It is a concept that is often considered to be a stable individual trait – that is we have either a high or low sense of capability around specific tasks that does not vary.
Yet research now suggests that self-efficacy is a fluid sense of capability that can significantly impact on our classroom interactions and wellbeing.
Self-efficacy has been the focus of much of the research into teacher emotion and teacher burnout and is defined as an individual’s perceptions of their ability to do what is required to achieve anticipated results in a given situation.
Based on social cognition theory, self-efficacy simply reflects our beliefs about our ability to manage or succeed in a certain context regardless of whether or not we act.
Teacher self-efficacy (TSE) sits around an individual teacher’s beliefs about their ability to plan, organise, and carry out all of the activities that are necessary to achieve both curriculum milestones and acceptable student outcomes.
It’s been widely thought to be a protective factor against teacher burnout, directly contributing to teacher instructional quality and is considered to be extremely important for teacher longevity.
Problematically, because self-efficacy is contextual, our belief in our abilities to be effective teachers can be significantly influenced by events that occur across the course of a year.
For example, a challenging cohort can erode levels of self-efficacy quite quickly, creating a sense of helplessness, frustration and even disengagement from the teaching process.
Indeed, research has found that teachers can modify their self-efficacy beliefs over sometimes very short time periods depending on a range of factors including student behaviour, perceptions of support and personal coping strategies.
Research has also found that when our self-efficacy is low, our motivation dips and effort and persistence for doing what’s required to achieve academic outcomes is compromised.
Additionally, our ability to recover from setbacks is lessened and there is an increase in vulnerability to difficult situations and interactions. If it goes unchecked, this process can very easily lead to burnout and a chronic loss of wellbeing.
Studies also suggest that our personal and professional success depends on our cognitive abilities or general intelligence, as well as our emotional and social skills – or emotional intelligence (EI).
Put simply, EI refers to our ability to not only perceive and identify our own emotions, but to manage them to enhance our wellbeing and the quality of our relationships with others.
As such, four major dimensions of EI have been identified: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management or self-regulation, and relationship management.
To counteract the way in which changes to self-efficacy can lead to a burnout spiral and loss of teacher effectiveness, self-awareness can be used to monitor any changes to our feelings around our ability to achieve our daily learning goals.
Self -awareness is about monitoring our internal states to determine if our attitudes and feelings are being eroded by our current work situation be it around a particular student cohort or the school climate.
One of the indicators of a loss of self-efficacy is a change in attitude toward problems. When our self-efficacy is high we consider problems to be challenges to be overcome. They fill us with energy and direction to find solutions to whatever has presented itself.
Low self-efficacy on the other, hand fills us with a sense of dread, helplessness and a feeling of being overwhelmed.
If we use self-awareness to keep track of these aspects of our feelings around our practice, we can more easily identify where the pressure is coming from.
Identification can then lead to a distancing of ourselves from the influence. That is, we can externalise what it is that is creating a loss of self-efficacy, effectively reducing the emotion attached to it.
When less emotion is attached to the situation we find ourselves in we can better apply abstract problem-solving strategies to the issue.
Part of this is recognising those aspects of the situation that are within our control and those that are not.
For example, a challenging student cohort can be exhausting, and blanket classroom management practices are very rarely effective for all members of a classroom.
As such, it would be important to keep this in mind to more realistically evaluate what you can achieve on your own and what resources you might need to draw on to assist you.
In doing so, your level of self-efficacy can be enhanced by acknowledging that some situations will require other supports and that this is not a reflection on your effectiveness or your practice.
Ultimately, reduced self-efficacy diminishes our capacity to be professional and to meet our personal expectations, not only compromising our professionalism and effectiveness but impacting our sense of self and identity as teachers.
Yet a crisis or challenging situation does not need to overwhelm us if we use self-awareness to realise when our sense of capability is being compromised and take steps to address the situation.
Remembering that we are not on our own and actively drawing on the experiences of others and the supports available to us, is crucial to maintaining confidence in our skills and abilities as a teacher.