Stellenbosch University: Virtual teacher support community going from strength to strength

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Launched in May this year by staff and students of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University (SU), the online platform TeacherCalm is making its mark in supporting schoolteachers’ wellbeing.



SU lecturer Dr Elzahn Rinquest from the Faculty’s Department of Education Policy Studies says they created this virtual space in response to “the overwhelming need for supporting teachers’ holistic wellness and wellbeing locally, nationally and globally”.



In addition to easy access to a virtual community, participants also have free access to an extensive body of academic research and other knowledge and therapeutical resources. “Our social media spaces offer teachers multimedia resources to support their holistic wellness, tailored to their experiences and needs,” adds Elzahn. “Many educators have also shared their own insights and techniques to maintain mental and physical health.”



The offering is not limited to cyberspace either but includes in-person retreats and workshops for treating the body, mind, and soul. To this end, TeacherCalm has collaborated with two external partners, Impilo Consulting, and the non-profit Allhub Allied Health. Practitioners from these organisations offer training and share their expertise in clinical psychology, occupational therapy and physiotherapy during workshops and wellness retreats.



Filling a void

“TeacherCalm is our answer to the overwhelming wellness needs of teachers, as indicated in a plethora of literature, and the lack of response to those needs from both public and private institutions in South Africa,” says Elzahn.



On top of the normal work stressors associated with teaching, unprecedented challenges over the past two years have piled on the pressure. “The Covid-19 pandemic has reshaped our world, affected how we ‘do’ schooling, and positioned teachers as frontline workers,” she explains. “All these factors have created an even greater need to understand and support the teacher experience more holistically.”



The pilot phase of the initiative this year focuses on BEd students and SU alumni. “Students learn about ethics, conflict management, teamwork, risk management, and the value of working in a structured way while developing a commitment and passion for volunteering as active citizens,” Elzahn explains. “But because it is online, it allows the initiative to grow and expand nationally, and schools are already becoming involved.” TeacherCalm also attracts participants from disciplines such as sociology, psychology, physiotherapy and nutrition.



Of course, the growing reach and online community of TeacherCalm offer various opportunities for research in educational leadership and management, policy issues, school and classroom cultures, and teacher identities, Elzahn says. In fact, research will be essential to keep the initiative sustainable and relevant. “We want to stay attuned to our community through ongoing research by SU staff and students.” This is why she invites researchers to explore the opportunities presented by TeacherCalm.



Owe it to our teachers

Since the launch of TeacherCalm, participant feedback has been extremely positive. According to Emma Swart, vice-chair of the SU Education Student Committee, the online teacher community is a safe and accessible way for every teacher to enrich themselves and be their best self, which also allows them to be the best teachers they can be.



This is echoed by Skylar Taylor, a fourth-year BEd student, who heads up TeacherCalm’s student volunteering team: “Teachers are moulding our future engineers, presidents, freedom fighters, medical doctors and more. Outside of teaching, they must also be role models, understanding parents, and vessels for change. We owe it to them to cultivate and support their wellbeing.”



Activities since the start of the pilot include the following:

• The Teacher Connect group has been created on the platform and offers therapeutic support to more than 40 teachers.



• Eighteen Education student leaders recently attended an in-person holistic wellness retreat at the Grail Centre in the Overberg town of Kleinmond. The therapeutic event was hosted in collaboration with Allhub Allied Health, whose physiotherapist, naturopath, and occupational therapist facilitated the programme.



• The TeacherCalm Instagram account already has 232 followers and features regular posts and knowledge-sharing resources.



• A total of 245 SU students in the Sociology of Education module are volunteering to develop co-curricular attributes and acquire vital professional teaching skills.

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