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During a teacher-training programme in a community-based school that took place towards the beginning of June, I got to interact with 34 teachers from various grade levels. The programme was largely designed to help teachers identify their strengths and weaknesses through active self-reflection. Throughout the session, a common response from most of the teachers was that they were worried about their students, even though the teachers were doing their best to ensure that the students were continuously learning, despite the technological barriers. The school had taken many steps to ensure that their teachers were learning during the lockdown–be it through allocating a day in a week for their training and reflection or through providing initial training for using virtual classrooms. But the teachers still had concerns, primarily to do with their classrooms being less interactive and more monotonous and with issues related to student participation and assessments. 

Teachers do more than just teach, and the impacts they have on students are discernible beyond the classroom. Teachers play different roles in addition to being an educator: they also play the roles of a parent, a friend, a mentor, a  confidant. Undoubtedly,  teachers have the potential to influence all the stages of a student’s learning and development. To be effective teachers, they must be empathetic to student needs and provide personalized care, love, and guidance. A good teacher will always ensure that their students are grasping the knowledge they are imparting. But the current pandemic and closure of schools have not only affected the personalized aspects associated with teaching, but could also deprive students of opportunities for development and improvement. These impacts will surely be seen in students, especially among those who have fewer educational opportunities outside of the classroom. 

During this pandemic, informal homeschooling has been one option for engaging children–to ensure that their learning does not come to a halt. That said, for some parents, homeschooling can be a tough task, because they either lack the time or simply because they lack the skills needed to engage their children. It’s no surprise that worldwide many parents who are struggling with homeschooling during this crisis have developed a special appreciation for teachers, as evinced by this tweet by the famous American television producer Shonda Rhimes: “Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week.” 

Teachers know all too well the difficulties of performing their job well. And now, they have the even more difficult task of replicating the functions of a school without actually being in one. The sudden transition from the classroom to digital space presents teachers with various challenges. Many have had to learn how to conduct classes over digital mediums that they were not well acquainted with earlier, while also trying to balance their personal lives. We know many teachers who did not even know how to use a smartphone properly but who have now learned to conduct online classes–with some having learned how to display the solutions to difficult mathematical equations, among others. Even though appreciation for teachers has been late in the coming, this pandemic has shown how important teachers are and how they can still continue to teach effectively with the right support and technological knowledge.  

But many teachers are still struggling to catch up. Quite a few teachers are struggling simply because they do not have the right technology to teach or are technologically lagging behind because they do not have the right skill-set to use them. Surely, this is applicable to everyone, but teachers have to additionally deal with economic uncertainty and uncertainty about their future–which contributes to their stress level. That stress load increases owing to their concerns about how most of their students might have fallen behind (perhaps because of accessibility issues), or because they worry about whether the students will catch up after a long inactive period, or because they are afraid some students might even be considering dropping out entirely. Further, teachers also need to ensure that their class can keep apace with the school syllabus (an issue that for some reason is extremely important in Nepal) once schools resume. And then they have to deal with the additional emotional stress that results from knowing that despite their best efforts, they haven’t succeeded in reaching out to underprivileged children, which is a pretty common occurrence in a country like ours. 

Thus during this pandemic period, one of the best things a teacher can do is take some time to step back and take a larger view of things. Besides focusing on what they are doing, they need to reflect on what they can actually achieve in the current context. It is exceedingly important that teachers also take the time to reflect, to unlearn, to relearn, and to develop the skills needed for the changed context. And they also need to find the time to focus more on their teaching methods and pedagogies, look into ways to introduce innovative classroom approaches (that are collaborative and flexible), and ensure better engagement of the students both during this digital-learning phase and once life gets back to normal. As for educational institutions, it is important that they make teachers’ learning a priority and that they ensure teachers have the time to learn. Institutions must provide teachers all the skill-enhancement support they need. Finally, if school systems can protect teacher jobs and ensure salaries–which might be challenging given the present situation–this can help teachers remain motivated and ready to perform once schools resume. 

Only time will tell how things will play out once in-person classes resume, but it is important for the relevant stakeholders to ensure that this process is effective and safe for everyone. In the meantime, parents need to fulfill their homeschooling responsibilities, support the needs of their children, and effectively manage resources, in collaboration with teachers, to ensure that student learning does not stop. At the same time, teachers should come up with pragmatic and clear goals: for this, they need to receive the necessary support from educational institutions, in coordination with the Ministry of Education. And teachers should also make sure that they have reduced expectations of their students, and focus more on their effort and willingness to learn, rather than on their grades. Throughout this process, a strong school leadership will be the difference-maker. And schools must also direct their attention to providing effective learning and addressing the digital gaps. Our teachers are doing their best during very trying times, and we should be thankful that we have teachers who are willing to go the extra mile to ensure that their students don’t fall behind.