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Teachers speak up about responding to COVID-19

Fifteen teachers from around the world shared their experiences ensuring that learning continued during school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic with the Teacher Task Force. The challenges that teachers faced and the strategies they developed can guide the next steps in responding to COVID-19 as countries and organizations plan to reopen schools and develop more resilient education systems.


A fine balance: Teaching through the pandemic   

Through their unique stories, key themes have emerged about teachers’ professional and personal challenges during the pandemic. Professional challenges included variations in both their own and their students’ digital literacy and in their ability to access online learning. Teachers also faced the personal challenges of maintaining work-life balance and dealing emotionally with the sudden changes brought on by the pandemic.

Teachers also drew attention to the inherent inequities in education systems and their implications for distance education, in rich and poor countries alike.

Private schools in urban areas are investing in online schooling for their pupils. However, the level of investment is not standardized and not consistent among schools. … Online education is not a feasible option in a country where most people have no access to the Internet.

Nadya Faquir, a teacher from Mozambique

Online learning is based on the assumption that students have the possibility to follow online learning at home. Unfortunately, this is not the case for all students. Less advantaged children have a greater chance of falling behind. 

Anne-Fleur Lurvink, secondary school teacher, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Protecting the socio-emotional well-being of students during the return to school, especially where the safety of school spaces is essential for teaching and learning activities, was also highlighted as a challenge.

We also worry about the social and emotional well-being of our students ….[s]chools are more than just places where knowledge is transferred.; it is where children socialize and where they grow. Schools are safe places for those who have unstable homes. How to ensure this at a distance?

Anne-Fleur Lurvink, secondary school teacher, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

The suddenness of school closures left teachers little time for preparation. It wasn’t clear to some teachers how they should use the different online and distance education tools, and what the implications of these tools were for the practice of teaching and ensuring student learning. Teachers had varying levels of experiences with the use of technology for teaching. For some, the transition to distance education was neither easy nor smooth.  

The news of Covid-19 was so sudden that it had us stunned at first. Nevertheless, we immediately started activating various platforms to be ready to provide distance learning. …The process was not a smooth one though.”

Barbara Riccardi, primary school teacher, Rome, Italy

It was not an easy initiative to take. We didn't have any resources as we were not prepared for this long lockdown. We had no skill regarding video editing. In spite of the challenges, we made it happen.”

Shaila Sharmin, fellow, Teach For Bangladesh


Strategies for ensuring learning doesn’t stop

In developing strategies to continue teaching and learning, teachers have had to consider many factors, including their own access to technology, their understanding of students’ access to and use of technology platforms, and their knowledge of how their students learn. They have adapted their teaching practices accordingly, while remaining emotionally available for students throughout the process.

Teachers have also demonstrated their commitment to using multiple resources to ensure learning continues despite disruption of school schedules and school closures.

I work in a community of extreme poverty, with few resources. Together with teacher colleagues, I have mapped out the best way to work with these students, in view of their social and economic reality.

Débora Garofalo,  a technology teacher in Brazil’s public education network and a technology manager at the São Paulo State Education Secretariat

I have therefore had to adjust my teaching for those who go at a slower pace, due to lack of self-discipline or depression due to isolation. I start each lesson with emotional encouragement, get feedback on how people are feeling, and generally have slowed my pace or expectations…. I have tried to keep it simple as pupils are having a lot of online lessons. ...

Marjorie Brown, Roedean School, South Africa, Varkey teacher prize finalist

Teachers have relied on collaboration with colleagues to develop support systems while navigating the little-known terrain of online teaching and developing technical know-how. Support from colleagues in similar situations has proved to be important while developing online teaching skills. Professional development opportunities appeared to have more effectiveness when these built on or drew from professional collaborations between teachers. Some teachers point to the ongoing need for - and value of - the partnerships and collaborations developed during this phase. 

The strength of our professional community emerged in these early days, as colleagues supported one another making the transition, learning new instructional tools, and discussing how to support learning at a distance […]


Wendee White, 5th grade elementary school teacher, Syracuse, NY, United States

When the news arrived that schools would close, we really collaborated as a team. Teachers came together at school for a brief brainstorm session and started transforming the curriculum to an online one in just one day […] what makes it manageable is the fact that we are in it together. Teacher development has accelerated, and peer learning has been central to it […]

Anne-Fleur Lurvink, secondary school teacher, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

Another key factor that has emerged in teachers’ responses is the importance of partnerships and communication with parents in ensuring that children’s learning continues. Teachers displayed an awareness and understanding of the challenges faced by parents during the pandemic. This has led teachers to design strategies that involve parents and to encourage collaborative learning between students and parents, wherever feasible.

I help parents and family with tips and suggestions on how to organize the home study routine (offering practical examples) and how to increase the repertoire of activities…I also offer guidance on how to help students to understand whether they have managed to reach all the learning objectives.


Débora Garofalo, a technology teacher in the public education network and a technology manager at the São Paulo State Education Secretariat

Strong parent-teacher-child partnerships have been a tremendous asset to the success of online learning.

Wendee White, 5th grade elementary school teacher, Syracuse, NY, United States

Some teacher experiences have also highlighted the need for developing a cautious approach to adopting online learning. In under-resourced contexts and in schools that largely draw students from socio-economically disadvantaged sections of the population, teachers highlight the possibility that adopting online learning may exacerbate inequities in learning. This requires some planning to mitigate growing inequity such as making use of broadcast media or basic printed materials.


Some lessons for planning next steps

Teachers’ experiences vary depending on the country, type of school, subjects taught, access to technology/infrastructure and the socio-economic background of teachers and students. Nevertheless, three main lessons can be gleaned from the testimony shared.  

First, access to online learning infrastructure is crucial to ensure continued learning. Teachers with previous exposure to the use of online technology show a greater readiness to employ it. However, the transition to new teaching and learning methods has not been easy. Teachers have had to deal with challenges such as navigating different technologies and what they can offer, ensuring its suitability for their subject teaching, dealing with personal social and emotional challenges, and meeting the learning needs and socio-emotional needs of their students.

Second, teachers gained a good understanding of the learning needs of their students during the pandemic. This knowledge needs to inform the next steps in the educational response strategy. Teachers have placed at the forefront the needs of their students and addressed the contextual challenges faced by them to access online education or other learning opportunities. As countries plan strategies to assess and build on students’ learning in this phase, drawing on this awareness and knowledge will be crucial. In one of the experiences shared, for example, dialogue by the school involving teachers helped build their confidence and maintain continuity of learning for students.      

Third, several strategies and practices developed by teachers to cope with the demands of school closures, including their experiences using different technology platforms, can be harnessed and used to build the resilience of education systems. Two crucial practices that can be strengthened are building peer support networks, and establishing communication channels with parents to ensure their involvement in students’ learning.   

Listening to teacher experiences and ensuring that teachers’ concerns are adequately addressed – and teaching and learning strengthened – will be critical as countries move into the next phase of developing education responses to the pandemic.

Further reading: Supporting teachers in back-to-school efforts – A toolkit for school leaders