The COVID-19 pandemic has caused dramatic disruptions to education systems around the world and has had huge impacts on learning for more than 1.6 billion children and youth. Schools remained closed for 117 million students from March 2020 to September 2021, and many systems are still only partially open today. Early estimates suggest that the proportion of children around the world who cannot read or write a simple text by the age of ten, known as Learning Poverty, will increase from 53% in 2019 to 63% in 2021. Interruptions to school participation and learning are projected to result in losses valued at $15 trillion in terms of affected children’s future earnings, and in long-lasting consequences in terms of well-being and life prospects of this generation, in particular, for the most disadvantaged learners. Amidst this urgent and unprecedented context, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank have launched the joint Mission: Recovering Education 2021 focused on getting students back to school as quickly as possible and reversing significant learning losses.
Lesson of the pandemic: education is a social endeavor
We have long known that teachers are critical drivers of student learning in schools. The challenges of COVID-19 have only reinforced their irreplaceable and multi-faceted role: in facilitating and guiding learning; in supporting students’ socioemotional development inside and outside the classroom; in enabling a safe, healthy, and caring space for children to develop; in advocating for students’ well-being and connecting students to other social supports; as well as serving as key actors in supporting society’s broader social and economic well-being. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen compelling and inspiring examples of teachers going above and beyond to support their students’ well-being, finding creative ways to reach learners, provide socioemotional support, and leverage technology creatively. Well-prepared, supported, and empowered teachers will be at the heart of this mission.
In this context, UNESCO, UNICEF, and the World Bank are joining forces on World Teachers’ Day to celebrate teachers and their work through the pandemic, and call on countries and the global community to prioritize supporting teachers as a central pillar in the global education recovery.
On World Teacher’s Day, we recognize and celebrate teachers’ efforts around the world in supporting education continuity under challenging and uncertain conditions. As countries seek to recover learning losses and build education sectors back better, teachers will play a critical role. It is, therefore, more essential than ever that countries celebrate, prioritize, and invest in their teachers, so that they are prepared, supported, and empowered to lead education recovery efforts.
In this vein, we suggest three priorities for what countries should focus on as they work to support teachers through the pandemic and beyond:
- Teacher well-being. Teachers cannot lead education recovery if they are not healthy, safe, and secure. If systems fail to ensure teacher overall well-being, the risk of losing effective teachers may increase as will the possibility of high-quality professionals opting out of teaching jobs. Prioritizing teachers for vaccination is a key step that countries must take. Supporting teacher emotional and psychological well-being is another important priority. Studies show that teacher burnout has increased during the pandemic. Ensuring teacher well-being through adequate remuneration and working conditions is essential, as is ensuring that they can return to healthy and safe schools.
- High-quality teacher professional development (TPD) and learning throughout their careers. Teachers’ jobs, already complex pre-pandemic, will only grow more challenging. teachers will need to be ready to employ formative assessments to assess learning losses and support learning; to develop targeted and sequenced remedial lesson plans; to provide important social and emotional support to students; and to do this all in innovative ways, leveraging remote, hybrid, and in-person methods. It is, therefore, more important than ever that teachers’ voices are heard, and that they are supported in their learning and development throughout every stage of their careers, from pre-service, induction, to ongoing professional development opportunities throughout their time in the classroom. To improve student learning, teacher professional development must tailored, focused, practical and ongoing.
- Leverage technology effectively for learning. The pandemic has also uncovered technology’s potential – and limitations – in supporting quality education for all. Technology can play a critical role in helping teachers assess learning loss, track progress, develop remedial planning, and teach at the right level. To reap its benefits, countries must ensure that teachers not only have access to adequate technologies, but that they support and train teachers in developing skills to use them effectively. As such skills are built, flexibility will be important to match teachers’ needs.
We see three key principles that countries can follow that define how these three priorities should be acted on:
- First, the design of learning recovery policies and planning should actively engage teachers themselves. Teachers’ voices and perspectives are essential in ensuring that educational decisions are informed by teacher perspectives and the context on the ground. As countries strategize about how to meet post-pandemic challenges and recover learning losses, they should actively engage and build on teachers’ perspectives.
- Second, teacher policies must be designed and implemented with a systems perspective. Supporting teachers effectively throughout their career trajectories requires effective, coherent, and well-articulated systems, not isolated structures, or one-off solutions. Effective teacher policy must be developed with a clear vision and end goals in mind, aligned and connected to other system levers for sustainable and lasting change.
- And, finally, it is essential that these efforts are guided by a vision of building back better. Data show that a global learning crisis was already underway even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Going back to the status quo will mean repeating past mistakes. To reverse learning losses due to COVID-19 and meet the goals of SDG4, education leaders need to focus on building better educational systems that are more equitable, effective, and resilient. This includes making teaching an attractive profession, enhancing teacher preparation, and improving selection and deployment policies.
At UNICEF, UNESCO, and the World Bank, we believe that these three strategic priorities and guiding principles are critical to supporting teachers effectively in the post-pandemic future and to ensure teachers can excel. Ultimately, supporting teachers’ preparation, development, learning, and empowerment throughout the full trajectory of their careers is necessary to build strong, resilient, equitable, and effective educational systems in the recovery period and beyond.