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Blog post Part of special issue: Covid-19, education and educational research

Renegotiating teacher identities: Reflections on student wellbeing and online learning during Covid-19

Phillip Poulton, Sessional Academic  at University of Sydney Rachel Yoo, Sessional Academic  at University of Sydney

In response to the current Covid-19 outbreak, universities across Australia quickly moved to restructure the delivery of their courses that customarily took place on campus. We are both first year tutors in undergraduate courses and, like many, began the academic year face-to-face with students. However, such face-to-face interactions were not to last. Swift changes in reorganising our classes to full-time online modes resulted in the rapid learning of new technologies and the formation of new professional identities. The formation of these new identities involves ongoing renegotiations of the roles of both teacher and learner, prompting further consideration of how knowledge continues to be constructed through synchronous and asynchronous online interaction (Comas-Quinn, 2011). Furthermore, practices associated with our former teacher identities have been shrouded in vulnerability, as we expose the comfortableness of our former academic presence traditionally established through face-to-face teaching (McNaughton & Billot, 2016).

In attempting to make sense of this renegotiation of our teacher identities, we engaged in ongoing dialogue with our students through informal conversations after online tutorials. Our students gave a wide variety of responses, both positive and negative, in relation to their new identities as full-time online learners and our new roles as online teachers. We drew on these informal conversations, with 15 of our students, as part of our own ongoing professional conversations. We noted that when first faced with the prospect of moving to online learning, our students appeared to experience the following.

  • Initial feelings of skepticism and doubt, together with perceptions that online learning was ineffective.
  • Sadness, frustration, anger and indifference at the lack of routine and human interaction such rapid changes produced.
  • Disruptions to existing social networks, including lost opportunities to interact with peers and teachers on a regular basis.

As the semester progressed, our conversations with these students shifted, and started to reveal emerging features of their new online learner identities. Students appeared to be developing:

  • a heightened appreciation for online learning, and the emerging and creative opportunities to build social relations online
  • improved self-regulation and commitment to the overall learning process
  • a growing awareness of the benefits of self-assessment in monitoring levels of engagement and motivation in learning and assessment.

As our students appeared to become more independent online learners, we started to reflect on what role we were playing in supporting this transition. While we remained facilitators of learning, we realised that as educators we required:

  • greater flexibility in assuming roles of ‘nurturers and carers’ rather than ‘deliverers’ of content
  • increased attention and care in becoming more streamlined and effective communicators;
  • greater awareness of the ‘individual’ student and their needs, particularly their access to technology and support networks
  • ongoing commitment to creating engaging content through new forms of technology.

When brought together, our reflections highlight the need for educators to re-envision ‘care’ in the context of online education, where Covid-19 has impacted, and continues to impact, students’ wellbeing and sense of security. It is critical that wellness, in these times, is not assumed as ‘common sense’ (Thompson & Porto, 2014). Strategies to support student wellbeing may range from acknowledging students’ individual circumstances and extending opportunities for them to engage in conversation with their peers, to being attentive to the logistical issues associated with technology access and use. By offering students targeted and consistent support in their learning online, educators and teachers alike can become ‘anchors’, providing students much needed stability amidst the rapidly changing times, and relieve students’ anxiety to ensure they remain actively engaged in learning (Bao, 2020).

‘Our students need us, as teachers, to be flexible, streamlined communicators who advocate for student wellbeing first and foremost, and who adapt and transform their practices to support students’ new identities as online learners.’

As we finish our first semester here in Australia, uncertainties regarding the return to face-to-face teaching remain. However, we have learned that our students require us to be teachers who are flexible, streamlined communicators that advocate for student wellbeing first and foremost. We have become more aware of how challenges to student wellbeing during these complex times require prompt realisation, so that our practices are adapted and transformed in ways that best support students’ new identities as online learners. Accordingly, our teacher identities need to be continually renegotiated as we explicitly acknowledge the value and importance of our role in supporting ‘the whole student’ (Crawford & Johns, 2018). While these qualities aren’t revolutionary discoveries, the spotlight has been placed firmly back on their value and importance, whether in front of a computer screen or in lecture room.


Bao, W. (2020). COVID-19 and online teaching in higher education: A case study of Peking University. Human Behaviour & Emerging Technology, 2, 113–115. doi:10.1002/hbe2.191

Crawford, N. L., & Johns, S. (2018). An academic’s role? Supporting student wellbeing in pre-university enabling programs. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 15(3). Retrieved from

Comas-Quinn, A. (2011). Learning to teach online or learning to become an online teacher: An exploration of teachers’ experiences in a blended learning course. ReCALL, 23(3), 218–232

McNaughton, S., & Billot, J. (2016). Negotiating academic teacher identity shifts during higher education contextual change. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(6), 644–658

Thompson, J. J., & Porto, S. C. S. (2014). Supporting wellness in adult online education. Open Praxis, 6(1), 17–28.