Education disruptions due to the COVID-19 crisis have shone the light on existing disparities separating learners between and within countries. We spoke to two teachers who supported their students and helped their communities overcome immense hardship throughout the pandemic, despite lacking necessary resources. Their stories show how teachers are at the heart of combating disadvantage and ensuring learning continuity. They also highlight the dire need for more investment in teachers and schools.
Sarita Nair teaches at Chetan Dattaji Gaikwad English Medium School and Junior College in Pune, India. Prior to the pandemic, students and teachers at her school were completely reliant on the traditional teaching and learning methods. There was limited use of digital technology by teachers due to lack of resources and no access to advanced teaching tools. Very few parents participated in student's day to day learning and were completely dependent on the school's education system.
Florence Ooyo, who teaches at Brightburn School in Nairobi, Kenya explained that before the pandemic emerged, some students already could not afford adequate materials and resources for learning, or even their school fees, leading them to stay home and disrupting their education. Some students also dealt with family conflict issues, causing them socio-emotional distress and impacting their ability to focus in class. “It makes work difficult for the teacher to complete the syllabus since at times you find a quarter of the class away from school,” Florence told us.
Coronavirus created an array of new problems for teachers and students. Joblessness affected the parents of many students at Brightburn School, causing many of them to relocate to rural areas in order to sustain their family and absenteeism surged even higher. Many families were surviving with one or two meals per day, causing children to lack the necessary nutrition to thrive in school. Uncertainty led to anxiety and trauma “What about tomorrow?” Florence wondered, “What is going to take place in the coming days? Most of the families were really affected psychologically and emotionally by this uncertainty.”
“The teachers too were affected by this uncertainty,” Florence told us. Unsure if they would get their next paycheck, many took on second jobs and tried to find additional ways to make ends meet. As many teachers did in fact lose their pay as schools closed down, Florence worked with organizations in the area to distribute food to her students and fellow teachers. She also visited students at home and provided them with the necessary tools to continue learning.
Florence emphasized the need to build a relationship with each student to understand their particular needs, help them build their self-esteem and support them socio-emotionally.
Sarita shared stories of similar challenges at her school in India:
"Fear of the disease and uncertainty gripped everyone mentally and physically. The pandemic brought new challenges for the teachers; the transition from in-person classroom teaching to virtual and to online classes and adapting to Zoom class completely presented a unique challenge. The teachers and students were majorly hit financially. Many parents lost their daily wages due to the unforeseen turn of events due to the Covid -19.”
Sarita and her fellow teachers took part in a training program to adapt to online classes. They reached out to various external organizations to raise funds and resources to support the community with necessary devices for remote learning as well as nutritional support for families struggling to make ends meet.
She also noted that, “teachers invested time and energy in communicating frequently and building relationships with the parents and children even during school vacations. This was seen as important because the school felt they were an integral part of the community they were serving and wanted to ensure they supported them in every possible way.”
“Lack of personal contact with students by the teachers, emotional turmoil due to death of relatives, no school hours, adapting to no physical activity and no social interaction... This scenario caused behavioral changes amongst the students,” she told us. To deal with this they set up daily activities that involved students’ parents, including arts and crafts, gardening, science experiments, and storytelling sessions focused on mental wellbeing. The school also found ways to celebrate local festivals from home, touring students’ homes virtually to see the way they decorate their homes and participate in the festivals.
“The idea was to keep the community together, connected and provide a sense of belonging and comfort knowing everyone was dealing with this unique situation and that we are not alone in this war against Covid-19,” Sarita explained.
When lockdown restrictions eased, teachers visited students at home to get a sense of how they and their families were coping. In addition to mobile phones and tablets, they distributed food rations to families in need. Financially secure parents lent a hand to support students and donated books through the "Parents as Partners" initiative. "We ensured that all the students continued to get education irrespective of their ability to pay their school fee," Sarita concluded.
Sarita and Florence’s stories show how teachers are at the heart of learning continuity and highlight the dire need for more investment in teachers and schools. Education systems were already in need of investment prior to the pandemic, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made matters much worse, jeopardizing progress and widening already large disparities between high- and low-income countries. No teacher should have to worry about whether they will receive their next paycheck. No student should have to drop out because they cannot afford tuition fees or school materials.
In sub-Saharan Africa the pupil/trained teacher ratio is close to one trained teacher per 58 pupils at primary level and approximately 43 pupils per trained teacher at secondary. Furthermore, new projections show that by 2030, countries in the region will need to recruit 15 million teachers. Florence is hoping that moving forwards, policy-makers and education stakeholders wake up to these realities: “The government needs to support us and acknowledge the effort our community schools are making.”
The International Task Force on Teachers for Education 2030 is thus calling on national governments, the international community and education funders – both public and private – to invest in a human-centred approach to recovery by building resilient, teacher-supportive education systems that recognize the critical role teachers play in communities. This should include increasing domestic and international funding, developing holistic teacher policies that have been properly budgeted, strengthening teacher capacity and autonomy, and investing in data and information systems that improve effectiveness.
Thanks to Alokit, Dignitas and Global School Leaders for their support in contacting Sarita and Florence.
Caption: Beawar, Rajasthan, India, April 6, 2021: A teacher and students wearing protective face mask in a classroom at a school amid spike in coronavirus cases across the country.
Photo credit: Shutterstock.com/Sumit Saraswat