‘Alienation and burnout’: Nina Bascia on the contexts of teaching and learning during the pandemic

By Lisa Smith
March 11, 2022
Nina Bascia
Photo courtesy of Nina Bascia.

In the spring of 2020, Professor Nina Bascia set out to understand how teaching and learning in Ontario schools had changed since COVID-19. “I wanted to find out what teaching looked like during the pandemic and how was it similar or different from what teaching had been prior to the pandemic,” she said.

To get a clearer picture, Bascia and her team of doctoral students gathered data from multiple sources over the course of the pandemic. They conducted in-depth interviews with teachers in administrators in school boards across the Greater Toronto Area, surveyed over a hundred teachers across Ontario, and consulted with teacher union presidents.

Bascia attests to the struggles teachers and students experienced during this time. “Underserved students experienced an exacerbation of learning challenges. Remote learning was a challenge for students for a range of reasons. Many students were dealing with disruption at home due to the pandemic and were also experiencing a heightened level of poverty.” 

Each mode of learning brought its own challenges. Social distancing while in the classroom necessitated minimizing group work and interaction and a return to more traditional forms of instruction. With hybrid modes, teachers’ attention was divided between students in the classroom and online, creating what teachers referred to as a “fractured” learning and teaching experience.

In analyzing her results, Bascia is attuned to how responses to the pandemic are determined by complex policies and administrative structures. “It’s useful to think about policy as layers established over time. When new programs and policies come along, they don’t overwrite old policies. They previous layers are muted, but policy is not often rescinded,” Bascia explains.

Bascia is particularly interested in the “technical conception of teaching” dating back to the origins of teaching as a profession when the classroom was modelled after the factory assembly line. Teachers were viewed as technicians implementing methods and instructions from those at the top in a uniform way. This concept of teaching was further established in Ontario’s Education Act and accentuated over the last 25 years by the ongoing push to centralize in the context of budget cuts. In Ontario, some decisions once made at the school are now made by the Board, and decisions previously made by the Board are determined by the Province. With a heavily top-down approach, local contexts and individual teachers’ and students’ experiences remain largely invisible to decision-makers. 

“What we have seen with the pandemic,” Bascia says is the “technical conception of teaching run amok.” Teachers had to quickly move from online to hybrid to in-person and back again with little notice or direction or support for day-to-day teaching conditions. At the same time, they struggled with a blurring of the boundaries between professional and personal lives, new pedagogical challenges, overcrowded classrooms, and the loss of professional connections and support.

After two years of teaching during the pandemic, many teachers report a loss of joy and a deep feeling of alienation. Burnout, leaves, and teacher shortages are among the short- and long-term consequences.

To be viable, ‘build back better’ strategies for pandemic recovery must be informed by the multiple contexts in which teachers function. “The conditions of teachers’ work are not included in policy at the national or provincial levels,” Bascia said. “Policy as it currently exists says nothing about the salience of context: of variability of teaching and learning conditions in various school boards and among different schools.” 

Bascia maintains that teaching and learning would be better served by legitimizing and providing avenues for feedback from individual teachers as well as teacher unions. What is needed is policy that is sensitive to the variable needs of local student populations and classrooms. Recognizing the role of teachers as co-creating curriculum and pedagogy is the key to ‘building back better.’


Nina Bascia is Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership, Higher & Adult Education. Her research focuses on the intersections between policy and teachers’ work, with particular attention to teachers’ organizations. Her study on teachers’ work during the pandemic will appear in the series Critical Perspectives on Teachers’ Work edited by Nina Bascia, Denisha Jones, Arlo Kempf, and Rhiannon Maton to be published by Routledge in June 2022.

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