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Teaching in complex crises: Seeking balance in selfless acts of service

This article was written by Chris Henderson, Teachers College, Columbia University, Co-Chair of the INEE Teachers in Crisis Contexts (TiCC) Collaborative.

On July 28th and 29th the Global Education Summit will focus on financing the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) from 2021 though to 2025. As this article implores, teachers - who have led at the frontlines of recent crises, yet remain down the list of education financing priorities - must be a central feature of the Summit’s commitments.


The state of education in crisis contexts

Pervasive challenges notwithstanding, the past decade saw impressive commitments and positive gains towards all children accessing quality and safe schooling. But as COVID19 swept the globe and schools were forced to shut, early indications suggest that a decade’s worth of progress was lost. As such, the Global Education Summit is taking place at an unprecedented time, especially as we extend our focus beyond a health oriented response towards a long term recovery that elevates the education sector's role in global development and crisis-affected contexts.

An oft repeated point is that education receives only a meagre share of humanitarian funding. And yet education in crisis-affected contexts plays a vital role in children’s and adolescents’ continuity of learning as well as their access to services such as psycho-social, protection service, and reproductive health support.

Schooling offers young people routine and normalcy. Schools also provide knowledge and skills to respond to the challenges that complex crises present; they help children and adolescents recover from the immediate effects of a crisis and support long-term healing; and they provide guidance to plan and prepare for future crises, whether through peacebuilding activities, disaster risk reduction projects, civic engagement, or employability initiatives.


Teachers’ work in crisis contexts

None of this is possible, however, without the effort and expertise of teachers, whose own needs are often under-addressed -- or altogether unaddressed -- in humanitarian funding, policy, and practice. In terms of their health and wellbeing, professional development, and adequate compensation, teachers' clear and pressing priorities should be at the forefront of the Global Partnership for Education’s financing agenda.

In Lebanon, after teaching national learners teachers work with Syrian refugees in a second afternoon shift. In Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, teachers teach as many as 200 students of multiple ages, ethnicities, and learning levels in a single classroom. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Bangladeshi teachers teach Rohingya girls who have never attended formal schooling, and bring to the classroom the trauma of gender-based violence, displacement, and diminished hope.

In contexts like Indonesia or the Maldives, seismic activity and recurrent climate change induced cyclones bring stressors of a different but no less traumatizing kind.

COVID-19 has further compounded the difficulty of teachers’ work and amplified the importance of all that they do. This is especially true for female teachers who now juggle the disproportionate burden of child rearing and home health care on top of their professional lives.     

For too long we have bypassed the fact that refugee teachers confront a similar range of stressors to the children and adolescents they teach. We have also neglected host community teachers as they contend with the intercommunal tension that an influx of one million refugees, such as in Bangladesh and Lebanon, inevitably causes.

Imagine teaching for six hours in a hot, overcrowded, poorly resourced classroom when you haven’t been paid for weeks, your own children are undernourished, and nearby violence threatens to deliver more desperate and displaced people to your already stretched camp.

Or put yourself in the shoes of a teacher who has led at the frontlines of the Ebola Crisis in West Africa, who is now negotiating the devastation of COVID-19, and is still sought out by children and their families for daily direction in the midst of widespread death and despair.

As the stressors accumulate, consider waking up for work each day deflated by depression or immobilized by anxiety. Picture yourself weighed down by post-traumatic stress or wrestling with burnout induced apathy. You have the reality of a day’s teaching in front of you. But the mental health and well-being support you need is far out of reach.

Yet you push on, further deteriorating your own well-being and depleting the precious energy and wherewithal you need to maintain the status quo. It is scenarios like this and teachers like these that need our urgent and sustained attention and investment.


The case for increasing investments in teachers

The International Taskforce on Teachers for Education 2030, hosted by UNESCO, has documented the vital role that teachers have played during the pandemic, calling them our unsung heroes. The members of the Teacher Task Force came together to deliver a compelling call to action for governments and donors to improve their support for over 60 million primary and secondary teachers around the world who are affected by school closures. 

In many cases, teachers are trying to manage the anxiety of working in situations where COVID-19 is rampant. All the while they continue to coordinate, communicate, and deliver vital health, hygiene, and COVID19 prevention measures to the community.

Teachers are as much frontline workers in a crisis as social workers, doctors, paramedics, or police. Yet unlike these professions, teachers’ training -- if they receive any at all -- rarely prepares them for such demands. Interventions that address teacher mental health and well-being in crisis contexts are slowly finding ground, but they will remain woefully insufficient until better funding and contextualized support is provided at scale.


Supporting teachers’ work and well-being

Before the pandemic, various initiatives were shown to have a positive effect on teacher well-being. In Jordan and Palestine, a Norweigian Refugee Council project acknowledged that children’s social and emotional and psycho-social needs cannot be met by teachers if their own needs are also not met. The “Supporting the Supporters” initiative therefore provides teacher professional development focused on self-awareness and self-regulation techniques, opportunities for expressive art therapy, recreational games, and a phone hotline with councilors on hand.

I started becoming calmer and my anger gradually faded away. I feel I’m a better teacher and person today. I have the knowledge and tools to change the way these children, and myself, view life. The students I work with continuously give me the motivation and encouragement to deal with my own problems.” Teacher, Palestine


In El Salvador, teachers contend with the threat of gang violence and teach students caught up in gangs’ intractable webs of influence. Here, teachers engage in a FHI360 initiative called “Social and Emotional Learning for Teachers” to develop skills in interpersonal mindfulness, which supports the identification and management of harmful emotions and improves classroom relationships.

In post-conflict Colombia, WarChild runs the CORE program, which introduced a well-being approach known as “acceptance and commitment therapy” (ACT). This project aims to reduce teachers’ feelings of burnout and distress and increase their sense of self-efficacy and engagement. Like initiatives elsewhere, teacher coaches in Colombia support the building of knowledge and skills that equip teachers to improve their self-care, manage stress, and gain emotional regulation.

Teachers College, Columbia University research with teachers working amidst displaced populations in South Sudan and Uganda found that concepts of mental health and well-being must be understood within their context. As such, the researchers advocate for humanitarian agencies and development partners to fully understand the cultural nuances of well-being and adapt associated interventions within and across crisis contexts.


Progress is being made, but much more is needed

Debates exist within the humanitarian sector about our focus on resilience and the limits of well-being interventions; especially when structural stress factors such as state violence, food insecurity, inadequate safety and protection, and low to non-existent remuneration persist. Add to this mix the knock-on effects of COVID19 and well-being interventions like those above seem like a short-term bandaid at best.

But often, when applied correctly, bandaids stick and trauma does heal. We need healthy, well, and skilled teachers as leaders at the frontline. So if well designed and contextually appropriate programs work, we need improved funding to know, show, and scale the ones that work best.

That is why Education Cannot Wait has funded INEE to urgently map global teacher well-being initiatives and resources and take the most effective examples to the most high-needs settings, building upon ongoing work in the sector to better understand and support teacher well-being in crisis contexts.

That is also why, with UNESCO support, The LEGO Foundation and Oxfam are funding the Teachers in Crisis Contexts (TiCC) collaborative to facilitate a series of virtual events throughout 2021 and 2022. This event series will bring together donors, governments, practitioners, and researchers to identify and promote promising practices in teacher well-being, management, and professional development. Taking place on July 22nd, the launch of this initiative is a side event for the GPE Global Education Summit titled Strengthening Support for Teachers in Crisis Contexts: Promising and innovative practices in teacher professional development.


Action is needed now

As this event will demonstrate, teachers must be at the forefront of our advocacy leading up to the Global Education Summit. When the Teacher Task Force issued their call to action in March 2020, we did not imagine that nearly 60 million teachers would still be out of school over 12 months later. As much as new routines have become the norm, teachers’ hardships have not eased; in fact, they have worsened.

Unless we act now, the mental health and well-being fallout will be with us for years to come. As outlined in the INEE TiCC Event Series Call to Action, we have a moral duty to invest in appropriate and secure teacher compensation, services that support teacher mental health and well-being and continuous professional development that meaningfully delivers knowledge and skills to improve student learning and enhance teachers’ job satisfaction.

By investing in teachers now we invest in our children and communities, we invest in our future.

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.

Photo credit: Husniati Salma