We’re in Vientiane, Lao PDR, where my 1st grader’s school has been closed for two months. It will not open until August 2020. But every weekday, he wakes up excited to see the activities his teachers have planned for him ― writing letters or stories, reading, games, experiments, interactive activities for groups of kids, and meditation. Once he’s done with one and posts it, he waits to hear back from his teachers, which he invariably does – detailed, thoughtful comments on every little thing he posts. They do this for all the kids. It’s truly mindboggling. His teachers have learned what works and what doesn’t along the way, innovating and seeking feedback from parents, school management and each other, all while reassuring us everything is in control.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought life to a standstill across the world, with nearly 178 countries reporting school closures. Parents like us have the luxury of knowing our kids will be alright ― their schools and teachers are working overtime so our kids can learn. That isn’t the reality for many parents and school systems. If anything, this pandemic has brought into sharp focus how privileged some students are, and how others have been left behind. It has also shown us how important teachers are ― and how they can succeed, even during a crisis, with the right technology and support system.
While many school systems and teachers are trying to engage students, they face at least three serious bottlenecks: (1) stress due to economic uncertainty, concern for the safety of loved ones, and anxiety about the future; (2) the daunting challenge of returning to schools where many students have dropped out or fallen behind ― and increased pressure on teachers to ensure catch-up with little professional development support; and (3) little access to the right technologies or the skills to use them (my son’s school gives all teachers and students ipads with a host of learning material pre-loaded).
A new World Bank note outlines three key principles to strengthen teacher effectiveness during and in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic, as well as opportunities for long-run improvement:
- Principle 1: Support Teacher Resilience to Ensure Teacher Effectiveness: School systems must protect teacher jobs and salaries so that there is a motivated workforce ready to get students back to speed when schools reopen. Enhancing teacher intrinsic motivation and minimizing burnout is also important. Interventions, such as the HealthMinds@ Work-inspired initiative, Education for Wellbeing, in Mexico, can help teachers cultivate important aspects of well-being using simple exercises drawing upon the latest findings in neuroscience, psychology and traditional contemplative perspectives. In the long-term, specialized counselling units can support teacher well-being in both emergency and non-emergency situations.
- Principle 2: Support Teachers Instructionally to Ensure Teacher Effectiveness: Teachers must be equipped to assess students once they return to school so they can identify what key content and skills have been lost and need rebuilding – as well as detect warning signs of dropping out. Teachers will also need professional development support to undertake effective remedial education. As school systems settle, the focus must return to ensure all early grade children are proficient readers, the foundation for all subsequent learning. Roughly 400 hours of high-quality, properly-sequenced instruction, delivered with appropriate pedagogy will maximize the number of students who become independent readers by the end of grade 3. For this, teachers will require support to master their ability to deliver high-quality early grade instruction.
- Principle 3: Support Teachers Technologically to Ensure Teacher Effectiveness: Countries and school systems that have weathered COVID-19 more successfully have also ensured their teachers have access to technology. As schools closed in the Kyrgyz Republic, for instance, teachers were provided free SIM cards to access educational material online and WhatsApp. But it isn’t just about providing technology; teachers must also know how to use technology effectively. In Lebanon, the Ministry has been training teachers to record and upload documents and hold virtual classes effectively. Not all teachers will approach technology in the same way. They will need to be supported with diverse strategies. As school systems settle, technology should be integrated into teaching-learning processes as well as routine needs, such as HR-systems.
In all these tasks, strong school leadership will be key. The post-COVID-19 phase will offer many opportunities to “Build Back Better”, that is strengthen quality and equity in school systems. Countries will need to devote the necessary financing to achieve these goals ― and they will need to bridge digital gaps ― if they want a generation of flourishing young people.