Teachers are central to the health of our societies

Opinion: In a post-Covid-19 world, children will be hungry for learning, deserving of opportunity and wanting to belong. Teachers will be there for them in ways that online tools aren’t, argues Associate Professor Fiona Ell.

What will become of education during and after this pandemic? This question is too big and too hard to answer today, when so little is known about what that world might or might not consist of.

So I will take a little piece of the question instead, and think about what will become of teachers in this world. Will the Covid-19 pandemic strengthen them as central to the health of our societies, or will we take this moment to reduce the role of teachers in education? Is the teaching profession going to be a casualty of Covid?

In the last few weeks, especially in wealthy countries, schools have shifted to online learning. Online learning apps have become free for a few months, and many institutions and individuals have jumped in to provide online content for learners.

As I write, it is unclear how long it will be before schools can completely reopen. In the intervening period, when most learners are at home and teachers are elsewhere, will we discover that we never really needed them at all?

Everyone seems to acknowledge the social importance of the childcare that teachers provide, but in terms of student learning and wellbeing, do we really need teachers?

I think we do, and I think we will, really need teachers – perhaps more than ever – in the coming weeks, months and years. Why, when the internet abounds with learning opportunities? Because of three themes that I see emerging from these early stages of the pandemic.

First, when there’s a crisis, we need expertise. This has been demonstrated in a range of ways, from expertise in logistics, to public health, communication and scientific research. Our young people face a new world of an uncertain nature, so they need the best guidance and opportunity to learn that we can provide. Teachers are experts in learning, and experts in working with children. We need them.

Second, crises don’t impact everyone the same way. They have the potential to worsen the inequities that were fracturing societies before the pandemic. There are barriers to accessing learning online: the obvious ones are equipment and connectivity, but the less obvious are more insidious.

There is potential for the perpetuation, or exacerbation of systemic bias in both the content of web-based resources and how they are accessed. Teachers are essential here: their decisions and the way they help learners access valued knowledge and skills are a mediating bridge between learners and resources. Without teachers, it might seem learning would be freed from constraint – but freedom from the constraint of teachers would not bring the same benefits for all.

I think we do, and I think we will, really need teachers – perhaps more than ever – in the coming weeks, months and years. 

Associate Professor Fiona Ell Faculty of Education and Social Work

Third, in a crisis we value community. Physical distancing has made us more aware of our desire for connection. High functioning communities have been able to work together to feed and support their vulnerable people. Beyond the practical benefits, we are realising the importance of being part of something.

All of those online choirs and orchestras, families dancing and virtual quiz nights are part of creating community at a time when we can’t be with each other. Teachers create communities. In many places, schools are at the heart of communities, and within this, teachers draw children together to form communities of learning.

Sports, orchestras, shows, cultural events, class trips, camps, choirs or working together on the school garden; all of these everyday activities are led by teachers (and members of school communities) to build in children a sense of belonging and contribution.

In the coming weeks, teachers will be working hard to keep their community- building going in an online environment – but without the teacher’s involvement, the sense of community is lost.

In a post-Covid world, children will still be hungry for learning, deserving of opportunity and wanting to belong. Teachers will be there for them.

Fiona Ell is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland and the head of Initial Teacher Education.

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