By Yasmine Sherif, Dean Brooks and Mary Mendenhall
Teachers are at the heart of children and young peoples’ educational experiences. Teachers play multiple roles in their students’ lives by supporting their learning, providing them with inclusive and safe environments to grow and develop, and helping them become more confident as they make their way in the world. As we commemorate World Teachers’ Day on Monday, 5 October and its theme–Teachers: Leading in Crisis, Reimagining the Future--we must recognize the inspiring and transformative role that teachers working in armed conflicts, forced displacement, climate change induced disasters and protracted crises play in their students’ lives.
Even before the global pandemic, the lives and education of 75 million children and youth worldwide were already disrupted by crisis. Teachers living and working in these settings provide a lifeline to the young people desperate to be learning in school. Yet, they are often placed in classrooms with little to no training or professional development, and expected to work miracles with few teaching and learning resources and insufficient compensation. They also regularly encounter over-crowded classrooms with mixed-age students who need both academic and social-emotional support. All too often, teachers, schools and students are also subject to violent attacks, particularly in armed conflict settings.
Despite these challenges, teachers persist. They provide a sense of stability and structure in their classrooms that is desperately needed amidst unrest and displacement. Teachers working in these environments are innovative and resourceful in meeting the learning and development needs of their students. These teachers are “forced to reimagine education” and the futures of their learners everyday, something they were doing even before the coronavirus pandemic further exacerbated the challenges they already faced.
In Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, a Kindergarten teacher (a refugee from Uganda) created a garden inside her classroom to help her students learn about soil, seeds, markets and communities since there weren’t enough textbooks for her students to learn these topics. Despite the additional challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers’ unwavering commitment has continued, including the adoption of digital and remote learning tools and methods. As Mona Ibrahim, a teacher in Lebanon describes, ‘We used these tools during the 2012 conflict, as well as during the 2014 conflict, and now we are using it during the crisis of the coronavirus.’
Teachers working in contexts affected by conflict and disasters often experience the same disruption, violence, and displacement as their students. While they work tirelessly to provide psychosocial support to their students, they are rarely provided with this support themselves. A Somali refugee teacher in Kakuma refugee camp shared this sentiment in a recent report on teacher well-being: “All my problems which I’m getting at home, I’m just carrying them to the school.”
In many settings, compounding crises, suspended teacher salary payments and schools regularly coming under attack mean teachers are often forced to find alternative sources of income to provide for their families. In Yemen, an estimated 160,000 teachers and school-based staff have not received regular salary payments since 2016 due to the ongoing famine, conflict and spread of disease. This is why Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and other education leaders are today calling for the resumption of teacher salary payments and training for Yemeni teachers, and why ECW funds teacher training and, in certain contexts, provides incentives for teachers in crisis-affected areas.
To respond to teachers’ needs, our organizations, Education Cannot Wait and the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) have forged a new partnership to build a toolkit that focuses on teacher well-being, particularly in emergency settings – a resource that will be developed in collaboration with teachers. The toolkit will further supplement the INEE Minimum Standards for Education: Preparedness, Response, Recovery, the global framework for delivering quality education in emergencies, and the work of INEE’s Teachers in Crisis Contexts Collaborative.
Concrete action steps like this are important. Better support for teachers working in crisis contexts will help ensure that millions of children and youth receive the right to inclusive and equitable quality education, and that global commitments—such as the Sustainable Development Goals and the Global Compact on Refugees—are fulfilled.
Based on our respective work – both in financing and guiding the development of inter-agency standards, tools and support for education in emergencies, here are five additional ways that national governments, donors, and all relevant global, regional, national, and local stakeholders – and teachers themselves – can work together to improve teacher policies and practices:
- Prioritize teachers from the very onset of an emergency, through to recovery and development, with increased financial investments, better data, and effective planning so that adequate numbers of teachers, including female and minority teachers, are teaching where and when they are needed most.
- Respect teachers, including volunteers and facilitators, as individuals and professionals with appropriate and equitable recruitment policies, pay and employment terms, and working conditions.
- Enable teachers to support all learners by continuously investing in and dramatically improving the nature and quality of teacher preparation, continuous professional development, and sustained support.
- Support teachers’ well-being, recognizing the impact of crises on teachers in their own lives and in their ability to do their work, and providing comprehensive support to teachers at the individual, school, community, and national levels.
- Listen to teachers’ experiences and opinions, by including them in decision-making bodies and coordination mechanisms, program design and implementation, and research efforts.
Ongoing armed conflicts, crises and disasters have pushed millions of children and youth out of school around the world. Today’s ongoing health pandemic is doing further damage by rolling back progress that has been made in many places to get children and youth back into school and learning, especially for girls. Despite the compounding impact of COVID-19, it has also heightened our awareness of the vital role that teachers play. Now more than ever, we have a chance to transform education systems through the support we provide to teachers. Let us work together to do just that. Teachers around the world deserve nothing less.
Yasmine Sherif is the Director of Education Cannot Wait. To donate to Education Cannot Wait’s work for teachers and students in emergencies, visit http://www.pledgeling.org/ECW and follow @EduCannotWait on Twitter.
Dean Brooks is the Director of the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies. To find out more about INEE and to access inter-agency tools and resources to support teachers in crisis contexts please visit https://inee.org/collections/teachers and follow @INEEtweets on Twitter.
Mary Mendenhall, Ed.D., is an Associate Professor of Practice at Teachers College, Columbia University and a member of the INEE Teachers in Crisis Contexts Collaborative. To learn more about Dr. Mendenhall’s work, see her faculty profile and refugee education projects at Teachers College, and follow her at @marymendenhall1 on Twitter.