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Are you a teacher proficient in multiple languages? Then you probably coped better during COVID-19

A Q&A with Professor Michał B. Paradowski from the Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw

Of the 170 longitudinal studies in the COVID-MINDS Network, one led by Professor Michał B. Paradowski is among the most unusual. Paradowski established a 9,000-person global study examining teachers and students from 118 countries to see what factors influenced their stress levels, wellbeing, ability to cope with the pandemic, and perceived effectiveness of emergency remote instruction. While his team say their results obtained so far have only scratched the surface of their huge dataset, their work has already resulted in six papers, with more in the pipeline.

In a recent conversation with COVID-MINDS, Paradowski describes how the study came about and what he thinks its implications are for the future of teaching.

Professor Paradowski and his friendly owl.

1. As a professor in an applied linguistics department, how did you come to launch a global mental health study?

MBP: I’m primarily a linguist or language scientist, but I’ve also always been interested in psychology. I remember in late February of 2020 I had just come back from a conference and there was already talk about possible school closures. I realised that COVID was going to be big and unprecedented and that it was an opportunity for some useful research. So I started thinking about possible questions and, together with a PhD student of mine who is a psychology graduate, developed and structured them into an online questionnaire. After IRB approval, we got the study off the ground about a month and a half after the lockdown had started.

2. Your study intersected language and psychology. Tell us more about what you were examining.

MBP: Initially, we focused on language teachers and learners as well as instructors and majors in linguistics, but then we decided to expand. Actually, in the end the second-largest cohort consisted of non-language instructors, and our publications went into education, psychology, and language journals. All the different angles of enquiry provided exciting insight into teachers’ and learners’ functioning, especially during the first few months of the pandemic, and into emergency remote instruction. Among questions about coping and wellbeing, we weaved in some concerning language proficiency and multilingualism because we wanted to explore whether these factors helped participants better deal with certain aspects of the pandemic. Cognitive and nonverbal benefits of multilingualism had already been widely explored in the past, but not in such a special situation. And it did! Indeed, we found that multilingualism did make a difference.

3. What did you find?

MBP: What mattered was not so much the number of languages that individuals knew, but their cumulative competence in those languages. So we found that more multilingual teachers demonstrated more stability in both their personal lives and in teaching, despite the challenges of the pandemic and remote instruction. They were much less likely to cut down on lesson time, while they were more likely than their colleagues to feel that they would come out of the situation unscathed. And they also predominantly felt that their students were coping well, which was not always the case for teachers who did not indicate high competence in other languages.

4. Why do you think language abilities were related to coping abilities?

MBP: Pre-COVID literature had repeatedly reported correlations between multilingualism, creativity and curiosity. Exposure to other languages usually comes hand-in-hand with information about other cultures and opens doors to foreign situations. So you gain a broader perspective on life and others’ experiences. You learn that situations can be viewed from different angles. Or maybe while browsing news and social media feeds in different languages, you see that others’ circumstances are even more unenviable than yours, thus you may gain a more holistic, objective, and empathetic perspective. Another viable explanation is that contemplating a situation in a foreign language helps distance us from it, as demonstrated by our own and others’ previous research. These are possibilities that of course need corroboration.

Also, reaching a high level of proficiency in a foreign language typically requires perseverance—a characteristic that also helps us cope with prolonged lockdowns and uncertainty. So while it’s unlikely that multilingualism per se affects coping, this and certain other personality traits—such as self-discipline, love of learning, flexibility, and competence, which also correlated with multilingualism in our study—can lead to high levels of proficiency in more than one foreign language and could also stand behind more effective coping mechanisms.

5. Did you notice any differences across countries?

MBP: We haven’t yet had a chance to zoom in on individual countries, but we did look at economically developing versus developed states and found that teachers from the former were actually considerably more engaged in teaching online than those in the latter, which might at first be a bit counterintuitive. The easiest explanation would be participant self-selection: the questionnaire sometimes took upwards of 45 minutes to complete, so you needed to have the infrastructure in place along with time, motivation, and comfort to fill it out. We offer a speculative explanation for the finding in one paper, but cannot offer definitive conclusions.

6. Your study has nearly 9,000 participants from 118 countries. How did you establish such a wide reach?

MBP: Originally, we just contacted our friends, colleagues, students, and anyone we knew to share the questionnaire. We also used thematic social media groups and pages and reached out through various teaching organisations, associations, educational institutions and platforms. Once the number of countries exceeded 60, we additionally looked at those not yet included and tried to reach out to researchers and educators in those places. Eventually we passed 100 countries, but of course this took considerable time and effort. Each survey version contained over 400 question items, so it was by no means a trifle task and our participants had to be genuinely motivated. Given this, I think the numbers and diversity we achieved were very satisfactory. And we are very grateful to our participants and those who helped us in the process. We got a lot of positive feedback, showing that the questions resonated with the respondents and that they could relate to them. Definitely part of the success was our attempt to see the participants as human beings, not merely constrained to their teacher or student hats.

7. What are your future plans for the research?

MBP: So far, three of our papers have already been published, a further one has been accepted for a book proposal, and another is under revision. But we’ve only scratched the surface as there is only so much we can do as a small team and alongside other current projects. We are successively churning out new analyses and hope to publish more results over the next calendar year. We’re also looking forward to learning how educators’ attitudes towards the pandemic and their self-perceived coping with emergency remote instruction may have changed over time, as the study included a longitudinal component.

8. Do you have any thoughts on the future of teaching and resilience in the education sector?

MBP: The pandemic definitely contributed to making online teaching part and parcel of almost every educator’s skillset, provided the logistics allowed this. Most teachers are now familiar with tools that can be used for video conferencing and online classes, which was not the case three years ago. These are no longer a novelty or something that instructors will be afraid of. If there is another emergency, a switch to online teaching will thus be a much smoother process. I think many classes may become hybrid by design. The question is whether some institutions might not want to economise on the experience and shift instruction to the virtual environment completely, which doesn’t necessarily lead to improved wellbeing for students and teachers.

9. Regarding teachers’ wellbeing and mental health, what do you think are the main lessons from the pandemic?

MBP: We found that teachers coped better at higher stages of education. This is one of the non-amenable factors as one does not simply move a primary school teacher to higher education. We also found that concerns about learning outcomes were highest in beginner level classes. However, most of the other important variables do seem to be more malleable. We learnt for instance that the predictors of teacher stress were not limited to working conditions, but included anxiety about the future, living situation, self-acceptance, appraisal of how the situation affected others, whether classes were obligatory or optional, and perception of the effectiveness of virtual delivery. So we need to think about teachers (and students) more holistically. We also found that psychological overload was mediated by perception of how students were coping, underscoring the importance of this feedback loop for wellbeing. Lastly, some psychological constructs from pre-pandemic psychological literature no longer remained intact in our study, ending up scattered across clusters of different constructs, which might suggest that in crisis situations, psychological constructs may function differently than during business-as-usual.

10. What changes would you like to see in research moving forward?

MBP: I think we need more collaboration across different disciplines and countries. Our study is an example of multi-site interdisciplinary research, pooling competences and insights from various fields of science. You can’t properly understand teacher or student wellbeing without taking into account the variety of potential influential factors, both ecological and internal. Most of the extant literature on emergency education typically comes from one school, region, or country. Very few have looked beyond country borders to obtain more generalisable findings.

The COVID pandemic has once again starkly demonstrated how many of today’s issues transcend national boundaries. Multi-site research is one means of partly removing barriers. Another way forward is involving different groups of stakeholders, not just scientists from different relevant fields, but also practitioners, students, and other agents of change. In our project, this took the form of piloting and consultations. By taking into account other parties’ concerns, research may more meaningfully contribute to cycles of theory and practice, providing a more holistic perspective on the issues investigated.

Otherwise, I think that researchers are probably better prepared for future challenges like COVID because we know the tools that can be employed and which ones work better, which ones less so and why, what the success rates of different online recruitment scenarios are, and the potential barriers. We are also more aware than ever before of the technical and logistic challenges of doing research in crisis.

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