Henry May is a Social Entrepreneur from the UK currently living in Colombia. He is a Teach First Ambassador, having completed the programme from 2009-2011. He has set up two successful social impact organizations; The Huracan Foundation and Coschool. He has been working in education since 2009 in the UK and Colombia, with a particular focus on teacher training, and social & emotional learning. Coschool, the Colombian Edtech that Henry founded, has been recognized as one of the Top Education Innovations in the World two years running by HundrED and was recently named in the HolonIQ LatAm 100 EdTech list. Personally, Henry was named as one of the world’s top 100 Meaningful Business Leaders in 2020.
These are, of course, extraordinarily challenging times we are living in for schools, teachers, students, and families across the world. A survey at the start of 2022 from the USA suggested that 55% of Teachers are planning on leaving the profession earlier than planned. “The Great Resignation” is, without doubt, going to leave its mark on the education sector. We are entering a period of churn and change in society.
In Colombia, public schools are opening up again after two years of unprecedented chaos. In an education system that is no stranger to disruption (in 2018 many schools had to finish the school year two months early due to teacher’ strikes – 40+ days of school were missed), this feels like the hardest time ever to be teaching. In order to respond to this crisis, we must urgently prioritize (and provide resources towards) the wellbeing of teachers.
My team and I at Coschool have spent the first eight weeks of this year listening to teachers and school leaders, and there seem to be a number of issues prevalent. Teachers are dealing with a monster with several heads:
Lost years of learning
Inevitably, students have fallen behind on where they should be in terms of their learning. Reading levels in younger students, exam readiness in older students,and everything in between seems to have been affected. Sadly, this is even more pronounced in public & rural schools – where both students and teachers struggled to switch to remote learning solutions compared to their private school counterparts. Educational inequality has been exacerbated by the pandemic. However, make no mistake about it; private schools are struggling too.
Decrease in students’ ability to concentrate/attention
Social media and smartphones were already destroying our ability to pay attention, listen, be present, and concentrate before COVID. If you haven’t seen Netflix’s documentary, The Social Dilemma, I recommend it as a comprehensive analysis of this problem. Since April 2020 many students’ (and teachers’) lifestyles have changed dramatically: a surge in screen time, more time alone with their devices, and significant increases in gaming (particularly games with social/multiplayer components). We are more addicted than ever.
Something else has been on the rise in teenagers’ bedrooms, too: multiscreening (phone – laptop – gaming device, sometimes all at the same time). Science has long since told us that it’s impossible to consciously focus on more than one thing at a time. Children are moving between screens in short bursts, and the impact on their capacity to concentrate is catastrophic. Simply put, there is a strong correlation between one’s ability to focus and learning. If a teacher was already struggling to engage students before the Pandemic, it’s almost certain that this will be even harder now.
Rewiring of social connectedness
Children and teenagers have always had (and will always have) complicated social dynamics. Bullying and name-calling shouldn’t be the norm, but it is something that exists in even the most welcoming of schools. Over the last two years, relationships have gone through unexpected and unusual trauma. What that trauma looks like will differ between contexts, locations, and age groups, but what we are hearing from schools is that backlogs of online disputes are now bringing conflict into schools. Scores are being settled for things that were said on TikTok or in whatsapp groups or on gaming servers. Social media (again at the root of issues) is accelerating the chopping and changing of social groups, the “banter” (and the bullying) and it’s an impossible task for teachers and school leaders to keep track of what’s happening.
Gender and sexuality education is happening at the speed of the internet
We are hearing from schools that issues relating to gender and sexuality are causing a lot of tension and discomfort for students, families, and teachers. There have been really some positive developments in the topic of gender inclusion over the last few years. However, the information and stories available to students on the internet is outpacing most schools and as many students go about exploring their gender and sexuality, schools are off the pace and teachers are being left to deal with some extremely complex matters.
Where do we go from here?
The duality of “teachers as social workers” was something we have heard often since March 2020, and continues to ring true. Teachers are truly on the front line at the moment, especially given the new stresses parents and families are under. Adults have lost their jobs, are changing their jobs, have moved house and so on. With so much flux occurring outside of schools, young people need stable, supportive environments in schools.
Teachers’ jobs just became even more important than ever before.
What can we do to support them?
Recognising the moment we are living through
There is a need for policy makers, school leaders, and communities to “read the room”. This is a tricky time. It’s a time for empathy, listening, and supporting. It’s certainly a time to be careful with implementing new programs/measures/policies that will demand even more of teachers. It’s time for resilience, and sticking together. Teachers need to feel supported publicly and privately.
Me first: the seat belt approach to mental health
Just as we are instructed to do in emergencies onboard an airplane, we need teachers to fasten their own seat belts before attending to the students in their care. We need to provide teachers with the language and tools required to discuss and tend to their own mental health issues. Teachers with good mental health will be in a far stronger position to support students facing challenges of their own. In practical terms, a teacher that actively understands the positive effects of breathwork or mindfulness, and applies it in their own life, is ready to help students do the same.
Prioritizing rest and recovery
How might we support teachers to break the cycle of exhaustion and the sensation of “somehow make it to the end of term”? Systems and schools should be exploring strategies to support teachers to maintain their energy and have time for renewal, sleep, and exercise. Some schools in Colombia begin classes at 6am. While there might be an argument from a logistical point of view and schools with two “jornadas” to attend to, this is an absurd idea if we want teachers and students to feel ready for the school day. Please, no more 6am starts!
Research on resilience has repeatedly shown that resilient people have better support networks. One of the positive impacts of COVID – and the acceleration of teachers’ adoption of technology – is the possibility of connecting to others who are experiencing similar difficulties. We need to build networks with intention and purpose to help teachers realize they are not alone, and that they can save time & energy by tapping into wider networks than they were aware of before.
More time for planning & professional development
Ok, this is clearly easier said than done. I get it, teachers’ timetables are already stretched. However, this is a dangerous cycle that needs to be broken. Teachers need time to observe others (still a frustratingly low occurrence activity), reflect on their own practice (not sitting down a candle; reviewing their planning and making improvements), and plan effectively. It would be even better if teachers had time to coach each other and be coached (using resources from Better Lesson and Inspiring Teachers, for example). Better planning results in better execution which results in better student engagement and outcomes. It is a simple idea, and now would be a fantastic time for schools to provide teachers with more time.
A wider paradigm shift: HECI
In recent years we have seen a collective push to prepare education systems for the future: a recognition that most jobs of the future will require better preparation in STEM, Computational thinking, and so on. This noise – while important – drowns out other vital components of a child’s education. I find Gerd Leonard’s framework of STEM and HECI useful. HECI = Humanity, Ethics, Creativity, Imagination). At times like these we would do well to remember that the purpose of schools is not just to increase productivity and serve the needs of the labor market. Indeed, if we needed a reminder of this, it was interesting (and concerning) to see the Colombian Ministry of Education’s top priority emerge during 2020: food. Schools play a vital part in attending to children’s most basic needs, and when push comes to shove, the basic needs come first. Returning to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we need to ensure children are safe and feeling a sense of belonging before we can be concerned about the raft of jobs they may or may not have in fifteen years time.
La Ruta Edumoción and a new regional professional learning community
At Coschool, we are determined to try and be there for educators at this critical moment. To celebrate the launch of our new professional learning community focussed on Wellbeing for educators, Edumocion, we have sent school bus on a mission around Colombia (next stop, Latin America). La Ruta Edumoción is visiting thousands of educators in their schools, listening deeply to their current needs and challenges, and providing introductory access to what – we hope – will become the biggest professional learning community of teachers in Latin America. Edumoción contains different shaped and sized resources for educators to use, as well as providing a platform for creating a powerful community via meaningful connections with educators across the region.
The time has to come to take teachers’ wellbeing seriously and we will be doing everything we can to support them over the precarious looking months and years ahead.