Teachers must be at heart of education reform


Teachers must be at heart of education reform

Next to parents, teachers have the greatest influence on a child’s behavior, personality and outlook (Reuters)
Short Url

Whenever we talk about unemployment, we eventually talk about the education system, particularly the curriculum and the need to reform and update it in order to prepare students for the jobs market. However, we seem to forget that simply changing the curriculum will not fix the problem. Teachers are the most critical element in any transformation.

Our experiences with teachers throughout our schooling, either positive or negative, have most likely impacted our attitude toward learning, developing, career choices and our whole life. Next to parents, teachers have the greatest influence on a child’s personality, behavior and outlook, yet they remain undervalued and underappreciated.

This year’s celebration of teachers by UNESCO on World Teachers’ Day was held under the theme, “The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage.” It focused on the kind of teaching and teachers we need now in order to achieve the type of education and future we want, given the growing shortage in quantity and quality of teachers.

The education ecosystem is composed of the infrastructure, the curriculum and the teachers. Research has repeatedly found that teachers are the single most important school-level variable for improving student outcomes.

Next to parents, teachers have the greatest influence on a child’s personality, behavior and outlook

Maha Akeel

Last year’s UN Transforming Education Summit reaffirmed the centrality of teachers to the future of education and renewed the focus on teachers, as the world currently faces a severe teacher shortage, especially in universal primary and secondary education. Not surprisingly, rural, marginalized and forcibly displaced communities often face the most chronic shortages of qualified teachers.

A recent report in Arab News on education in Syria was painful to read. Because of rising poverty, parents have to choose between sending their children to school or to work. The phrase “lost generation” is an understatement when describing their current and future prospects. The same can be said about other countries suffering from conflicts. In a post-conflict or post-disaster area, schools can be rebuilt within a few months or years and schooling can continue in makeshift locations, but finding teachers remains a challenge and it takes decades to raise an educated society, which is key to development.

However, the shortage in teachers is not only a reality in conflict zones; it is global. According to UNESCO, the fundamental cause of this global shortage is the diminishing attractiveness of the teaching profession, which undermines the recruitment of new teachers and produces high levels of attrition among those in service, especially within their first three to five years. In most countries around the world, teachers are paid less than other professionals with similar qualifications, especially in private schools, and they are overburdened with additional responsibilities and administrative tasks.

Teaching is not like any other job. It cannot be undertaken as simply a way to earn a living. It is a talent and a work of passion.

For Saudis over recent decades, it was the aspiration of men and women alike to work as teachers in public schools and universities because it was a secure government job that paid well. We ended up with many who were not qualified or had no interest in teaching, but it was a “good job.” That affected the quality of output, which we are still suffering from, as young graduates have lacked not only the knowledge but also the skills and capacities needed for today’s competitive job market, such as critical and analytical thinking, innovation and creativity.

Education reform does not only mean investing in the curriculum, school buildings and technology. The most important thing is the teacher, because a good teacher can make a bad curriculum interesting, while a bad teacher can turn a good curriculum into a boring one full of regurgitated information. A teacher can also influence the mentality and views of students.

In most countries around the world, teachers are paid less than other professionals with similar qualifications

Maha Akeel

More than a decade ago, a report by the World Bank noted that Middle East and North African countries had succeeded in creating an education system focused mainly on inputs, such as building schools, but had done little to change the incentives and behavior of educators. A more recent report by the same organization again noted that, despite spending millions on education reform, the region’s schools system is stuck with the same delivery mechanisms.

Teachers today are competing with digital devices not only for students’ attention, but also as a source of information and knowledge. The debate over distance learning raised questions about technology potentially replacing teachers and schools. However, what children learn at school is not only knowledge and technical skills, but also good behavior and social and communication skills. Many studies point to the amount of learning lost during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

The UNESCO 2023 Global Education Monitoring Report focused on technology as a tool in education. It pointed out that there is not yet enough good evidence on the impact of technology on education. In addition, most of the evidence comes from the richest Western countries and from companies trying to sell their tools. Although technology offers an education lifeline for millions, including learners with disabilities, adults and those in remote areas — and it certainly came to the rescue of education during the pandemic — it excludes many more who lack internet connectivity and equal access to technology.

In general, the report found that some education technology can improve certain types of learning depending on the context, but it can also have a detrimental impact if used inappropriately or in excess. Large-scale international assessment data suggests a negative link between excessive technology use and student performance. A few months ago, Sweden surprised the world by reversing its policy on digital education and going back to basics with books and handwriting.

Furthermore, according to the UNESCO report, there is not enough regulation or quality control and diversity in online content. Not to mention the impact of regenerative artificial intelligence and ChatGPT.

We need to change the way we see teachers and teaching. Teachers are key agents of change. Reforming and improving education is not only about content, but also who delivers the content and how.

  • Maha Akeel is a Saudi expert in communications, social development, and international relations. She is a member of the UN's Senior Women Talent Pipeline. X: @MahaAkeel1
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view