Connecting Through Crisis - Bringing Teachers Together During COVID-19

Xan Northcott Serie Jimenez

COVID-19 is an educational crisis of a global nature never seen before. In just one month, 90% of all learners worldwide (more than 1.5 billion young people) saw their school or university close. As Medha, a Generation Global teacher in India, told us: "Because the lockdown was sudden, many students don't have stationery and no books. They are panicking. I feel the school buildings are closed but the staff is working more than ever to continue the teaching-learning process. After the shutdown, we were not equipped."

This echoes the sentiments and challenges that confronted thousands of teachers around the world, as the pandemic spread faster than it was possible to form plans to address it. Many governments called for education to continue as far as possible, but the speed and uncertainty of the crisis made it extremely challenging for teachers to know exactly what they should do, with many facing remote teaching for the first time. Education ministries, school principals and teachers worked at an unprecedented pace to pioneer new educational approaches. However, at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, we noticed that in the ensuing global dialogue, the voices of teachers and students were missing from the debates, discussion and planning.

Through Generation Global, our global education programme, we wanted to provide a practical solution to this challenge, so we responded to the unfolding crisis by developing the Ultimate Dialogue Adventure, an interactive, simplified version of Generation Global. It is accessible online for free by any student anywhere in the world, at school or at home, regardless of their ability or school status.

Having spent over a decade working with more than 14,000 teachers in over 30 countries, we also realised that we could bring teachers together from across the world to make sure their voices were heard during the crisis. This led us to develop the concept of hosting 'Dialogue Circles', with the goal of creating open and welcoming spaces where teachers could share their experience of teaching during COVID-19, as well as useful tips for remote teaching and advice and recommendations for governments.

On March 23rd, we held our first online Dialogue Circle with teachers from the USA, Mexico and Colombia. The first thing that struck us was their huge relief at being able to converse with others facing similar challenges, describing the experience as making them feel "grateful", "happy", "calm" and "confident". We worked fast to host more sessions in other regions of the Americas and the rest of the world. So far, we have held 18 dialogue circles, involving 352 teachers from 19 countries (see Infographic for a summary of feedback gathered).

COVID-19 is taking its toll on education - but teachers are creative and resilient.

Some consistent themes emerged throughout our Dialogue Circles, mostly concerning the incredible cost of COVID-19 on education, but also the innovation and hard work by teachers that is preventing this generation of youth from being left behind. A lot of successful remote teaching is taking place online, making use of various platforms ranging from Google and YouTube to innovative new online apps.

However, many teachers lack even the basic infrastructure to make this possible: a reliable internet connection, internet devices for all students, and a safe and calm home working environment. UNESCO data shows that in many countries less than 50 percent of schools have access to a computer, and correspondingly the OECD has reported that only half of students have been able to access all or most of the curriculum through remote learning materials during lockdown, as was recently highlighted in an article by TBI's Director of Programmes, Cleo Blackman.

Moreover, with most countries opting to prioritise transferring their exam-focused curricula to online settings, it is clear that holistic development and opportunities for social and emotional learning are frequently being lost. A UNESCO study has found that, "The mental health implications of the COVID 19 outbreak are far reaching", with one survey in Thailand reporting that 70 percent of young people say the pandemic is affecting their mental health, causing stress, worry and anxiety.

Varying access to technology is compounding inequalities.

Variable access to tech across regions, or even within classes, has also compounded existing educational inequalities. Some teachers can reach further via government-supported radio or TV broadcasts, or sending assignments by SMS, but it is a significant challenge to adapt not only curricula but also teaching style and methodology, often with no additional time or prior training. This is not to mention those who were already facing immense challenges before coronavirus started, such as Hilal, a teacher from Kashmir, where schools have been closed since July 2019 due to ongoing conflict.

Positives emerging from the pandemic.

Despite these numerous challenges for teachers, the dialogue circles created an overwhelming sense of positivity and resolve. Regardless of the level of technology our teachers had access to, all were finding ways to cope and were keen to share creative solutions or free resources they had discovered, and to learn from their colleagues across the globe. Some had seen positive developments, in particular embracing technology where previously there was scepticism, with some students adapting incredibly well to the online world. Others said that cancellation of exams is leading to a more holistic outlook on student assessment. Many said students and parents had developed a new appreciation for learning, education and teachers.

What teachers told us they want to happen next.

In addressing these challenges, teachers were pragmatic and creative in their suggestions to governments for making learning more resilient in future crises.

Teachers in our dialogue circles agreed that:

  • Online access immediately takes remote learning to another level, and so efforts must be accelerated to ensure that every child has reliable access to a device with an internet connection.
  • Where an internet connection is not possible, hard-copy and offline materials must be made available instead.
  • Governments should have a succinct national plan for education during a crisis. There was total uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, and even now some countries are not clear on the plan for re-opening schools or the next academic year.
  • There are many remote learning platforms and resources available, but much less guidance on which options work best in different contexts. Government guidance could help avoid teachers becoming overwhelmed or out of sync with other schools or classes.
  • Education systems should be built to be more resilient for the future, including through teacher professional development.

Understanding the experiences and view of teachers and students will help governments ensure that the educational response to the pandemic is effective.

Summary of feedback from our Teacher Dialogue

This article originally appeared on the Tony Blair Institute site on 21 July 2020.