Teachers have undoubtedly been always the unsung heroes of education industry. All successful members of society have none other than their teachers behind them. Why, then, are they unsung? If the future of our world rests on children, and the children’s future rests on the teachers, then surely their voices must be heard. This is especially true during the current pandemic, when teachers are disproportionately affected, and yet their problems are severely underreported.
The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on mental, physical, and financial strength. Teachers are no exception to this. They have to balance their own health along with that of their students and own families. Their energy is significantly spent supporting the latter. Detrimental effects on teachers’ health - including burnout, traumatic stress, and heightening anxiety levels- translate to negative impacts on that of their students, too.
Sleep is sacrificed, and waking hours are spent creating new schedules, adapting to students’ and parents’ needs, and preparing documents online. But to what end? As hard as our teachers are clearly trying, replacing years of in-person school with hours online is no easy task. Teaching black screens, scattered with a few blurry faces during an online meeting, leaves them with no space to connect with the pupils they are doing all of this for. Mindful of their students’ well-being, their own is often cast aside. They are left to choose between forcing connections with their students, or maintaining the same with their family. The family’s own freedom is curbed during online school hours. Attending a single class leads the teacher to lock themselves alone in a room, having had to ask their own children to be quieter in the background so as not to disrupt their teaching.
And all this is for students they can never be sure are truly learning. Grading systems have changed, becoming easier or stricter as the administration decides. Often, poorly written online assignments require grades undeserving of the quality of the work, if only to ensure the student passes. Conversely, if the work is made harder, it is none other than the teacher who receives complaints. If a student fails or performs poorly in their exams, the teacher takes the blame yet again.
As if taking on these additional responsibilities and stress isn’t enough, teachers do so with little- or even reduced- incentive. During the pandemic, school administrations have been forced to cut corners as much as possible, even to the extent of letting go of teachers. If a teacher hasn’t outright lost their job, they lose what they used to make. At least 55 per cent of teachers in private schools faced a reduction in salary during the lockdown, according to a report by the NGO Central Square Foundation (CSF)Taking a pay cut or leaving is the new normal for several teachers, considering parents and courts are calling for reduced tuition fees during online semesters. If they are lucky, teachers may get by with a delayed payment of salary.
This lack of funds is compounded by the fact that the teacher isn’t just buying the bare necessities for their family anymore. The start of the pandemic drove them into investing in high quality laptops, phones, and internet connections to avoid losing out on effective teaching. While students may have already had such resources, a majority of teachers didn’t. In this market, electronic devices don’t come cheap.
It doesn’t end with buying new technology either. Teachers, so used to grading assignments by hand, to speaking face-to-face with their students, to actually seeing their students, were faced with the challenge of learning how to conduct classes online themselves, often without basic training. Classes are missed because of technical issues, and there is no one left feeling worse than the teacher, wondering whether they will be able to help their students or not. Whether they will even finish the prescribed curriculum or not, let alone additional activities they may have planned before the pandemic hit.
Left to their own devices, teachers spent- and still spend- long hours in front of a screen. Often longer than their students, for they have the added tasks of scheduling meetings, of staying back until the last student leaves, of extra classes with individual kids who require it, of grading scanned assignments online. The sudden shift from chalkboards to screens was brutal, leading to several illnesses, including- but not limited to- that of the eyes, the back, the knees, and the mind.
Teachers remain online nearly all the time, at the beck and call of their students, the parents, the school administration, and the government. What was earlier restricted to a formal talk during fixed school hours has now become an unorganized chat at any time of the day; students either ask their queries during the reduced class hours, or send emails and messages to the teachers whenever they may wish. And this is only possible through sharing e-mail address or even private phone numbers. The teachers are left with little to no privacy from their students, because all their work is done from their homes, minus the comforts. Their lives were upended by the pandemic, and the same is on display for all to see.
Perhaps it is time to treat our teachers as who they are- true heroes of the pandemic and otherwise- or, at the very least, to discuss it. Sparking conversation will let them know they are not alone in this, besides helping them set reasonable expectations for themselves and prioritizing their own health by practising self-compassion. All our children are learning because of them; it is only fair they learn how invaluable they have been to society before and throughout this pandemic, and how invaluable they will be even after it.
Founder & Consultant - School Serv
Vinod Kakumanu heads a team of school services professionals and is an independent commentator on Indian school education scenario. Vinod has assisted school promoters establish 35+ schools besides providing ancillary services to over 1000 schools across India. He envisions a future where quality education is made available to every child of the country. The focus he places on the quality of the deliverables and customer satisfaction has made him renowned in the field of K-12 school education.