Covid-19 related
anxiety (Pressley, 2021) and teachers reported higher feelings of
nervousness, anger, and boredom while remote teaching (Letzel
et al., 2020) and on their return to school (Ozamiz-Etxebarria
et al., 2020). Research conducted during the Covid-19 pandemic
has, however, highlighted several factors which can mitigate
teacher stress, including autonomy supportive leadership (Collie,
2021), social support (Zhou and Yao, 2020), and feelings of
self-efficacy (Rabaglietti et al., 2021).
Although social support is recognized as a way of reducing
stress generally (Viswesvaran et al., 1999; Ozbay et al., 2007;
McKimmie et al., 2019) and specifically within education
(Kinman et al., 2011; Larrivee, 2012), it is recognized that certain
groups have tendencies toward particular methods of coping with
stress. Strategies of developing and sustaining social support in
order to alleviate stress appear to be more common amongst
women rather than men (Taylor, 2011); this is in line with
research which has identified maladaptive and avoidant coping
strategies as more often practiced by males in response to stress,
whereas females will more often use adaptive coping strategies
(Gentry et al., 2007; Adasi et al., 2020). Studies have identified
this gendered pattern in teachers’ responses to the pandemic
(Klapproth et al., 2020; Truzoli et al., 2021). As three quarters of
the teaching population in England are female (, 2020),
it would therefore be expected that developing and maintaining
social support networks would be a prominent coping strategy to
manage stress amongst teachers working in this context.
The present article is influenced by the field of discursive
psychology (Potter and Wetherell, 1987; Edwards and Potter,
1992); as such, the focus of research is not on the causes
of psychological issues such as stress, or on the efficacy of
coping mechanisms used to prevent or cure such problems.
Instead, discursive psychological research focuses on how people
talk about psychological issues such as stress, and how the
introduction of such issues into talk are used to achieve certain
aims. Researchers using discursive psychological approaches
identify the relationship between causal attributions of stress
in the workplace (Kinman and Jones, 2005), and explore what
is considered “normative” with regard to workplace stress
(Harkness et al., 2007).
Such discursive approaches to education seek to identify the
discursive associations and strategies which are deployed when
teachers talk about their working lives. In their research with 15
Scottish secondary school teachers, Hepburn and Brown showed
that in their research conversations teachers used “[s]tress as a
category, and its ability to be generalized to the whole population
of teachers [to] build immunity from any accusations” (2001,
p. 701). Stress was called upon within research conversations
to protect teachers’ sense of positive professional identity and
to defend them from accusations of impropriety. Kelly and
Colquhoun (2010) found that reducing stress was constructed
by policymakers as key to improving school improvement, with
subsequent responsibility placed on school managers to manage
stress amongst their workforce, and for individual teachers
to position themselves as able to successfully manage stress.
Thomson (2008) showed how one headteacher used the theme
Frontiers in Psychology | 2August 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 703404
Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
of stress in a radio interview to criticize government policy
and justify decisions by headteachers to leave the profession.
In such research, the focus is not on how stress manifests in
individuals or how individuals cope with stressful situations, but
instead on how the theme of stress is discursively deployed in
conversations in order to support the speaker’s construction of
a positive professional identity.
Social Relationships and Social Identity
Our study was primarily driven by an interest in how teachers
spoke about their relationships with colleagues during the Covid-
19 lockdown. Positive social relationships are strongly associated
with improved mental and physical health outcomes, including
higher well-being and lower rates of mortality (Kawachi and
Berkman, 2001; Cohen, 2004; Holt-Lundstrad and Smith, 2012;
Tay et al., 2012). The “stress buffering hypothesis” (Cohen and
Wills, 1985; Raffaelli et al., 2013) holds that supportive social
relationships are able to provide a “buffer” to individuals during
times of perceived stress and anxiety, protecting their mental
and physical health. In their theoretical work on the importance
of social relationships, Feeney and Collins have defined social
support as “an interpersonal process with a focus on thriving”
(Feeney and Collins, 2014, p. 113). Taking a lead from the seminal
work of Bowlby (2005) on attachment theory, Feeney and Collins
argue that supportive social relationships enable individuals to
flourish, as well as being protective during challenging times.
However, it is also acknowledged that close relationships which
are negative can have detrimental effects (Bertera, 2005; Ibarra-
Rovillard and Kuiper, 2011).
Developing supportive relationships with peers has been
recognized within education literature as a necessary factor in
maintaining teachers’ resilience, commitment, and motivation.
Day et al. (2007) argued that teacher identity was a composite of
professional identity (reflecting policy and social trends), situated
identity (involving relationships with others within a school
context), and personal identity (generated from life beyond
school). When all these composite elements were in balance,
teachers were able to maintain commitment and resilience.
However, when one or more of these composite elements became
unbalanced and dominated by negative influences, teachers
became at risk of losing motivation. During times of rapid change
caused by internal or external events—such as that brought
about by the Covid-19 crisis—“additional effort would need to
be made by the individual in order to manage the imbalance”
(Day et al., 2007, p. 108). Teachers were defined as vulnerable
within this study when they were unable to “find a suitable
strategy for coping with challenging situations” (2007, p. 108).
The VITAE findings are highly relevant to the present study on
the challenges faced by teachers in the Covid-19 crisis, as all
teachers during the Covid-19 lockdown faced an imbalance in
their professional and situated identities as national and school-
level policies rapidly shifted.
The literature on the beneficial and protective effects of social
support and a sense of belonging can be further illuminated
by social identity theory. Social identity is the sense of self
that is due to a person’s connection to, and identification
with, a significant social group, such as family, a professional
group, or friends (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel and Turner, 1979). This
collective level of identity means that people define themselves
in terms of we, as opposed to the individual sense of self,
using I. Collective identity indicates an individual’s sense of
belonging within a particular social group or community, and
involves firstly a “reflexive knowledge of group membership”
and, secondly, an “emotional attachment or specific disposition
to this belonging” (Benwell and Stokoe, 2006, p. 25). The
personal self, in contrast, is a concept of the self as individual,
differentiated from others (Brewer and Gardner, 1996). The
social identity approach has been applied in organizational
literature, exploring topics such as leadership (Steffens et al.,
2014), stress (Haslam and Reicher, 2006; Muhlhaus and
Bouwmeester, 2016), and motivation (Haslam et al., 2000).
Haslam et al. (2000) argued that this sense of “we-ness” plays an
important motivational role, while also facilitating positive and
sustainable organizational outcomes.
The claim that a sense of belonging within a social group
can act as a protective factor for the individual, and improve
their sense of well-being, was further established by Jetten et al.
(2017), who argued that identification with a meaningful social
group should be considered to be the “social cure” in relation to
health and well-being. Such findings are particularly pertinent
to our understanding of self-identity in times of crisis. Drury
(2018) argued that a shared identity leads to an expectation of
support from others during crisis situations, which in turn leads
to an increased sense of collective efficacy and well-being. This
phenomenon is referred to as “collective resilience” (Drury et al.,
2009; Drury, 2012), where it has been recognized that “shared
social identity based on group membership can explain social
support and hence coping, survival and wellbeing” (Drury, 2012,
p. 210).
A sense of social identity has been found to have a positive
impact on individuals during the Covid-19 crisis. Kim and
Asbury found in a small-scale study of 24 teachers working in
English schools that a sense of shared identity acted as a support
for teachers during the Covid-19 crisis, arguing that teachers
“drew upon characteristics they perceived as being widespread
in the teaching profession to find ways to make remote education
work for them” (2020, p. 1075). More generally, Biddlestone et al.
(2020) found that collectivism positively predicted engagement
with social distancing and hygiene recommendations, whereas
individualism negatively predicted engagement with measures to
control COVID-19.
Previous research had therefore highlighted the importance
of teachers’ situated identity within school contexts, and the
importance of social support to teachers as a coping mechanism
during time of stress (including during the Covid-19 pandemic).
Our research extended previous research by specifically attending
to how teachers constructed their relationships with peers
during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown, and by exploring the
associations between these constructions and how psychological
states (both negative and positive) were reported.
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
Theoretical Framework and Approach to
The approach taken to identity in this paper was informed by the
field of discursive psychology, which seeks to “study how people
deploy everyday psychological notions and manage psychological
business within talk and text, and what they accomplish by such
deployments” (Edwards, 2012, p. 425). Discursive psychology
differs from what Edwards (2012) classifies as “scientific
psychology” and is “completely different from the factors and
outcomes approach that is characteristic of much mainstream
social psychology” (Wiggins and Hepburn, 2007, p. 281), in that
it is focused on the linguistic and interactional strategies used
by individuals to construct psychological issues when involved
in discursive communication—that is, through text and talk.
Researchers in this field start from an understanding of language
as action, rather than as representation: that is, language is not
understood as a gateway to understanding pre-existing mental
states, but as actively creating and defining what psychological
concepts are and how they are understood (Potter, 2012).
In contrast to other psychological methods, being led
by discursive psychology demands that we “begin with
discourse practices” (Edwards and Stokoe, 2004, p. 499). The
approach to identity and identity categories in the field of
discursive psychology is informed by conversation analysis,
which understands identity distinctions as constructed and used
in conversation rather than as reflective of a priori groupings
(Edwards, 1998). As such, analysis of identity starts from the
discourse as data, rather than from categories about which
the researcher has prior knowledge. How this impacts on data
analysis is profound: for example, rather than comparing the
responses of teachers with the responses of school leaders, an
analysis of identity informed by conversation analysis would
begin with data collected and look for how teachers constructed
themselves as either teachers or leaders, using the conversational
resources available to them. As such, the discursive deployment of
pronouns during talk is particularly important in understanding
individuals’ identity constructions, as they reveal the groups
which individuals wish to be associated with, alongside those they
seek to distance their “selves” from. This approach to identity
complements Davies and Harrés (1990) work on Positioning
Theory and the theories of Goffman (1955); both emphasize the
dynamic and fluid nature of identity in conversation. Identity
is not understood as a fixed consequence of having a particular
feature or background, but instead as being agentially and
dynamically iterated and reiterated within discursive situations
(Locher and Bolander, 2017).
The particular discursive framework employed in this research
project troubled some of the assumptions of social identity
theory, as established in works by Tajfel (1978) and Tajfel and
Turner (1979), most obviously the claim of social psychology that
groups and categories are “entities that reside in individuals and
are always latently present, although they are not continuously
activated” (Mieroop, 2015, p. 409). Instead, we understand
identity categories as a rhetorical tool, something that individuals
use in conversation to achieve certain discursive ends. As such,
we recognize identity and the membership of certain identity
groups as a “discursive accomplishment” (Mieroop, 2015, p. 410)
or “something that is used in talk” (Antaki and Widdicombe,
1998, p. 2) rather than as a reflection of a group membership
which exists prior to discursive construction. Social identity
theory has been criticized by discursive psychologists for its
presentation of identity as pre-discursive, that is cognitive and
essentialist rather than constructed through language (Benwell
and Stokoe, 2006). However, a number of theorists have
successfully integrated the central tenets of social identity theory
within a more discursive framework (Hogg et al., 1995; Mieroop,
2015; Rich et al., 2017).
In terms of social identity, therefore, researching through the
lens of discursive psychology turned our attention toward the
discursive ways in which individuals structure and construct their
group membership. We consider identity as dynamic, actively
constructed through talk; our interest is the discursive patterns
and relationships which emerge when teachers talk about their
identity and social identity categorizations. We recognize that
“identity is a site of permanent struggle for everyone” (Maclure,
1993, p. 311) and that through a careful analysis of language,
we are able to better pinpoint the identity work undertaken by
teachers during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Sampling and Participants
Open-ended qualitative interviews, with 30 teachers working
in primary and secondary schools across England, were used
to gather data for the research project. In using open-ended
interviews, this research project was aligned with previous
research in the tradition of discursive psychology (Lawes, 1999;
Potter and Hepburn, 2005), which is distinct from other forms of
discourse analysis in utilizing open ended interviews, rather than
naturalistic sources, to gather data (Hepburn and Wiggins, 2007).
Such interviews are sometimes referred to as “conversational”
or “semi-structured” (Potter and Hepburn, 2005, p. 283), and
the freedom afforded to research participants during open-ended
interviews enables researchers to study their responses as actions,
discursive attempts to construct specific identities, and ways
of perceiving the world. Interviews explored specific aspects of
remote educating and teacher peer relationships, including:
changes to role since the partial closure of schools;
benefits to professional relationships, family dynamics, shared
activities, and enhanced learning opportunities;
challenges of peer relationships, stress, well-being, family
dynamics, physical space, work-school balance, and resources;
influence of remote working on well-being;
Support given during the lockdown period from peers and
school leadership; and,
Strategies for dealing with remote teaching.
Interview questions were designed to encourage participants
to share their perceptions of relationships with other teachers,
interpersonal dynamics, and communication. Some questions
were designed to elucidate narratives from the participants about
how their responses to the pandemic and their relationships with
others had changed over the course of the lockdown, recognizing
that “narratives and stories are vital parts of an individual’s
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
TABLE 1 | Characteristics of sample.
School phase Gender Career phase Leadership responsibility
Primary 16 53 Male 12 40 0–7 years 4 13 Leader 10 33
Female 4 13 8–15 years 10 33 Non-leader 6 20
16+years 2 7
Secondary 14 47 Male 5 17 0–7 years 4 13 Leader 9 30
Female 9 30 8–15 years 4 13 Non-leader 5 17
16+years 6 20
Total 30 100 30 100 30 100 30 100
and organization’s sensemaking apparatus” (Gabriel, 2015, p.
276); others were designed to encourage participants to engage
in “intergroup positioning” which is “fundamentally achieved
through the use of linguistic devices such as ‘we’, ‘they’, ‘us’, ‘them’,
‘I’” (Tan and Moghaddam, 1999, p. 183).
There were also practical concerns which rendered remote,
individual interviews the most suitable qualitative data collection
tool during the particular time in which the research was
being conducted, when social distancing measures were being
enforced. As a result of measures brought in to reduce the spread
of the Covid-19 virus, other prominent qualitative research
methods which may otherwise have been considered—such
as ethnographic methods, case studies and observations—were
unsuitable for this research project.
Interviews were conducted online via Microsoft Teams with
each teacher and lasted between 30 and 90 min. Adopting this
approach enabled the participant and a single researcher, who
carried out all interviews, to see each other, building a rapport
prior to the interview itself. All interviews were recorded using
the facility on Teams and then transcribed. Participant names
were not used; rather a unique code chosen by each teacher was
added to the transcripts, providing anonymity.
The speed with which policies on Coronavirus restrictions
changed in England during March 2020 meant that, as
researchers wishing to catch the perspectives of teachers at this
unique moment, we were required to act extremely quickly.
As such, we acknowledge that in our efforts to quickly recruit
participants in order to gain rapid insights into the impact of
school closures on teachers in England, we employed methods
of “convenience sampling” (Robson, 2011) which would not be
necessary during a research project with a more conventional
trajectory. Initially, personal contacts were contacted to raise
awareness of the project, and this was followed by a snowball
sampling strategy to achieve the required number of participant
teachers for meaningful analysis. This small-scale participant
recruitment target was guided by previous studies which had
a similar methodological approach (Mieroop, 2005; Fest, 2015).
We were aware that employing a research design that involved
the recruitment of large numbers of participants may slow the
research process, and in doing so prevent us from accessing data
on the immediate perspectives and concerns of teachers during
the first few weeks of the lockdown in England. Our study, which
collected rich qualitative data from a small sample, was aligned
with a number of other small-scale educational studies conducted
during the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis (Anderson et al.,
2020; Kim and Asbury, 2020; Sequeira and Dacey, 2020; Ferguson
et al., 2021).
A sample of 30 participants was achieved (Table 1). Potential
participants were sent an email inviting them to take part in
the research, which also included a participant information
sheet outlining key aspects of the research such as purpose,
proposed schedule, time commitment, data use, and ethical
issues. They were also sent a consent form outlining issues related
to confidentiality and anonymity, right to withdraw, avoidance
of harm, data storage and disposal, and publication of material.
Those willing to participate were asked to sign and return the
consent form to the researcher team by email.
The teacher participants (13 female, 17 male) all worked
in different schools across England. The sample was made
up of 16 primary and 14 secondary practitioners. Those who
taught in the secondary phase taught a variety of subjects
including core subjects (mathematics, English, science) and
foundation subjects (art, history, geography, and modern foreign
languages). Teachers were in differing phases of their careers,
including eight teachers with fewer than 8 years of experience,
14 teachers with between 8 and 15 years of experience and eight
teachers with more than 16 years of teaching experience1. Ten
primary school teachers and nine secondary school teachers had
leadership responsibilities under normal teaching conditions.
The participants recruited for this research project were not
representative of the wider teacher population, which is a
limitation of the study caused by the strategy of convenience
sampling. For example, whereas 24% of state employed teachers
in England are male (, 2020), 57% of the teachers who
participated in this research were male. Although a convenience
sample, efforts were made to recruit participants from a range
of school types, including those in rural (n=7), suburban (n=
14), and urban (n=9) settings. Again, we make no claim that
1The career phase groupings for this study were selected based on research
conducted by Day et al. (2007), who identified six phases reflecting variations in
teachers’ identity, commitment, and self-efficacy. These phases were: 0–3 years;
4–7 years; 8–15 years; 16–23 years; 24–30 years; and 31+years.
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
the participants recruited for this project are representative of the
wider school population in England.
Data Analysis
The research questions which led the study were informed by the
preoccupations of discursive psychology, and were:
RQ1 How did primary and secondary teachers in England
use language to construct their psychological experiences of
remote teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown?
RQ2 How did teachers discursively construct their
relationships with other teachers while remote teaching
during the Covid-19 lockdown?
RQ3 How did the construction of social relationships
during the Covid-19 lockdown function discursively to justify
particular responses or actions by teachers?
Analysis of data took place in several stages, as shown in Figure 1.
In line with much research in discursive psychology, the data
was initially coded to identify emergent themes and linguistic
patterns, in a “precursor to the analysis [which involved] sifting
through the larger data corpus for instances of a phenomenon”
(Wiggins and Potter, 2007, p. 84); the findings from this
initial coding and the literature review were used as “entry or
starting points” (Baker et al., 2008, p. 295) into the corpus
of interview data. Following the identification of interesting
linguistic features, a corpus-assisted discourse analysis was then
performed to verify the extent of these features and to explore
them in greater detail. As such, analysis of the interviews
involved an integration of inductive coding and corpus linguistic
methods, involving an “interdisciplinary application of methods”
(Fest, 2015, p. 49). Corpus linguistics is defined as a “scientific
method of language analysis [which] requires the analyst to
provide empirical evidence in the form of data drawn from
language corpora in support of any statement made about
language” (Brezina, 2018, p. 2); usually, it involves the use
of specialized computer software to identify linguistic patterns
within a body of texts selected by the researcher. The use
of corpus linguistic methods to isolate discursive strategies of
identity construction is well-established within linguistic research
(Baker, 2006; Bednarek and Martin, 2011; Bakar, 2014; Fuoli,
2018). There is no prescribed method for conducting analysis
which combines thematic and corpus approaches, as corpus
linguistics is an emergent method within education research
(Pérez-Paredes, 2021).
During analysis, we attended to participants’ attempts at
self-categorization, rather than starting from a priori identity
groupings such as age, gender, ethnicity, leadership status,
or length of service. That is, we were more interested in
how participants constructed their own identity, than in pre-
existing identity categories that we as researchers may attach to
them (Fitzgerald, 2012; Paulsen, 2018). At the initial stage of
coding, the discursive utilization of pronouns was identified as
a phenomenon present within the corpus which merited further
investigation. Teachers who constructed a collective identity
with their teaching peers through the use of the pronoun we
appeared to have a more positive perspective on the experience
of remote teaching during the Covid-19 lockdown than teachers
FIGURE 1 | Stages of research analysis.
who constructed a salient personal identity, using the pronoun
Ito foreground their individual concerns. The use of personal
pronouns, such as Iand we, “gives a sense of whom a speaker
identifies himself with” (Lenard, 2016, p. 166), and are used to
stand in for membership categories which have been previously
introduced by speakers during conversations, as Sacks explains:
“If you’ve used any membership categorization device category, i.e.,
any category like male-female [. . . ] you can on some next occasion
wherein you want to refer to the same object, use a pronoun to
do it. If you’ve referred to a category in its plural form, e.g., [. . . ]
women, then you choose from a plural pronoun, most particularly
‘we’ or ‘they,’ and you may pick ‘we’ or ‘they’ by reference to whether
you are, or propose to be, a member of that category.” (Sacks, 1992,
p. 334).
The use of we indicates an attempt to construct or maintain an
association with the group, whereas the use of they an attempt
by the speaker to distance himself from the group. Individuals
present their affiliation with an institution by using personal
pronouns (Drew and Sorjonen, 1997), and teachers’ pronoun
choice can indicate the extent to which they claim alignment with
their school (Spicksley and Watkins, 2020).
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
At the following stage of “analysis” (Wiggins and Potter,
2007) we employed a corpus-assisted discourse analysis to
explore the phenomenon of interpersonal pronoun use in
more depth (Hepburn and Potter, 2003; Pérez-Paredes, 2021).
At this stage, as we moved away from initial coding and
toward analysis, “simple counts” of the pronouns Iand
we were used as an “aid to understanding the patterning”
(Hepburn and Potter, 2003, p.189) of pronoun use. This
stage of analysis was oriented around the hypothesis that
teachers who foregrounded the pronoun we had a more
positive perspective on remote teaching during the Covid-19
lockdown than teachers who foregrounded the pronoun I. The
research questions for this stage of analysis were therefore
as follows:
RQ1 Is there a pattern of pronoun usage (we/I) across the
corpus of interviews?
RQ2 If evident, is this pattern predictive of positive or negative
constructions of the experience of remote teaching during the
Covid-19 lockdown?
A recognized analytical technique in corpus linguistics is the
use of quantitative data to isolate representative cases, which
are then subject to further qualitative analysis (Mieroop, 2005;
Bednarek, 2011). In the present study, quantitative data on
pronoun use was employed to identify two sub-corpora: one
in which the participants foregrounded the use of “we,” and
one in which the use of “I” was foregrounded. Further analysis
using both quantitative and qualitative methods was then used
to compare these contrasting sub-corpora in response to the
research questions.
Corpus linguistic analysis of data is facilitated through
specialized computer programs. In this project, analysis of
pronoun use within the interview data was undertaken using
Wordsmith 7.0 (Scott, 2016), which facilitated the construction
of wordlists (frequency counts of words within a specific
corpus) and concordances (which show all the occurrences
of a target word within their context, to reveal linguistic
patterns and associations). Corpus linguistics is a comparatively
“young discipline that is [. . . ] witnessing a rich debate in
terms of methodological foundations” (Pérez-Paredes, 2021,
p. 35). Although corpus linguistic methods are traditionally
associated with the macro-analysis of large data sets (McEnery
and Wilson, 2001; Baker, 2006), such techniques can be effectively
used to isolate patterns of language in smaller data sets at
a meso-level, or even in individual texts (Bednarek, 2011).
One of the advantages of incorporating corpus methods into a
discourse analysis is to reduce researcher bias, improving the
validity and reliability of findings by introducing a quantitative
aspect to the research (Baker, 2006, 2012; Mautner, 2009).
However, within critical fields which employ discourse analysis
as a research method (such as discursive psychology) there
is a resistance to seeking neutral objectivity and instead a
recognition that “bias is unavoidable when conducting social
research” (Baker, 2012, p. 255), and even the selection of
which numbers are investigated is a subjective decision,
driven by the research question and researcher interest
and knowledge.
Corpus linguistic approaches have been successfully used in
previous research to better understand the use of pronouns
in constructing educational and institutional identities, within
relatively small collections of spoken data. Fest (2015) first
conducted a qualitative thematic analysis on 14 interviews
with students concerning an online assessment tool, before
subjecting these interviews to a corpus linguistic analysis which
began by analyzing the frequency of pronoun usage. Mieroop’s
(2005) research took the opposite approach, beginning with
a quantitative analysis of pronoun usage within a corpus of
40 speeches. This quantitative analysis enabled Mieroop to
isolate a sub-corpus of speeches in which the speaker presented
with a strong institutional identity; this sub-corpus was then
subject to a further qualitative analysis to isolate the particular
strategies employed by these speakers to construct a strong
institutional identity through discourse. Combining qualitative
and quantitative data by synthesizing traditional thematic
approaches to data analysis and corpus linguistic methods
enables “both an in-depth view and an overview of the corpus”
(Mieroop, 2005, p. 108) while facilitating researchers to gain “new
insights into the data” (Fest, 2015, p. 64).
The overall methodological approach therefore recognized
an alignment between social identity theory and discursive
approaches to the interpretation and analysis of data (Rich
et al., 2017), and was located with a long history of education
research which has explored how teachers construct their
professional identities through discourse (Maclure, 1993; Alsup,
2005, 2019; Urzúa and Vásquez, 2008; Bates, 2016). In such
research, it is recognized that “motive talk [. . . ] does not have
a simple inner referent but is a performative speech act in a
complex language game” (Edwards and Potter, 1992, p. 141).
The focus of analysis was on how teachers constructed and
presented their identities through the linguistic affordances
offered through their semi-structured interviews, and the effects
that these constructions achieved (Fairclough, 1992; Benwell and
Stokoe, 2006; Zhang Waring, 2018). Corpus linguistic methods
supported the theoretical decision to focus on the identities that
teacher participants chose to actively construct for themselves
through discourse.
Research Ethics
This study was reviewed and approved by the University’s Arts,
Humanities, and Education Research Ethics Panel, and ethical
guidance from the British Educational Research Association
(BERA, 2018) and the University were followed throughout the
study. Signed consent forms were required from all participants,
and if a teacher wished to withdraw from the study, they were
able to contact the research team and request this without
explanation. All data were stored and destroyed in accordance
with University policy, GDPR (2018) and the Data Protection Act
(2018a,b) (ICO, 2021).
Initial Coding
A number of accounts of teaching remotely suggested that
teachers perceived themselves to be working with their colleagues
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
in a collective effort. These teachers’ narratives constructed the
experience of remote teaching as a shared endeavor:
We’re sharing all the lesson plans and ideas for lessons. We’re all
doing the tutorials and sharing information about the students
when necessary. We have a department meeting each Monday
evening and then a message from the Head each Monday morning.
We’re a social department and so are used to communicating
all the time and that has leaked into the weekends with some
interaction. (Jenny)
We’re more than just a department of individual teachers, we’re a
solid team who work well together, respect each other, learn from
each other, and support each other. (Tamara)
I think we’ve stayed strong as a school, shared our expertise and
remained confident in our ability to do the job we trained for [. . . ]
even in these strange times. (Noah)
During these utterances, use of the pronoun we constructed a
sense of collegiality in schools; for the individuals, the use of
the pronoun we served a particular function in the discursive
construction of identity. By constructing their selves as being
part of a wider collective team, these teachers were able to
tacitly position themselves as having particular personality traits
which are generally considered to be positive. These traits include
sharing and communicating effectively, being social, respecting
others, and teaching confidently. For these teachers, constructing
a sense of social identity was a way of rhetorically positioning
themselves as having valuable characteristics.
In contrast, other participants argued that they felt
disconnected from their colleagues and missed the day-to-day
support they had previously received in school:
The main change has been that there is no-one to discuss
lesson plans with. That sense of support has disappeared, not
intentionally, but the reality is that we are dealing with everything
on our own now [. . . ] It’s very lonely. I actually miss staff
meetings. (Peter)
I’m far more detached now as I’m not hearing about all the things
that would usually be happening around school. We’re completely
cut off and that’s hard to deal with. (Camilla)
The utterances of Peter and Camilla involved a “shift of footing”
(Goffman, 1981) as pronoun use changed from Ito we. The
function of these utterances is to justify or explain why Peter
and Camilla are experiencing the negative emotion of loneliness.
Camilla and Peter use the pronoun Ito emphasize their isolation
from colleagues, alongside we to construct this not as an
individual problem which only affects them, but also a problem
experienced by others within their setting. Pronoun choice
enables Camilla and Peter not only to emphasize their isolation
from colleagues, but also to construct their feelings of isolation
as normal and as being experienced by others, lessening the
possibility of them being perceived as dysfunctional or antisocial.
For some participants, constructing a sense of isolation
functioned as an explanation for decisions to leave teaching.
Pronoun use in such cases was again found to be significant.
Susan and Robert used Ito emphasize their sense of
individualism during the crisis:
Yes, it’s been very stressful from a professional point of view and a
personal one. Professionally, I’ve found it hard to be isolated from
the others and feel as if I’m missing out on things [. . . ]it’s starting to
affect the bond I used to feel with being a teacher. (Susan)
I’m thinking about leaving the profession, definitely about leaving
the school at least. This has given me time to think about it without
having to be with them every day. (Robert)
The decision to leave teaching is often associated with a sense
of failure (Smith and Ulvik, 2017). In these utterances, when
teachers constructed a professional identity which was faltering
or at risk, use of the pronoun Ifunctioned to emphasize their
feelings of isolation from their colleagues. By emphasizing how
they felt separated from their school community, Susan and
Robert sought to excuse and make acceptable the decision to leave
teaching, which is often associated with negative traits such as a
lack of commitment or resilience.
Initial coding had therefore indicated that choices about
pronoun use were one important way in which participants
discursively navigated the complexities of reflecting on
the difficulties caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the
requirement to teach remotely. Furthermore, whereas the use
of we and the construction of a collective identity within the
participants’ schools appeared to be associated with positive
perspectives on the Covid-19 crisis, the use of Iand the
foregrounding of a salient personal identity appeared to be
associated with negative perspectives and emotional responses.
Discourse Analysis
Collective Identity and Personal Identity Groupings
Using Wordsmith, it was possible to identify the frequency of
the pronouns Iand we within each interview transcript, and
(for comparative purposes) across the entirety of the interviews.
The identification of these differing “person deictics” (Mieroop,
2015, p. 414) provided an innovative way in to exploring the
identity constructions of research participants, indicating each
participant’s sense of “we-ness” within their school community
(Haslam et al., 2000).
Results from the analysis of all interview transcripts indicated
that there were indeed significant differences in the use of the
pronouns we and Iacross interview transcripts (Table 2). Five
participants (Noah, Maria, Isaac, Ivy, and Edwin, henceforth
referred to as the “CI Group”) used we more frequently than Iin
their responses, indicating the construction of a salient collective
identity. Twenty-five participants used Imore frequently than we;
considering the private and individualized nature of the semi-
structured interviews conducted, this overall preference for the
pronoun Iacross the dataset was to be expected. Of these 25
participants, however, five participants (Ava, Tamara, Matilda,
Timothy, and Christopher, henceforth, the “PI Group”) had a
significant preference for the pronoun Iover we, indicating the
construction of a salient personal identity. The PI group was
formed of participants who displayed more than a 3% difference
between their use of the pronoun we and their use of the
pronoun I.
There were some noticeable similarities between the teachers
within the CI Group. All CI Group participants were experienced
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
TABLE 2 | Interpersonal pronoun data across sample.
PSEUDONYM I freq I % WE freq WE% Difference I/WE Freq Difference I/WE % Analysis sub-group
Isaac 40 2.15 44 2.37 40.22 CI
Noah 30 1.82 31 1.88 10.06 CI
Maria 32 1.84 33 1.9 10.06 CI
Ivy 37 2.14 38 2.19 10.05 CI
Edwin 42 2.23 43 2.28 10.05 CI
Steve 50 2.63 48 2.53 2 0.1 None
Paul 38 2.47 33 2.15 5 0.32 None
Grace 40 2.65 27 1.79 13 0.86 None
Camilla 36 2.78 22 1.7 14 1.08 None
Peter 84 4.32 43 3.09 41 1.23 None
Gary 47 2.82 26 1.56 21 1.26 None
Oliver 42 2.65 20 1.26 22 1.39 None
Helen 35 2.67 15 1.14 20 1.53 None
Harry 48 3.51 24 1.76 24 1.75 None
Audrey 39 2.76 13 0.92 26 1.84 None
Jenny 51 3.09 15 0.91 36 2.18 None
Aiden 45 3.46 14 1.08 31 2.38 None
Susan 67 3.5 19 0.99 48 2.51 None
Mark 58 3.89 20 1.34 38 2.55 None
Lily 49 3.78 15 1.16 34 2.62 None
Robert 29 3.05 4 0.42 25 2.63 None
Alexander 52 3.54 13 0.88 39 2.66 None
Sally 75 4.33 28 1.61 47 2.72 None
Ethan 59 4.23 20 1.43 39 2.8 None
Hayden 134 4.44 44 1.46 90 2.98 None
Ava 70 4.88 21 1.46 49 3.42 PI
Matilda 64 4.48 12 0.84 52 3.64 PI
Timothy 84 4.32 13 0.67 71 3.65 PI
Christopher 87 4.48 16 0.82 71 3.66 PI
Tamara 56 4.35 8 0.62 48 3.73 PI
Across all interviews 1,586 3.3 722 1.5 864 1.8
teachers, with more than 8 years of experience and having a
leadership role. Four of the five were teaching within primary
schools, with only one (Maria) teaching within a secondary
setting. The gender of teachers within the CI group was, however,
quite balanced, with three male and two female participants
within this category. In terms of the PI Group, there was one
noticeable pattern which emerged in terms of characteristics.
Four PI teachers worked in secondary settings and one in
primary, reversing the trend seen within the CI Group. In terms
of the other characteristics, the PI Group had a wider spread of
teachers from all career phases than the CI Group. Three of the
teachers in the PI group had leadership roles, and two were non-
leaders, again indicating a wider spread of characteristics than the
CI Group in which all teachers identified as leaders. Like the CI
Group, gender was quite balanced, including three female and
two male teachers.
Collective Identity Group interviews and PI Group interviews
were then subjected to a further manual discourse analysis in
order to determine these teachers’ perspectives on the Covid-19
pandemic lockdown and its effects. This manual analysis
was conducted to determine whether there was a significant
difference between the way that teachers with a salient collective
identity (CI Group) constructed the experience of teaching
remotely during the Covid-19 lockdown, in comparison with
teachers who had a salient personal identity (PI Group). During
this discourse analysis, each sentence was evaluated as being
either a positive, a negative, or a neutral utterance (Liebrecht
et al., 2019). Figure 2 compares the percentage of sentences
considered to be negative, positive, and neutral utterances in the
interview transcripts of the CI and PI Groups, in order to enable
a comparison between the perspectives of the two groups.
The PI group had a significantly higher percentage of negative
utterances in their interviews, ranging from 69 to 77% of
the sentences recorded in their interviews being negative. In
comparison, the percentage of sentences considered negative
within the CI Group’s interviews ranged from 20 to 34%. The
pattern was reversed with the percentage of positive utterances.
In the PI Group, positive utterances as a percentage ranged from
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
FIGURE 2 | Comparative analysis of CI and PI Group utterances.
11 to 26% of their interview transcripts. However, participants
in the CI Group used positive utterances between 57 and
68% of their interview. Findings clearly showed, therefore,
that members of the CI Group constructed the challenges of
the Covid-19 pandemic using more positive language than
members of the PI Group. Teachers who constructed a collective
identity for themselves, having a preference for the pronoun
we, constructed a more positive perspective on the Covid-
19 crisis. Teachers who identified primarily as an individual,
preferring the pronoun I, instead constructed a more negative
perspective during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. As the
findings from this discourse analysis appeared to be significant,
further analysis on the difference between the discourse of CI
Group and PI Group participants was then conducted, using
methods commonly associated with corpus linguistics. This
included further frequency analysis, and collocation analysis
using concordances (which show every occurrence of a target
word in context).
Wordlist Data
A comparison of the 20 most frequent content words2across
CI and PI Group interviews can be found in Table 3. There
were many similarities across the groups. Both CI and PI
Group participants had a high frequency of words related
to their job as teachers, including work, school, teaching,
and teacher. Some differences across the CI and PI Groups
can be attributed to the differential between the groups
in terms of phases taught: whereas department features as
2Content words contribute to the meaning of a sentence, rather than the grammar.
a frequent content word in the PI Group interviews, it
was not present in the 20 most frequent words of the CI
Group participants. As the majority of participants in the
CI Group were primary teachers, and primary schools are
generally not split into departments, this could explain this
discrepancy. In secondary schools, which most of the PI
Group worked in, work is more often organized through
departments, explaining why PI Group data featured this word
more prominently. The same could be true of the inclusion of
children within CI Group data, mainly consisting of primary
teachers: students would be a more prominent term within
secondary settings, which had a higher frequency within the
PI Group.
Two content words were prominent in both CI and PI Group
data: support and feel. Support was the 11th most frequent
content word for PI Group teachers (n=18), and the 10th
for CI Group teachers (n=23), indicating that both groups of
teachers sought to foreground discourse around support. Further
concordance analysis, detailed below, was therefore undertaken
to determine whether there were any differences in the way that
CI Group and PI Group teachers constructed support. The word
feel was used a similar number of times by both CI Group (n=
20) and PI Group (n=23) teachers, indicating that both groups
wished to talk about their inner emotional or psychological states.
However, it was interesting to note that feel was a comparatively
more frequent content word used PI Group teachers, being
the eighth most common content word used within this group
(in comparison to being the 15th most frequent content word
used by CI Group teachers). Such discourse around feelings is
of particular interest within discursive psychology so, as with
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
TABLE 3 | Comparative analysis of 20 most frequent function words in CI and PI Group interviews.
Function word ranking in group PI Group CI Group
Content word Frequency in PI g roup
Content word Frequency in CI group
1 WORK 48 THINK 61
2 THINK 43 WORK 61
6 GET 28 THINGS 29
12 TEAM 18 YEAR 22
15 BACK 15 FEEL 20
18 DAY 14 MAKE 18
20 FACT 14 GROUP 16
support, references to feelings were subject to further contextual
analysis using concordance lines.
One interesting difference between CI Group and PI Group
participants was the use of the singular or plural when using the
word teacher. Whereas, PI Group participants foregrounded the
singular teacher (n=21), CI Group participants foregrounded
the plural teachers (n=27). This again indicates a more
collective, social identity on the part of CI Group teachers, and
a more personal identity being constructed by PI Group teachers.
As evaluative terms associated with teacher could indicate the
construction of a specific teacher identity by participants, teacher
was also subject to further concordance analysis.
Concordance Data
Figures 3,4are concordances which detail every occurrence
of words with the root support(support, supports, supported,
supporting, supportive) in CI (Figure 3) and PI (Figure 4)
Groups. In both groups, supportoccurred at the same
general frequency, with 31 occurrences in the CI Group and
29 occurrences in the PI Group interviews. This similarity
in frequency suggests that both teachers who had a salient
collective identity and teachers who had a salient personal
identity worked to discursively construct support as an important
factor in their presentation of teaching during the Covid-19
pandemic lockdown.
Two noticeable discursive patterns were evident in the CI
Group data regarding associations with the word support. The
first was a temporal construction of support as continuing or
ongoing, as in the following concordance lines. Support was twice
described as constant:
without the constant support of my colleagues
constant daily support structure we have
There was also a pattern through which support was constructed
as a continuing process:
we continued to support each other
I need them to continue to support each other
continuing to support their science education
Within the CI Group, therefore, support was constructed
as something which was ongoing and reliable, with a tacit
construction of support during the Covid-19 pandemic as a
continuation of support prior to these difficulties.
Second, the word support was discursively associated with the
collocation each other (n=7) or one another (n=1), as in the
following statements:
we have all supported each other
kept in touch and supported each other
been supportive of each other
look after and support one another
In these utterances, support is constructed as a communal and
collegial enterprise: the term support indicates a process through
which all members of a group are involved in supporting and
being supported simultaneously.
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
FIGURE 3 | Concordance showing utterances of support* in CI Group interviews.
In PI Group interviews, the most noticeable pattern is
associations which give the impression of a support deficit (n=
10), as in the following statements:
don’t feel as if I’ve been supported by them
Idon’t feel supported by the school
We’ve had no support
I felt that the lack of support
Ishould have been supported more
In contrast to the CI Group—in which participants made efforts
to construct support as a shared, communal process—in these
PI Group utterances there was again a focus on the individual,
indicated by the close association of Iand me with constructions
of support (n=15):
Ifelt that the lack of support
has had the time to support me
Iwas only supported by friends
Even when support was not constructed as deficient by PI Group
participants, this construction of support as being focused on the
individual remained:
Ihave had support
They’ve tried to support me
There appeared, therefore, to be a difference in the way that
PI Group and CI Group teachers talked about support. For
CI Group teachers, support was constructed as a communal
activity, shared by everyone. In contrast, for PI Group teachers—
who had a salient personal identity—support was constructed
as something given to an individual by others, in an almost
transactional process.
Teacher Identity
In order to explore how participants constructed their identities
as teachers, concordances for the word teacher were analyzed
across the CI Group (Figure 5) and PI Group (Figure 6).
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
FIGURE 4 | Concordance showing utterances of support* in PI Group interviews.
We hoped that such an analysis would provide a way in to
exploring the ways in which teachers described their roles and
characteristics during the Covid-19 pandemic. When comparing
concordances of teacher across the CI Group and PI Group,
it became evident that there was a significant quantitative
difference between the two groups. There were 21 uses of the
word teacher within the PI Group interviews, yet only seven
in the CI Group interviews. This disparity suggests that for PI
Group participants, the subject of the teacher was an object
of discourse (Fairclough, 1992); the frequent use of the term
teacher suggests that the role and characteristics of the teacher
are being discursively constituted and renewed, rather than being
accepted. PI Group participants expended significantly more
time focusing on the teacher than their CI Group counterparts,
because CI Group teachers were not as focused on working
discursively through what being a teacher meant during the
Covid-19 pandemic period of remote teaching.
When the concordances are analyzed qualitatively in more
detail, this distinction between CI Group and PI Group teachers
becomes even more apparent. Figure 5 is the concordance
showing references to teacher within the CI Group sub-corpus.
In one of these utterances, there does appear to be some
performative effort made to construct a teacher identity:
Being a teacher means that you give up
In another utterance, the participant explicitly refers to
their “identity as a teacher and leader,” which again
has a performative effect. However, in the other five
utterances, the word teacher appears to be deployed
in a descriptive capacity rather than a performative
one, as in:
the other teacher needed to be in bed
assessed to the class teacher
rallied round the teacher we want to praise
like to be with the same teacher all the time
In these utterances, the intention of the sentence is primarily
to report incidents or school policies, rather than to rhetorically
position teachers and teaching.
In contrast, there were repeated utterances within PI Group
interviews to teacher identity, indicating discursive attempts to
make sense of or rhetorically justify teacher identity. This was
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
FIGURE 5 | Concordance showing utterances of teacher in CI Group interviews.
FIGURE 6 | Concordance showing utterances of teacher in PI Group interviews.
most prominent in the repeated collocation being a teacher
my sense of being a teacher
emotional aspect of being a teacher
you pin a lot on “being a teacher”
Being a teacher isn’t like other jobs
These utterances indicate that participants are discursively
working through changes in their professional role and identity,
rhetorically justifying their actions, and feelings. Rather than
talking as if the role of the teacher is accepted and understood, as
with the CI Group, PI Group teachers foreground the challenges
they face in making sense of their identity and what it means to
“be a teacher” during the Covid-19 crisis.
In other utterances, PI Group teachers explicitly position
themselves as a certain “type” of teacher:
I’m a committee teacher
experienced and creative teacher
oldest teacher in the department
Finally, in a number of utterances, the identity work brought
about by the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown is explicitly discussed
by PI Group teachers:
an art teacher to an IT teacher in a weekend
honorary primary teacher for the period of isolation
In these statements, PI Group participants attempt to make
sense of the shifts in identity caused by the requirement
to teach remotely. It is significant that there are no such
statements within the CI Group data. For CI Group participants,
relative lack of discussion about what it means to be a teacher
indicates a stable and consistent sense of teacher identity.
In contrast, PI Group participants talk about teachers more
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FIGURE 7 | Concordance showing utterances of feel* in CI Group interviews.
because the Covid-19 pandemic has caused them to navigate
changes to their professional identity, destabilizing their sense of
professional self.
Feelings and Stress
There was a clear distinction in the way that CI Group and PI
Group participants constructed their feelings, as indicated by the
concordances shown in Figure 7 (CI Group) and Figure 8 (PI
Group). CI Group members were significantly more likely than
PI Group members to associate positive emotions with the word
feel than negative:
I also feel lucky
Ifeel positive
Ifeel blessed
that feels good
Ifeel really proud
make sure they feel comfortable
it’s a lovely family feel
In total, within the CI Group, 16 of the 25 references to feel
associated this word with positive emotions or processes. These
findings support the discourse analysis which identified CI Group
participants as constructing a positive perspective on the Covid-
19 pandemic lockdown.
In contrast, utterances from members of the PI Group had a
tendency to associate negative emotions with the word feel, as in
the following examples:
Ifeel worn down
Ifeel that I’ve lost all contact
Ifeel let down
Ifeel at a loose end
I can feel that they’re losing confidence
Idon’t feel supported
Out of 25 occurrences of the word feelwithin the corpus of
PI Group speeches, 17 were associated with negative emotions
or processes. Again, this finding supports the discourse analysis
which indicated that PI Group participants generally constructed
a negative perspective on the Covid-19 pandemic in comparison
to their CI Group counterparts.
In addition to analyzing data related to feelings which was
prompted by wordlist data, we also chose to analyze linguistic
data specifically regarding the use of the term stress across CI
and PI Groups3.Figures 9,10 are concordances showing every
occurrence of words with the root stress(stress, stressful, stress)
across CI (Figure 8) and PI (Figure 9) Groups. It is interesting
3Stress was not the only word which was analyzed outside the high frequency
content words identified in Table 3, but the findings concerning stress were
particularly relevant and therefore warranted inclusion within this paper.
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
FIGURE 8 | Concordance showing utterances of feel* in PI Group interviews.
to note that there were more occurrences of stressin the CI
Group (n=20) than the PI Group (n=12), despite the
CI Group having a more positive perspective on the Covid-19
pandemic. Quantitative data alone would therefore indicate that
members of the CI Group were more concerned with stress than
members of the PI Group. However, when these utterances of
stresswere contextualized using concordance data, a pattern
became clear in the way that CI Group and PI Group members
conceptualized stress.
Looking at the PI Group concordance, (Figure 10), the first
person pronouns me (n=4) and I(n=4) feature heavily in
close proximity to stress, for example: Tamara stated in her
interview that:
The lack of control is stressful for me
make(s) me stressed.
Idon’t like to show stress so Ikeep it inside.
I’ve found that stressful
I’m very stressed by this experience
Members of the PI Group had a tendency to focus on the
impact of stress on themselves as individuals, foregrounding the
outcome of stress on their internal psychological state.
In comparison, the most common collocations with stressin
the CI group were it (n=4) and the (n=6). Examples of it in a
close relationship with stressinclude:
I haven’t found it stressful myself
it’s stressful again
some who have found it stressful.
In these statements, stress is most closely associated with the
situation of teaching during the Covid-19 pandemic, rather than
being constructed as causing a psychological effect within the
individual speaking. Examples of the in a close relationship with
stress within CI Group utterances include:
the new stresses
that’s when the stress might start
the stress at times has been higher
In these utterances, stress is constructed as something external
to the person speaking. Stress in these utterances may indeed
be constructed as having a psychological impact, but the use of
the makes the sense of stress more general, affecting teachers or
people generally rather than the individual specifically. In the
case of the utterance “I think the stress affects your well-being,
the shift of footing (Goffman, 1981) from Ito your indicates an
attempt to generalize the experience of stress during the Covid-19
pandemic, as the interviewee attempted to build common ground
between herself and the interviewer by assuming a common
experience of stress.
In a number of utterances, CI Group participants explicitly
referred to the stress of others:
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
FIGURE 9 | Concordance showing utterances of stress* in CI Group interviews.
FIGURE 10 | Concordance showing utterances of stress* in PI Group interviews.
Very stressful for them
The weight of someone’s stressful situation is overwhelming.
some who have found it stressful
we’ve all felt stress.
In these utterances, CI Group members emphasized the
communal feeling of stress that affected their social group, in
contrast to PI Group utterances which foregrounded the impact
of stress upon themselves as individuals.
The salience of either personal or collective identity appears,
therefore, to be predictive of how individuals construct stress.
Participants in the CI Group had a tendency to construct stress
as external to themselves and, in repeated occurrences, portrayed
concerns about the stress of others. In contrast, participants in
the PI Group generally emphasized their personal experiences of
stress, constructing stress as having a detrimental impact on them
specifically. Although there a small number of deviant cases were
identified, overall there was a clear pattern which distinguished
the way that CI Group and PI Group members constructed stress
during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Discursive Justifications
The aim of conducting a discourse analysis within the field of
discursive psychology is to take a “functionally oriented approach
to the analysis of talk and text” (Edwards and Potter, 1992, p. 27).
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
As such, analysis should not simply be descriptive, but should
seek to make sense of the discursive justifications that people use
to explain their feelings and behavior. In the final section of the
analysis, we returned to the interview transcripts to understand
why teachers constructed their identities in particular ways—
as collective in the CI Group, and personal in the case of the
PI Group.
For teachers in the PI Group, the construction of a
salient personal identity served as a justification for a loss of
commitment and motivation:
I’ve been out in a really awful position. My team are looking to me
for guidance but I don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing.
I’m losing their good will now and I can feel that they’re losing
confidence in me. Although we’re a relatively big school, we’re in
the middle of a close city community and I’m not sure how I’ll be
able to go back at this rate. (Timothy)
I feel let down and will contemplate my position over the summer.
I won’t move to another schoolit’s too late for me to do that, but I
don’t have to go on teaching if I don’t want to. I’ve been doing this
for over 40 years so I have a choice to make. (Christopher)
Rubbish, rubbish, rubbish! One headteacher responsible for
reducing this committed, experienced and creative teacher to not
even wanting to stay in the profession! (Matilda)
I also need to make sure I have some kind of life outside work
because I worry about it too much and never really relax. I won’t
last long as a teacher if I don’t try to find a better balance...and I
love my job so that’s a big thing to say. (Ava)
Teachers in the PI Group emphasized their personal identity
to work through difficult feelings about being a teacher, and to
justify changes in their teacher identity. For Matilda, emphasizing
her personal identity provided some justification for her identity
shift from a “committed, experienced and creative teacher”
to someone who wanted to leave the profession. Timothy
emphasized how he felt isolated from his team and used this
to explain how he would find it difficult to return to his
school. Christopher foregrounded his personal feelings and his
identity as an experienced teacher to justify his decision to
“contemplate my position over summer.” Ava, although keen
to stress that she enjoyed teaching by saying “I love my job,
argued that she needed to “have some kind of life outside work,
rhetorically using a desire for a sense of identity outside work
as a justification for concerns about a future lack of motivation
and commitment. For the PI Group, constructing their identities
as distinct from their school community provided a justification
for the negative admission that they were considering leaving
teaching as a result of the changes brought about by the Covid-19
pandemic lockdown.
For teachers in the CI Group, the construction of a salient
collective identity served to position them as good leaders
and managers:
I’ve felt more like an army general for the past three months, than
I have a headteacher. Its been full on, all hands to the pump, but
we’ve pulled through it and I think we’ll be stronger for it. (Edwin)
I’ve taken it head on and done everything needed to take the staff
with me. We’re a unit and we had to tackle this as a unit. This was
the biggest challenge we had faced as a team so we all had to be
on board with the decisions made. I’ve had to hand over all of my
actual teaching. I think it’s important that the deputy head teaches,
but in this situation, that wasn’t possible. I’m really sad about it, but
we all had to make sacrifices and that was mine. (Ivy)
It’s been an interesting experience and one which has brought us
altogether in many ways. My role as a leader in the school has been
important in making sure the staff feel informed and prepared for
how we move forward both during and after the closure. As deputy,
I’ve been responsible in implementing the remote teaching strategy
across the school, but with the help of the Key stage leads and subject
coordinators. (Isaac)
I’m Head of Science and I usually work very closely with the leads
for the three sciences and we haven’t been able to do that in the
same way as before. The departmental meetings have been done
differently, as has planning and assessment. (Maria)
I’m taking on the role of the head really which he does the bigger
planning of how to move forward when the children can come back
to school. Our roles have changed a lot, but it’s worked and we’re
really proud that our small school has coped well with it all. (Noah)
As with teachers in the PI Group, those in the CI Group also
reported undergoing changes to their role as a result of the Covid-
19 crisis. This rhetorical argument is perhaps most obvious in
Edwin’s dialogue. He starts by comparing his changed role under
Covid-19 to one of an “army general,” but then constructs a
sense of democratic and consensual leadership by using the
pronoun we: “we’ve pulled through it [. . . ] we’ll be stronger for
it.” Edwin therefore justifies his changed role by emphasizing a
sense of social identity within his school institution. Similarly,
Ivy and Noah reported significant changes to their role, but
both justified these changes by emphasizing that they were part
of a wider group of teachers within their school, all of whom
had experienced changes to their role. Maria emphasized her
democratic approach to leadership prior to the Covid-19 crisis,
and Isaac similarly foregrounded an inclusive leadership style in
response to the Covid-19 pandemic. By emphasizing their shared
experience with other teachers, rather than their distinctiveness
and individual experience, teachers in the CI Group discursively
justified the decisions they had made during the period of
remote teaching.
It is interesting that all teachers in the CI Group explicitly
categorized themselves as having senior leadership roles: Edwin
as a headteacher; Ivy, Isaac, and Noah as deputy heads; and
Maria as head of department. Findings suggest that the discursive
construction of a social identity and portrayal of a democratic,
inclusive leadership style were used to justify rapid changes
to school structure and policies during the Covid-19 crisis.
Members of the CI Group detail changes to their role, but
justify these changes as being supported by their staff and as
being aligned with the experiences of other teachers within
their schools.
Previous research published on education during the Covid-
19 crisis has highlighted changes in teacher–pupil relationships
which occurred as a result of the sudden requirement to teach
remotely (Jones and Kessler, 2020; Moss et al., 2020; Wong,
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
2020). Our research has extended this body of knowledge by
exploring the way that teachers spoke about their relationships
with other teachers during this challenging time. Research on
teacher–pupil relationships highlights how teachers’ sense of
professional identity shifted as welfare support for children took
priority, with teachers organizing food banks and delivering
learning materials (Moss et al., 2020). The requirement to
teach online was particularly challenging for those who sought
to construct respectful and communicative relationships with
families and children embedded within an ethic of care (Jones
and Kessler, 2020; Ferguson et al., 2021), and for teachers
who sought to meet children’s basic need for relatedness
(Wong, 2020). Our research on teachers’ relationships with their
colleagues appears to suggest that it was not only relationships
with students which demanded identity work during the Covid-
19 crisis, but also relationships with other teachers.
Our research indicates that teachers who presented a salient
collective identity, emphasizing strong and positive relationships
between staff and a sense of belonging, also constructed a
more positive perspective on the Covid-19 crisis than teachers
who presented a salient personal identity. This finding supports
the work of Day et al. (2007) which found that teachers who
had unstable professional and situated identities were more
vulnerable than teachers whose identities were in balance.
Although all teachers during the period of Covid-19 suffered
from instability in their professional identity as remote teaching
was implemented and their professional role changed, teachers
in the CI Group appeared to maintain a more stable situated
identity than those in the PI Group, reporting more consistent
and positive relationships with colleagues. Teachers in the PI
Group constructed both their professional and situated identities
as being unstable during the Covid-19 crisis, and it is perhaps
therefore unsurprising that the PI Group reported a lack
of commitment, motivation and resilience during the Covid-
19 lockdown.
In line with much research which indicates the protective
effects of social support and collective identity both in school
settings and elsewhere (Kinman et al., 2011; Drury, 2012; Jetten
et al., 2017), our research suggests that teachers who presented
themselves as being supported by other teachers within their
school may have felt more able to cope with the challenges
presented by the Covid-19 lockdown. Certainly, our research has
indicated a close association between discursive constructions of
collective and personal identity, perspectives on the pandemic,
and psychological issues including stress. Like the teachers in
Kim and Asbury’s (2020) study, the CI Group of teachers
within our study constructed a strong sense of shared or
collective identity which they argued enabled them to navigate
the difficulties of the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. However,
our study also revealed another group of teachers, as represented
by the PI Group, who constructed themselves as lacking social
support and, consequently, as feeling extremely vulnerable as
a result of the Covid-19 crisis. Our study therefore challenges
one of the claims of Kim and Asbury’s study, that teachers
“made extra efforts to create and develop relationships with each
other” (2020, p. 1077) during the Covid-19 lockdown. Whereas,
this may have been true of teachers who constructed a salient
collective identity, other teachers who constructed a salient
personal identity reported feeling isolated from their peers, and
making efforts to distance themselves by considering leaving
the profession.
It was interesting to note that despite previous research
showing that female teachers were more likely to deploy
functional coping strategies (such as seeking social support) than
male teachers (Klapproth et al., 2020; Truzoli et al., 2021), our
project indicated no significant difference between the way that
male and female teachers spoke about their construction of social
identity and use of social support. The majority of teachers in the
CI Group (three of five) were male, and the majority of teachers
in the PI Group were female (again, three out of five), suggesting
that male teachers were more likely to seek out social support
than females. This finding could be a function of the small sample
size and requires further investigation. However, it may also point
to the importance of research which departs from individuals’
own identity constructs, rather than from assuming the priority
of predetermined groups such as gender.
In terms of the way that participants categorized themselves,
one significant difference between the CI Group and the PI
Group was the self-categorization of CI Group teachers as senior
leaders within their schools. All of the CI Group categorized
themselves as senior leaders and used a construction of social
identity to present their “selves” as effective managers during
this time of difficulty. Our research findings therefore have
an interesting relationship to those of Ferguson et al. who, in
their research with primary head teachers during the Covid-19
lockdown in Scotland, found that “Head Teachers demonstrated
indomitable attentiveness, responsiveness, and responsibility for
others, thus showing that relationships are fundamentally about
values within education” (2021, p. 11). The findings from our
project highlight that one of the rhetorical devices employed
by headteachers and other senior leaders to justify their actions
and professional identity during the Covid-19 crisis was to
emphasize collegial relationships with others. Our research does
not contradict the findings of Ferguson et al. (2021); in many
ways the findings of the two studies are aligned. However, our
findings emphasize the importance of attending to the rhetorical
purpose of such claims and their function in discourse, rather
than accepting such self-positionings as representative of an
objective reality.
With regard particularly to PI Group teachers, our findings
support the work of previous research on stress within the field
of critical education studies and discursive psychology. Teachers
in the PI Group constructed a salient personal identity partially to
justify their feelings of stress, shifting the locus of responsibility
for such stress from themselves and onto others. This supports
Kelly and Colquhoun’s argument that prominent psychological
discourses within school settings not only encourage teachers to
view themselves as stressed, but as “responsible for managing that
stress” (2003, p. 202). In order to rhetorically manage the negative
feelings associated with being unable to manage the stress
brought about by the Covid-19 lockdown, PI Group teachers
emphasized negative relationships with peers. The findings from
the present study extend the findings of Hepburn and Brown
(2001), who found that teachers use the discourse of stress to
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Spicksley et al. Teachers’ Collective and Personal Identities
protect themselves from accusations. We found that teachers
also use discourses oriented around negative relationships with
peers to justify their negative feelings and future actions,
particularly those associated with attrition; as such, our
findings support those of Thomson (2008) who detailed how a
headteacher used discourses of stress to justify decisions to leave
the profession.
This paper has made contributed to the growing field of study
concerning the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns on individuals
and social groups. We have argued that interpersonal pronoun
usage may serve as a predictor of teachers’ perspectives on
the Covid-19 crisis, extending previous research on the impact
of teachers’ peer relationships during this unprecedented time
by employing a methodological stance informed by discursive
psychology. This paper does not seek to claim that interpersonal
pronoun use is sufficient to explain and understand teacher
identities in their entirety, either during the Covid-19 crisis or
during other challenging situations. More research would need to
be conducted with a larger sample in order to determine whether
the findings of this study are generalizable within a wider and
more representative teaching population, or during other times
of stress or difficulty. Although it is usual for studies within the
field of discursive psychology to rely on interview data from a
small sample, innovative use of corpus-assisted discourse analysis
(as employed in this paper) could enable future studies to work
with larger samples to determine the generalizability of the results
presented here. Therefore, although one of the limitations of this
study was the small sample size, the study could serve as a pilot
for future work exploring teachers’ discursive constructions of
peer relationships.
The raw data supporting the conclusions of this article will be
made available by the authors, without undue reservation.
This research study was reviewed and approved by University
of Worcester Arts, Humanities and Education Research Ethics
Panel. The participants provided their written informed consent
to participate in this study.
AK was responsible for the development of the research project
and the collection of data. AK, KS, and MW completed initial
thematic analysis. KS completed discourse analysis and wrote
the findings, discussion, and conclusion. MW and KS developed
the conceptual framework and wrote the introduction. AK and
KS wrote the methodology, revised, and edited the manuscript
together before submission. All authors contributed to the article
and approved the submitted version.
Fees for open access publication were provided by the University
of Worcester.
The authors would like to thank the teachers who participated in
this research study. Thanks are also extended to the University of
Worcester for their continued support for the research.
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Frontiers in Psychology | 23 August 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 703404
... March 2020 can be regarded as the beginning of radical changes for teaching as a relational professional activity with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic (Jones and Kessler, 2020;Spicksley, Kington and Watkins, 2021). This pandemic process paved the way for irreversible changes in the development of teacher identity, which is affected by personal, social, and cognitive factors (Flores and Day, 2006). ...
... Thus, a range of closely related areas with teacher identity such as communication, curriculum, administration, pedagogy, and professionalism are also likely to be affected by the pandemic. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic process leads a new field of study in the literature of education, learning, teacher identity, belonging, curriculum, teaching process, etc. (Jones & Kessler, 2020;Kim & Asbury, 2020;Spicksley, Kington, & Watkins, 2021). ...
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... And the little time that we can open the door and: "everything okay?"-"yes, all good" is just enough so it doesn't get crowded. (Teacher B) COVID-19 has exposed issues that have been present in teaching for long time: the need to care, the emotions that surround the identity of the teachers, and the frustration in the face of small or important interruptions in their daily work [38,44]. For instance, regarding the decrease in opportunities to socialize, teachers and principals recognize that, just as it was necessary to eliminate children's opportunities to interact, their own interactions with other faculty members were also affected (h): ...
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The aim of our study was to explore the barriers and facilitators that teachers, principals, and parents face when adapting to COVID-19 pandemic scenario in terms of promoting toddlers’ physical activity (PA). Thirty-four (20 teachers and principals, and 14 parents) semi-structured qualitative interviews were conducted from October 2020 to March 2021. The socioecological model has enabled the identification of barriers and facilitators, some of which are related to the pandemic and others which are not. The main results suggest that upon reopening the ECEC institutions, regarding environmental barriers, educators mentioned the impact on the use of space, and parents, the modification of daily activities generated by COVID-19. However, educators also considered that the presence of suitable spaces in the school for practicing PA was a facilitator. At the intra- and interpersonal level, facilitators of PA that were unrelated to the pandemic included, for parents, the predisposition of children to be physically active and their own function as role models, and for educators, the curricular practices themselves. At an environmental level, the risk of danger in the traditional classroom plus bad weather were considered barriers by educators, while parents mentioned difficulties accessing outdoor space and the poor suitability of indoor spaces. Our results suggest the simultaneous analysis of the perceptions of different actors in the educational environments offers a broad vision of the ecological alternatives for offering children opportunities for PA in these difficult times.
... With respect to different levels of organization, social support of colleagues (i.e., group-level resource) and support gained from a leader (i.e., leader-level resource) are recognized as important predictors of teachers' occupational well-being in the time of school closures. For example, Spicksley et al. (2021) found that teachers who experienced being supported by other teachers in their school felt more able to cope with the challenges resulted from school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collie (2021), in turn, examined the role of principal leadership and workplace buoyancy in teachers' occupational well-being during the spring of 2020. ...