By Stefania Giannini (UNESCO), Robert Jenkins (UNICEF), Jaime Saavedra (World Bank Group)
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused dramatic disruption to education systems around the world and huge educational impacts 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 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 wellbeing 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.
A lesson of the pandemic is that education is a social endeavor. We’ve 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 in connecting students to other social supports; and serving as a key actor 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 leveraging 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 this World Teacher’s Day, we recognize and celebrate teachers’ efforts around the world to help support education continuity under challenging and uncertain conditions. As countries seek to recover learning losses and build back better, teachers will be critical actors on the front lines. 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 psychosocial well-being is another important priority. Studies show that teacher burnout has worsened 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. Teacher professional development must be evidence-based and targeted to improve student learning, that is, it must be 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 loss due to COVID-19 and meet the goals of SDG#4, 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.