Releasing the potential of teachers in the COVID response in low-income countries

How can teachers in low income countries be involved to support learning and student well-being during the COVID-19 crisis? Drawing lessons from past disease outbreaks and from current examples of the COVID-19 education response, we look at tools and practices to help teachers continue doing their work during the crisis.

May 06, 2020 by Katy Bullard, GPE Secretariat, and Krystyna Sonnenberg, GPE Secretariat
4 minutes read
A teacher in front of his class. Kenya. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
A teacher in front of his class. Kenya.
Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

UNESCO estimates that over 63 million teachers are affected by the COVID-19 emergency, with their schools closed and their students trying to learn from home. In high-income countries, internet platforms alongside other technology, broadcast media and printed resources at home are available for teachers to continue to teach. In low-income countries, these options do not exist for most teachers and students. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 11% of households have computers, only 18% have a household internet connection, and 26 million students are not covered by mobile networks.

In this context, how can the potential of millions of teachers be used to support the learning of the 810 million children who are now out of school in low- and lower-middle-income countries? This blog offers lessons from the Ebola epidemic, examples from the current response, and ideas for mitigating the impact of school closure on the poorest.

Lessons from the Ebola response

  1. Include teachers to support radio and television continuity of learning programs: During Sierra Leone’s Ebola outbreak, teachers proactively reinforced radio lessons at the community level by convening small learning groups in accordance with social distancing guidelines or by fielding questions about the broadcasts from their students by phone. Other teachers tuned into broadcasts as a professional development opportunity to sharpen their understanding and delivery of lessons.
  1. Use teachers to learn about what’s working and to adapt continuity of learning programs: In Sierra Leone, as nongovernmental organizations received feedback about the ways that teachers were adapting to distance learning, some were able to support teachers to replicate these innovations in other communities. This required open channels of communication between teachers and aid agencies, as well as flexibility by donors to allow implementers to shift funding to address emerging needs at the local level. Importantly, efforts to support, replicate and scale-up these models of teacher engagement were aligned with the government’s distance learning program and focused on facilitating instruction of the broadcasted lessons.

What’s working in the COVID-19 emergency to engage teachers in response programming?

  1. Involve teachers in developing low and no tech continuity of learning programs: Teachers have valuable insight into their students’ academic and social-emotional needs, the resources available to them and challenges they may face during school closures. As such, teachers should be actively involved in helping ministries and schools develop realistic distance learning responses; just as master teachers helped develop radio programming in Sierra Leone during Ebola. This need not reinvent the wheel; radio and TV broadcasts from national, local or NGO-developed programming are available in a range of repositories and can be adapted to meet contextual and learning needs. 
  1. Engage teachers in dialogue to understand the support they need and the challenges they face, both now and as schools re-open: Strategy consultations should solicit input from diverse groups of teachers to represent their circumstances and those of their students. While national strategy development may only involve a small portion of teachers, school and district planning offer opportunities to involve more teachers. WhatsApp, SMS, social media, phone and other platforms can support this process.
  1. Prioritize large-scale involvement of teachers in learning continuity efforts, especially with low-tech modalities: Teachers can play key roles in maintaining learning and supporting student wellbeing during school closures. To do so, they need guidance and support from school leaders and ministries; unclear expectations can make distance learning stressful for teachers and inconsistent for students, as reported by teachers using WhatsApp with the refugee students in Lebanon.
  1. Use available tools to connect teachers and students and teachers with other teachers:Call-in centers and WhatsApp provide platforms for teachers to be in contact with students, as seen in Sierra Leone. Though this won’t reach every learner, questions and answers can be shared in print and over broadcasts. Now in the Maldives, for instance, video lessons will be followed by interaction sessions between students and teachers, while El Salvador established a call center for students to ask questions of subject specialists. These approaches expand teacher involvement in distance learning, though they engage only a portion of the teacher population.
  1. WhatsApp, SMS, and phone may allow a larger portion of the teacher population to be involved in distance learningby sharing materials, assigning work, and offering instruction and feedback, as in South Sudan and Bhutan. Safety measures should be put in place, and working hours for when teachers receive messages may be established to ensure they are not overloaded, as War Child has done for messaging-based programming in Iraq. Maximizing teacher engagement in mobile-based learning may require provision of hardware or partnerships with mobile providers, as some teachers cannot access phones, signal, data or electricity. In the Kyrgyz Republic, free SIM cards for teachers and students will allow them to communicate via WhatsApp during school closures. 
  1. Finally, during school closures, teachers’ roles may involve guiding parents on supporting student learning, both curriculum-based distance learning and informal play-based learning. In El Salvador, teachers and school leaders offer guidance to teachers on support home-based learning, organized by grade. 

Where possible, continue teacher training during school closures and engage teachers in preparing for school reopening and potential future closures.

  1. Keep teachers trained: Maintaining a trained workforce will be essential for education quality when schools re-open. Teacher training is also needed to help teachers work with the new modalities required during the crisis, as teachers may be unfamiliar with distance learning technologies or require support in adjusting their pedagogy or adapting their curricula. Uganda’s teacher training institutes are offering capacity building workshops to strengthen teachers’ ICT skills to use distance learning platforms during the pandemic. 
  1. Use teachers to gather data on learning: As governments manage school closures and look ahead to re-opening classrooms, investments in monitoring and collecting learning data should be put in place. These data will be essential for informing pedagogical and curriculum adaptations to mitigate learning loss (and inequities in learning loss) during closures and close the learning gap when students return to school.
  1. Develop accelerated programs to make up for lost learningas was the case in Sierra Leone after Ebola. As governments plan to re-open schools, teachers should play a central role in developing these programs and will need training on how to use learning data and deliver the programs.
  1. Build and disseminate the evidence of what has worked and plan for future closures: To ensure that decisions around distance learning and re-opening are well-informed and evidence-based, it is critical to establish real-time feedback loops for data, resources and lessons learned. Collecting and organizing instructional and learning materials is essential preparation for future closures or emergencies. Where possible, support is needed evaluate the impact of different approaches to engage teachers to build the evidence base for what works and inform future approaches.

A follow-up post from the Teacher Task Force will examine teacher issues to be addressed as schools reopen, including social dialogue, health and safety, and teaching and learning. 

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