“Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning" wrote the Brazilian pedagogue Paulo Freire in his famous book “Pedagogy of Freedom” (1996).
Despite the overwhelming consequences of the pandemic, this global crisis has also been an extraordinary time for learning. We are learning how adaptable and resilient educational systems, policy makers, teachers, students and families can be. In this blog (which is part of a series highlighting key lessons learned from a study to understand the perceived effectiveness of remote learning solutions, forthcoming) we summarize lessons learned in different countries, with special focus on teachers and how they had to quickly reimagine human connections and interactions to facilitate learning. The role of teachers is rapidly evolving becoming in many ways more difficult than when learning took place only in person.
How has the pandemic changed the role of teachers?
Two crucial factors have shifted due to the pandemic. First, pedagogical adaptations have proven to be pivotal as the traditional lecturing in-person models do not translate to a remote learning environment. No matter the type of channel used (radio, TV, mobile, online platforms, etc.) teachers need to adapt their practices and be creative to keep students engaged as every household has become a classroom - more often than not - without an environment that supports learning. Some countries are supporting teachers with this. In Sierra Leone, where the main remote learning channel is radio, a ‘live’ and toll-free phone line is open for students to call teachers with questions and schedules of radio lessons allow time for children to help their families with daily chores.
Second, the pandemic has recalibrated how teachers divide their time between teaching, engaging with students, and administrative tasks. In Brazil according to a survey conducted by Instituto Peninsula, 83% of teachers did not consider being prepared to teach remotely, 67% were anxious, 38% felt tired, and less than 10% were happy or satisfied. The pandemic has highlighted the need for flexibility and more time for student-teacher interactions. For example, in Estonia teachers were given autonomy to adjust the curriculum, lesson plans, and their time allocation.
How systems have supported teachers in their new role?
Almost 90% of countries that responded to the survey of Ministries of Education on National Responses to COVID-19 conducted by UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank (2020) supported teachers by sharing guidelines stressing the importance of: providing feedback to students, maintaining constant communication with caregivers, and reporting to local education units to keep track of learning. Fewer governments took a different approach: Costa Rica developed a digital toolbox with pedagogical resources such as a guide for autonomous work, the state of São Paulo in Brazil organized frequent two-hour conversations between Secretary Rossieli Soares and teachers through the mobile application developed by the state. These conversations and tools allowed governments to have an open line of communication with teachers to better understand their concerns and adjust remote learning programs.
As teachers started to implement these guidelines and recommendations, they found themselves balancing educating and providing feedback to students remotely, filling administrative reports, and taking care of their families. Some governments recognized early-on that their well-intentioned teacher support systems ended up generating burnout. Peru’s Ministry of Education was open to receive feedback and reacted rapidly by changing the guidelines to reduce teacher’s administrative workload. The state of Minas Gerais in Brazil developed the mobile application ‘Conexao Escola’ to encourage teacher-student interaction during designated time after each class, avoiding a situation in which students contacted teachers through WhatsApp or text message throughout the day. In Uruguay, teachers were expected to fill administrative information, but instead of requesting new information from them, the government decided to use GURI, a digital platform that has been used by Uruguayan teachers for over 10 years to report information such as student attendance and grades.
Beyond providing guidelines and tools, some governments have leveraged existing professional development programs that worked before the pandemic. The state of Edo in Nigeria trained all 11 thousand primary school teachers who are part of the Edo-BEST program in the past two years to effectively use digital technologies in the classroom; during the pandemic, this in-service teacher training program transitioned from in-person to remote training. Similarly, in Uruguay, The Institute for in-Service Teacher Training took an existing coaching program online to provide remote pedagogical support and Ceibal strengthened its teacher training program and Open Educational Resources repository. While over 90% of Uruguayan teachers were satisfied with the remote training received during the pandemic, some expressed the need for further training.
What impact have technologies generated in this changing role?
Faced with the pandemic, countries have combined high-tech and low-tech approaches to help teachers better support student learning. In Cambodia, for example, education leaders designed a strategy that combines SMS, printed handouts, and continuous teacher feedback, taking advantage of the high mobile phone penetration in the country. The approach goes beyond providing low-tech materials: it gives information on how to access learning programs, ensures students access paper-based learning materials, and includes home visits to monitor distance learning activities. Teachers are also expected to provide weekly paper-based resources to students and meet them weekly to provide their marked worksheets and issue new ones for the week ahead.
Technology has also enhanced government-teacher support, adapting existing coaching programs to be delivered remotely (as the mentioned cases of Nigeria and Uruguay), creating spaces for peer support programs (for example the Virtual EdCamps initiative, created to facilitate peer-to-peer learning among teachers) or establishing EdTech hotlines for teachers (like in Estonia, where the HITSA – the Information Technology Foundation for Education - opened an educational technology information line to solve any technological question teachers might have).
Technology interventions should enhance teacher engagement with students, through improved access to content, data and networks, helping teachers better support student learning, as laid out in the World Bank’s Platform for Successful Teachers, where effective use of technology is one of the key principles to ensure cadres of effective teachers.
How policymakers can support teachers during the reopening of schools?
In order to build back stronger education systems, countries will need to apply those teaching initiatives that have proved to be effective during the remote learning phase and integrate them into the regular education system. It is critical to empower teachers, investing in the necessary skills development and capacity building to exploit the full potential of remote and blended learning.
Equally important is to free teachers’ time from administrative tasks (as Brazil, Peru and Uruguay did), focus on what is pedagogically effective, and provide socio-emotional support for teachers. The pandemic and the extended school closures have changed the role of teachers and most of them were not prepared for such change; a comprehensive strategy is required for socio-emotional monitoring and psychosocial support to ensure teacher wellbeing and avoid burnout.