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The Futures of Teaching - Rethinking teachers’ role in the renewal of education

Author: Inés Dussel* was one of the contributors to the flagship UNESCO report, "Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education" launched yesterday and author of a TTF background paper on The Futures of Teaching”.

In 2021, humanity is at a critical inflection point. Facing enormous challenges – the climate crisis, radical technological change, democratic instability, the automation of work, and gigantic population shifts – we need, urgently, to create futures that are unlike our pasts. Teachers have a key role to play in this essential effort.

The Futures of Education initiative, launched by UNESCO in November 2019, proposes a new social contract in which education is viewed as a public and common good, which nurtures hope, imagination and action for a common future. The initiative seeks to mobilize ideas and action towards an educational change that can respond to the world’s enormous challenges.

Since the initiative’s launch, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the need for change. School closures and the accompanying rush towards remote education have shown that inequality of resources, infrastructure and outcomes persists. They have also given rise to a reconsideration of teachers’ role in fostering student learning and well-being.

As the pandemic has illustrated, conversations about the futures of teaching tend to focus on technological change, but there is much more to teaching than digital transformation. Teaching demands knowledge, competence, care and sensibility. Teachers are central to the mission of education to promote intellectual and affective autonomy, and to make common knowledge public and available to all.

Therefore, the new social contract must centre on teachers. In doing so, it must account for the paradoxes and challenges that teachers face as specialized agents. Teaching is not simply an individualistic endeavour depending solely on personal strengths or weaknesses; it is a heavily contextualized practice, institutionally defined and regulated. These rules and definitions are not consistent: current educational contexts make conflicting demands of teachers, which could impact on teaching’s potential futures. So, conversations about the futures of teaching need to avoid idealized and voluntaristic ideals of teaching and should instead focus on concrete working conditions, institutional support networks, pedagogical demands, and necessary competences and knowledge.

The clash between conflicting requirements cannot be resolved by individual teachers, nor can it be bridged solely by improving teaching strategies or promoting digital inclusivity. It must be addressed institutionally and through public policies that set regulations to protect and care for a common future.

The think piece, The futures of teaching, discusses some of the paradoxes and conflicting demands teachers face:

  • Inclusive educational policies may be insufficiently supported and rely excessively on individual teachers’ actions and responsibility.
  • Openness to the involvement of communities and families in teaching can give rise to different and even incompatible priorities.
  • New educational ideals such as student-centred pedagogies cannot always be accommodated in current working conditions.
  • An increase in regulations, along with new pedagogical frameworks, may overburden teachers by placing too many demands on performance.
  • Digital transformation opens up new possibilities but also involves new risks, such as the massive delegation and reduction of knowledge into gigantic platforms that manage data.
  • The ecological crisis necessitates promoting a collective consciousness of the planet that actively cares for the diversity of life, but policies aim to maintain business as usual.
  • In all these tensions and demands, the gendered nature of teachers’ work needs to be taken into account, since it affects the organization of work time, tasks and burdens.

It is not a surprise that in many countries there is an increasing shortage of teachers and in others there is a growing sense of burnout and disenchantment with the teaching profession.  On the other hand, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the relevance of teachers’ work and the need for expert guidance to support students’ learnings and well-being.

What can be done, then, to foster the role of teachers as central educational agents in the renewal of education? Here are some recommendations for policy-makers and stakeholders that should be implemented urgently, in order to help teachers to become a leading force in the renewal of education:

  1. An open social dialogue must be promoted to develop cooperative solutions to the complex issues that are at stake in the futures of teaching.
  2. Working conditions for teachers must be improved, not only by paying teachers appropriately, but also by ensuring adequate class sizes, school safety, symbolic recognition and legitimacy, and institutional support. 
  3. Consistent policy and institutional responses must be developed to organize collective networks to tackle complex pedagogical issues.
  4. Better balance is needed between administrative and pedagogical requirements, including by accounting for unpaid work outside school settings such as engagement with communities.
  5. Teachers’ labour statutes and workloads should be thoroughly reviewed, in a gender-sensitive way, to align them with new educational goals and to expand the diversity of the teaching profession.
  6. Competence, training and engagement with school programmes, including mentoring novice teachers, leading subject areas or cycles, and organizing educational services, should all be taken into account in the design of teachers’ career paths.
  7. To enhance recruitment, policies should target novice teachers through establishing induction programmes with more experienced colleagues. Policies should also provide assistance for mid-career teachers who have become disenchanted with their work.
  8. Teacher education needs to be rethought to address the challenges and disruptions pointed out by UNESCO’s Futures of Education Initiative. Curricula should include new and increasingly salient topics and realities such as environmental change and activism, democratic and ethical education, gender equality and diversity, digital critical skills and epistemic and intergenerational dialogues about our common futures. Methods should include clinical approaches and seek to anticipate real contexts of practice.
  9. Teacher education can no longer underestimate the relevance of digital culture; without diminishing the role of the teacher, digital media needs to be included not only as a means for distance training but also as a topic for study.

Finally, the effort to imagine the futures of teaching should be used to open up public conversations about the expectations and realities of teaching – about the anxieties and fears that teachers experience, but also about the potential for teaching to act as a source of hope and transformation. The futures of teaching should become part of broad social dialogues that foster teachers’ force and engagement in the renewal of education, and in the construction of better futures for all.

*Inés Dussel is Professor and Researcher at the Department of Educational Research, Center for Advanced Research and Studies (DIE-CINVESTAV), Mexico City.

The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this article do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of UNESCO and the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. The ideas and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors; they are not necessarily those of UNESCO and do not commit the Organization.

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