5 October 2020
Teachers: Leading in crisis, reimagining the future
We are living in an unprecedented time and each of us has a story to share about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our families and communities. A major global concern is how to ensure continuity of education for children and youth, balanced with necessary safety precautions. A staggering 188 countries have imposed countrywide school closures, affecting more than 1.6 billion children and youth (UNICEF, COVID-19 data-hub, October, 2020). While we debate how to safely open schools, we also mourn for all that children and youth are missing – activities, opportunities and social interaction that many of us once took for granted. Millions of children face additional vulnerabilities due to conflict, displacement, and poverty. Now, as much as at any point in history, we must embrace Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of the ’beloved community’ that surrounds children and their caregivers. Teachers form a vital part of this beloved community that nurtures children to adulthood.
Considering UNESCO’s theme this year for the celebration of World Teachers’ Day, we must turn to the educators within our communities and value them for their leadership, knowledge and insight as we meet and overcome today’s challenges with a sense of justice, equality, love and hope for our children’s futures. Teachers work every day to guide students through myriad challenges of growing up, even in the best of times. The stress of the pandemic – compounded by pre-existing crises such as conflict, displacement or poverty for many children – places teachers under significant strain. In particular, the move to online learning has required capacity for innovation and creativity never before attempted in order to keep children motivated, engaged, and thriving. Teachers are asked and expected to overcome their own fears to be fully engaged and confident for our children and youth. The resilience and creative innovation of teachers and students is proven every day. This is evident across the globe, such as in Uganda where teachers put lessons on a loud speaker to reach children in community spaces where they are safely distanced. In Jordan, where approximately 700 children with disabilities are enrolled in schools in Azraq and Za’atari refugee camps, educators have innovated by utilizing transparent facemasks so that deaf children can still lip read (UNESCO, GEM Report, 2020).
On World Teachers’ Day, we must also recognize that teachers are managing a complex dual challenge. Teachers are required to innovate and adapt to serve their students while coping with the same stressors and challenges we all face in our daily lives. Therefore, in addition to tending to the wellbeing of students and their parents/caregivers, we must also give due regard to the mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) needs of educators who are trying to find balance with new ways of living and teaching. Teachers deserve a supportive community, including a reliable system of MHPSS services from policy makers and all layers of education systems.
The ongoing global pandemic has brought into focus the imperative that mental health and psychosocial wellbeing be fully integrated into the education system, including initiatives to meet the needs of teachers, students and caregivers. In order to achieve this, local civil society organizations and coalitions, policy makers and humanitarian organizations must band together to advocate for policy change that influences all levels of the education system. Following the “Building Back Better” model by the WHO, and the principles of localization and bridging the humanitarian development nexus, now is the opportunity to build stronger education systems that promote mental health and psychosocial wellbeing and that serve as safe spaces for healing and recovery.
Communities that collaborate with and support teachers are better placed to develop creative and impactful ways to provide resources and fill gaps in student learning, ensuring that children can achieve optimal development. This includes looking to teachers for leadership, ensuring their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing, and helping teachers meet the needs that they identify. If we fail to do this, the gaps could become insurmountable as the pandemic continues on. Let us honor our dedicated teachers, who are on the front lines lovingly serving the education, health and safety of our children through the crisis. Doing so will guide us in meeting teachers’ needs, which are inseparable from the needs of the students they serve and critical to realizing the beloved community, no matter what challenges lie ahead.
Authors: Ashley Nemiro, MHPSS Advisor and Mary Jo Baca, MHPSS Advisor