Every year on October 5, teachers are showered with affection on World Teachers’ Day. But did you know that this day is officially tied to the actual rights and responsibilities of teachers? It was enshrined in 1966 by the passing of the International Labor Organization and Unesco’s recommendation concerning the status of teachers. The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the profession hard, which is why the focus of World Teachers’ Day 2021 is on “teachers at the heart of education recovery” — as if they didn’t have enough to do already.
Getting back in the classroom
The pandemic gave rise to home-based learning, but Chris Barnes, an educator with 21 years of experience, understands the importance and impact of physically being in the classroom. “I have always loved learning, and thanks to inspiring teachers at significant points throughout my time in school, I have never left the classroom. It might sound corny but I want to give back the opportunities that I was given,” he says.
Unfortunately, the international school in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, where Chris teaches is still doing online learning with a full timetable from 7.50am to 2.40pm — almost 50 weeks of it now.
“Malaysia has had one of the highest rates of lockdown schooling,” he says. “Teachers are currently working remotely with only admin allowed in the school building. We are running a full timetable with six lessons of 55 minutes each. The suite that we use for assigning work was changed this academic year, so everyone is getting used to that, meaning that marking and feedback is taking longer at the moment, but this will improve over time.
“The school as a whole is supportive, but personally I feel that teaching online for so long is challenging,” he says. “It’s hard delivering lessons through a screen; gauging the reaction isn’t straightforward and you are never sure how much help they are getting with their work when it is turned in. There are regular digital meetings with colleagues, but little is done in terms of checking on our wellbeing.”
Work life balance is the key
Here in the UAE, the authorities have re-opened schools for face-to-face learning with safety precautions in place. While the return to in-person learning is widely regarded as a positive shift, some pandemic era processes are not. Digital communication between parents and teachers increased tremendously during distance learning. Children are back on campus but since parents can’t enter school premises, they still rely heavily on email to communicate with teachers. The ease of email has created a “round the clock” culture of contact.
“The working day has almost become 24/7,” says Ian Pugh, head of primary at Al Ain Academy. “Switching off is a challenge. Educating the community about our teachers’ work-life balance and that they cannot be on call all hours of the day is key.”
“Everyone loves a wage increase or bonus, but ultimately, teachers want to be able to have a healthy work-life balance and be able to spend time with family and friends. We are lucky to work for Aldar Academies, which has protected teachers during the pandemic and has a healthy focus on wellbeing, including the #GotAMinute campaign to achieve 50 years’ worth of wellbeing activities by the time the UAE celebrates its 50th National Day on December 2.”
Fair compensation is a must
Things are quite different in the United States, where Siyani Roberts teaches English to eighth graders in Virginia.
“Last year, I was teaching with a hybrid model. I had kids in my classroom and on the computer,” she says. “It was tough teaching both and meeting all kids’ needs. I pride myself in building relationships with kids, so to engage and build a rapport with kids, I was stopping regularly by kids’ houses, dropping off books, calling and texting daily with parents whose kids were ‘no shows’ for virtual class.
“This year, there is an undercurrent of impending doom. Not among the kids, but among teachers. We have a preponderance of kids quarantining, others who regularly email to say they must undergo testing. We receive daily updates, as many as three a day, about people who’ve been exposed or infected. The running joke among teachers is that they’ll only close schools when one of us dies.”
Covid has made what was already a stressful job even more so as teachers wear so many hats — counselors, social workers and sometimes financiers.
“I’ve already bought $50 worth of books and supplies out of my own pocket for individual kids this year, and much more for my classroom,” says Roberts.
The pressure is on in the US to improve work conditions and increase pay amid a teacher shortage that is sweeping the nation.
“We don’t make enough,” Roberts says. “Every teacher I know has a part-time job, including me — at least until Covid shut down learning labs. Someone reading this is remarking, ‘At least you have summers off.’ First of all, I rarely do. My friends and I teach summer school as a rule.”
The future is bright
While many parents struggled with homeschooling their children, Lara Nickson found her calling.
She was inspired to become a teacher by her experiences during the Covid lockdown in the UAE.
“I actually really enjoyed teaching my kids,” she says. “I found it interesting and rewarding to see results, and I enjoyed making a ‘difference’! I’ve been thinking about a career change for a while, so this came as kind of a lightbulb moment.”
To that end, Nickson is pursuing a master’s in primary teaching from the University of New England in Australia and the happiness derived from helping children is what motivates her. The job is indeed rewarding and teachers are appreciative of every gesture, gift and demonstration of love that comes their way on World Teachers’ Day, but as Siyani point out, the ultimate goal is year-round appreciation.
She says, “The ideal, year-round celebration of teachers would be to be appreciated in the community. It would look like parents not questioning our professionalism and knowledge of our craft, not assuming that we don’t also love their kids, and trusting us to lead their kids, if not to knowledge, then to being good ‘questioners,’ contributors, and stewards of the world around them.”