The COVID-19 crisis, with its lockdowns and school closures, shed light on the urgent needs of the education sector as well as the vital role of teachers. As governments scrambled to meet the pressing education needs of students, teachers and communities, it became clear that teachers not only are key to ensuring quality education but also are in dire need of greater support.
During the Global Education Summit: Financing the Global Education Partnership 2021-2025, held in London in late July 2021, the International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 organized a side event, “The best investment – Supporting Teachers in COVID-19 recovery and beyond”. A panel of policy makers, teacher advocates and practitioners offered a wide range of perspectives on the needs of teachers as well as promising ways of enlisting funds and supporting teachers in a holistic way.
Supporting teachers and education: a question of political will
Political will is needed to place education at the top of the public investment agenda. Aminta Navarro of the Global Campaign for Education noted that governments need to realize that they must give priority to investing in education if they want to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. In the context of the current crisis and beyond, it should be a question not of allocating resources one way or another but of governments showing political resolve by deciding to spend on education.
The Peruvian government sought to display such political resolve during the COVID-19 crisis by enlarging its education budget and focusing on those who needed help the most. Peru’s then Minister of Education, Ricardo Cuenca, explained how his transitional government led a massive campaign to support rural teachers who serve disadvantaged communities during the crisis. Coming up with funds to support rural teachers during the crisis required being strategic. Dr. Cuenca noted that making concrete and detailed proposals to the Economics and Finance Ministry allowed the Education Ministry to augment the rural teacher budget allocation by 250%. This increment supported actions that included changing rules regarding teaching conditions and working hours, and allowing for more collaboration between teachers. It also enabled:
- training rural teachers in digital and specific distance-learning pedagogical skills;
- supplying teachers with tablets and Internet connections to enable them to work remotely;
- opening a line to provide teachers with socioemotional support as they confronted the crisis;
- putting into place a massive vaccination campaign for rural teachers.
Investing in teachers: meeting benchmarks and closing gaps
Citing the internationally agreed funding benchmark of spending 20% of the national budget on education, Dennis Sinyolo, Chief Regional Coordinator for Africa for Education International, called on governments to meet this benchmark and invest adequately in education and in teachers in particular. Aminta Navarro suggested that countries expand tax bases and modify national debt payments to assign more resources to education. As recognized in the fourth Sustainable Development Goal, teachers have a critical role in education and in the life of students and communities, and therefore must be the priority in education budgets.
Investing in teachers must go beyond teacher salaries and hiring. Comprehensive training, continuous support, a motivating environment as well as adequate resources are also key to ensuring that teachers can not only provide quality education but also remain motivated. All these elements must be costed into education budgets.
Rwanda has been investing heavily in holistic professional development and school leadership that considers teachers’ complex needs. The country’s Education Minister, Valentine Uwamariya, said her government acknowledges that high quality teacher and school leader training and engagement contributes directly to achieving the desired levels of student learning. Dr. Uwamariya detailed the efforts being made in Rwanda for pre-service and continuous professional development. Primary- and secondary-level programs support school-based peer learning, coaching, career guidance and counseling. Attention is given to fostering teachers’ well-being, providing special motivation incentives and promoting professional standards. There is also particular consideration to reviewing teaching methods, including those related to digital learning.
Many countries struggle to meet the needs of their teachers, despite dedicating a large portion of their education budget to their wages. Using the example of Sub-Saharan Africa, Carlos Vargas, Chief of UNESCO’s Section for Teacher Development and Head of the TTF’s Secretariat, pointed out that even though more than 90% of the education budget goes into teacher salaries in 13 out of the 28 countries reporting this indicator in the region, salaries remain low and teacher shortages are enormous and persistent. He explained that these shortages are the result of a combination of factors including poor working conditions, low salaries, and a lack of training and professional development. This illustrates well why a more holistic approach to supporting teachers, coupled with domestic and international funding, is crucial to closing the teacher gap.
To invest smartly in education, include teachers in policymaking
Dennis Sinyolo pointed out that involving teachers in policy making profoundly enhances the quality and relevance of educational policies. For this to happen, social dialogue is of critical importance, and it needs to be institutionalized and legislated. Teachers are more than just implementors of policy. They have an on-the-ground perspective that allows them to identify needs and help better budget them. That is why it is vital to include teachers and teacher unions from an early stage when making decisions about planning, monitoring, evaluation and implementation.
Involving teachers in policymaking requires viewing and treating teachers as professionals. However, the de-professionalization and casualization of teaching have become global trends, so governments need to boost teacher development by making more efforts to facilitate high-quality teacher education, both pre-service and in-service.
There is an urgent need to invest in teacher professionalization especially in rural areas
The lack of formal teacher training is most acute in rural areas. Babuo Abba, a refugee teacher from the Central African Republic who arrived in Chad in 2014, explained that in Chad’s rural areas most teaching is done by community teachers who lack formal credentials. This lack of training and certification often results in attrition, as community teachers leave teaching because they are not viewed as teaching professionals and therefore are not granted proper remuneration, work conditions, professional development, let alone get a say on educational policy. COVID-19 aggravated the situation of these teachers. Lacking formal status, they did not have access to the resources they needed during the crisis and were often not paid during school closures. This resulted in massive teacher attrition.
Teacher professionalization must be holistic and culturally relevant
Echoing Babuo Abba’s concerns, Cindy Leafland from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture of Suriname explained that, in her country, rural teachers often lack qualifications because they have less access to training than urban teachers. Moreover, rural students and teachers suffer because both curricula and assessments lack cultural relevance. While there is a need to strengthen national standards, these must allow for authentic learning experiences for teachers and learners in a variety of settings, and not just in urban contexts. To foster more holistic and context-sensitive teacher training, Leafland suggested different forms of mentoring and modeling that could take place between novice and more experienced teachers.
COVID-19 has challenged educational systems around the world, but as we learned from this panel discussion at the GPE summit, the pandemic has also provided an opportunity to reflect on what needs to be prioritized and, in some cases, a chance to leap into action. Investing in education is crucial not only to repair the losses brought about by the pandemic, but also to redirect efforts towards a more sustainable future. Investing in teachers in a holistic and context-sensitive manner is a crucial way of ensuring that future generations receive the education that they need in order to deal with an increasingly complex world.
Photo credit: Yoly Gutierrez/CIFOR, taken in Peru.