Celebrating the Resilience, Creativity, Courage, and Knowledge of African Teachers in the Pandemic

This year, teachers have summoned their core purpose and risen to the enormous challenge of teaching and leading during a deadly and confusing global pandemic. Covid-19 has upended schooling for 1.6 billion children and more than 63 million teachers, according to the Teacher Task Force; however, teachers have responded with resilience, innovation, and devotion to their students and careers. Across Africa, many teachers have made personal sacrifices to continue teaching – even without technology, safety, and steady pay – striving to maintain hard-won educational gains made by their countries in recent decades. UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (IICBA) has been holding frequent webinars on how to support students and teachers during the pandemic.   

(Photo: A teacher and student in Côte d'Ivoire. Source: The Brookings Institution)

Now, as schools across Africa reopen, teachers are again “leading in crisis and reimagining the future” – which is the theme of this year’s World Teachers’ Day. Let this day, this week, this month, and this whole year serve as a reminder for policymakers and educational leaders to learn from the resilience, creativity, courage, and knowledge of the teachers of 2020. Let it also be a call for more support for teachers’ well-being, voices, and continued professional development. Teachers’ experiences and voices are critical to our understanding of pandemic-era learning, the teaching profession, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Teachers’ Resilience

African nations are a constellation of various reflexive policies and approaches towards school closures and reopenings due to Covid-19. All these policies affect teachers on a deeply personal level, even if teachers’ voices and input are not taken into consideration during policymaking. According to teacher representatives Mr. Samuel Johnson, Sr. from Liberia and Mr. Charles Kuchenga from Malawi, who spoke to UNESCO IICBA in a July webinar, very little consultation has been made with teachers as countries have drawn up plans to reopen schools. Despite this, teachers have quickly adapted to the new duties, roles, and policies thrust upon them. In 2020, many teachers have become crucial caregivers for their students. They have looked after their students’ holistic health: They have nurtured students’ bodies by continuing their schools’ essential school feeding programs during lockdowns in South Africa and other countries, and they have protected students’ bodies from the virus itself. Teachers have cared for their students’ mental and emotional health, helping them grapple with fear, tragedy, and anxiety. Teachers have put their students’ health, well-being, and learning first, while also struggling to take care of their own families and their children’s learning, and their own well-being, which often takes last place.

(Photo: Teachers and volunteers serve food to some of the 11 million children out of school in South Africa in April. Source: Reuters/Mike Hutchings)

In over-extended educational systems, teachers are grappling with the usual challenges of large, diverse, multilingual, under-resourced classrooms, but now, those challenges are exacerbated by the pandemic, which is stretching already thin budgets. Some teachers have not even received their salaries while under lockdown. Harriet Agasiu, an elementary teacher in a private school in Uganda, was forced to sell vegetables on the street in September when her school could no longer pay her. “The challenges teachers are going through is too painful,” Ms. Agasiu says with tears in her eyes in the BBC news video. “They should look at a way if they can support teachers.” Ms. Agasiu’s struggles were echoed by Dr. Dennis Sinyolo, Director of Educational International African Region, in UNESCO IICBA’s World Teachers’ Day webinar on October 7: “The first step must be to provide teachers with necessary salaries and support,” said Dr. Sinyolo. “They are in difficult situations. We can’t tell teachers to be motivated when they have no money to pay their bills and no roofs above their heads.”

Photo: Harriet Agasiu, a teacher in Uganda. Source: BBC)

The loss of a qualified teacher is a great and needless loss. Governments and educational must be as resilient as teachers have been during Covid-19, and find ways to retain, pay, and support them.

Teachers’ Creativity

Like Harriet Agasiu, the Ugandan teacher selling vegetables, teachers have had to find innovative ways to survive and move forward, despite uncertainty. Millions of teachers have worked rapidly and creatively to learn the new pedagogies needed to teach through radio and online. Millions taught without technology and ICT skills, without stable internet and electricity, personal protective equipment, or even information about the virus and policies. But despite limitations, they made do. They made a lot from very little, and they created and innovated. They got behind webcams and cameras, however awkwardly they felt at first, and performed and engaged students. They transformed simple materials they already had in their homes into teaching resources; they delivered essential reading packets to students’ homes; they wrote notes, texts, and WhatsApp messages to their students. Some teachers in a rural district in South Africa even boarded final-year secondary students in their own homes, supervising them all day as they studied for exams, according to CBS News.

The availability of technology and online classes do not indicate their reliability and effectiveness. Teachers have had to discover quick strategies and troubleshoot outdated technology and inconsistent internet and electricity. Teachers in South Africa and other countries have galvanized WhatsApp as an educational app, and pasted pieces of white paper on the wall and used them as whiteboards, to record videos of themselves teach, and then send the videos to parents for asynchronous downloading and viewing. Most teachers were not equipped with ICT and emergency education skills before Covd-19, but they figured it out through necessity and experimentation. “Teachers had to find innovative ways to support learning remotely using online platforms, which posed challenges as teachers found themselves in some situations having to use own personal data,” said Dr. Patricia Machawira, the Regional Advisor of Education for Health and Well-being at UNESCO, in a June webinar. To support teachers, UNESCO IICBA is offering and promoting Online and Distance Learning Skill Certification for African teachers on its website.

Teachers’ Courage

Teachers have been frontline warriors in the crisis and chaos caused by coronavirus. According to Professor Kwame Akyeampong of The Open University in a September webinar hosted by UNESCO IICBA, the challenges of reopening schools will be far greater than the challenges of Covid-19 itself. Teachers are shouldering the world’s fears about the looming learning crisis that threatens to undo years of fragile educational progress, especially for girls and “silently excluded” students in Sub-Saharan Africa. They will have to take these children under their wings and help them fly with accelerated learning pedagogies, says Professor Akyeampong. They will need to face these professional leaps with courage, persistence, and devotion to their students. 

Moreover, teachers may be personally exposed to the virus, teaching in over-crowded classrooms without adequate personal protective equipment, and they risk carrying it home to their families. Mr. Cheikh Sidaty Fall, a high school teacher in Senegal, as well as his wife, contracted Covid-19 as soon as returned to teaching in person. Mr. Fall shared his experience with UNESCO IICBA in a webinar in September. He described the fear and stigma he faced, and how he ultimately recovered. In a true teacher’s manner, he used his experience of catching the virus to teach his community: “I faced them and showed them that you can be ill and recover from that illness, and continue your activities without any problem,” he says. He also used his story to teach his students about the virus: “I have a strong relationship with my students. My students are my friends. Going there [to school] can help me to sensitize them to be more aware of the situation.” Mr. Fall is a powerful example of the courage and leadership of teachers in 2020.

(Photo: Mr. Fall speaking to UNESCO IICBA)

Learning from Teachers’ Knowledge

Personal experiences can lead to knowledge gain and personal growth. Teachers have experienced and learned a great deal about themselves, their strengths, and their students in 2020, and have created their own knowledge, often in unpredictable moments as they quietly worked through problems. For example, according to Dr. Rita Bissoonauth, the Director of the International Centre for the Education of Girls and Women at the African Union, many teachers were asked to shift their courses online, but had no idea how to – and yet, they did it. Teachers’ knowledge and experiences are invaluable; they are perhaps the most important human resource we have, and one of the only positive effects of Covid-19. The pandemic caught the whole world off guard, but African teachers rebounded, becoming students again, and leaping into new technology, methodologies, and pedagogies.

Teachers’ knowledge and experiences should be at the center of educational policy and curricular decisions right now, and in the future. According to Dr. Pedi Anawi from Education International in a July webinar hosted by UNESCO IICBA, governments must trust teachers as professionals and consult with them in policymaking. While it is true that teachers require further education and professional development to learn ways to reach learners who are falling behind due to Covid-19, it is also true that teachers could teach their governments a lesson or two on resilience, creativity, courage, and knowledge.

Teachers need our support, as well as our ears.

Truly, in 2020, teachers have been “leading in crisis and reimagining the future.” Yet as Dr. Bissoonaugh of the AU said during a July webinar, “Much of what has been done during Covid-19 by our teachers still remains undocumented, not always recognized. We need to ensure they are recognized. We need to ensure they are saluted for all the efforts they have made.” Indeed, the pandemic is a sharp reminder of the importance of each teacher. Let it be an opportunity to elevate the status, knowledge, and voices of the teachers in Africa.