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Promoting Teacher Wellbeing as we Build Forward Better

By Adam Berthoud, Interim Director of Global Programmes, Save the Children UK, and Rob Jenkins, Global Director for Education, UNICEF

The global Covid-19 health crisis has triggered an education emergency, in the context of an existing global learning crisis, which now puts at risk the education of an entire generation of children.

Today, on World Teacher’s Day, we celebrate the incredible efforts of teachers during the past 18 months to keep children learning and respond to their wellbeing needs.

Teachers play a pivotal role as we seek to recover learning losses and overcome the global learning crisis faced by children, especially girls. As we look forward, we must ensure that teachers are kept at the centre of policy and financing decisions to ensure that as a global community we Build Forward Better.

Teachers under pressure

Evidence clearly demonstrates that teachers and teacher quality are the most important factor influencing student achievement. In refugee and emergency settings teacher quality is an even more critical driver of variations in student learning outcomes. Yet we face a global teacher shortage and support, remuneration and professional development for teachers is woefully insufficient. We must ensure teachers and their wellbeing remain at the heart of our response to this education crisis.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, levels of stress have significantly increased for teachers as they and their families face the risk of contracting the disease while also responding to the challenge of school closures and remote learning.

“Many of my teachers have lost family members in the pandemic. Many teachers do not know how to handle the (online) platforms; and if it is difficult to understand face-to-face lessons, virtual ones are much more difficult. I can’t say it’s the teachers’ fault that we don’t learn, you have to put yourself in their shoes. If we get frustrated, so do they: being in front of a screen with nobody responding to you.” (Students Paula from Colombia, Nicole from Guatemala, and Ana from Peru, from Build Back Better: How the global community must act now to support children’s learning in crises).

Like many people, teachers’ physical and mental health has been negatively impacted. In the toughest contexts teachers were not paid during school closures and/or experienced significant delays to their salaries, resulting in significant economic pressure – as evidenced by a short study in the Democratic Republic of Congo by the Institute of Development Studies and the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Bukavu. The study also found that almost all teachers reported the lockdown had negatively affected their wellbeing and increased their levels of stress and anxiety.

Where teachers are working in situations of conflict and economic crisis, these negative impacts are exacerbated. For example teachers in Yemen have not received salary payments for seven years and are struggling to feed and support their own families. The teacher salary crisis in Yemen is representative of a system on the brink of collapse and the motivation of teachers is a critical concern. Yet, a UNESCO survey found that less than one-third of countries offered psychosocial support to teachers during the pandemic. It is essential that approaches and strategies to support teacher wellbeing are embedded into their professional development opportunities and school culture as we recover.

How to support teachers’ wellbeing

Throughout the pandemic some governments and organisations have been working to meet teachers’ wellbeing.

In DRC, Save the Children has been supporting teachers to understand their own mental health and how to manage their stress during school closures and as they return to school.

In Myanmar, after teachers identified their wellbeing as a top priority, teachers were supported through interactive digital modules focusing on teacher wellbeing (building on Save the Children’s Learning and Wellbeing in Emergencies Resource Kit) delivered through online and offline platforms via smart phones. Some schools conducted face-to-face peer learning sessions, but most conducted them through FaceBook messenger or Viber groups, which were supervised and supported by cluster heads and project staff.

In the occupied Palestinian territory, Lebanon and Iraq, WhatsApp groups have been launched to allow teachers to share concerns, tips and tools. UNICEF’s Ready to Come Back: A teacher preparedness training package, developed by its Middle East and North Africa division,includes a module dedicated to teacher wellbeing that addresses the stress that teachers are facing with the pandemic. The package includes exercises to help teachers recognise and cope with their stressors as well as engage in self-care. These have proven effective in helping teachers manage stress and cope with the challenges they face.

Evidence demonstrates that extended school closures can have long-term negative impacts on children’s educational outcomes, such as reduced schooling attainment and cognitive skills over their lifetime. Teachers face a colossal task to address these learning losses and help children succeed, especially where these are coupled with additional mental health consequences for boys and girls. Teachers are now faced with very diverse learning and significant socioemotional needs among their students. Supporting teachers’ wellbeing is the first step towards ensuring they can effectively respond to the diverse psychosocial and learning needs of children.

UNICEF and Save the Children are partnering through our Accelerating Learning Foundations initiative to support teachers and the structures round them to deliver improved foundational learning outcomes for those children who are furthest behind. To do this we are working to make sure teachers’ wellbeing is supported and that they are able to meet the diverse learning needs of their students.

Image at top of page: Headteacher Gassimu Kemoh teaches a class at a school in Pujehun district, Sierra Leone.