Globally the cry rises—where are the teachers? Where are the people who led and inspired? The ones who were respected because they built citizens of note in their tiny classrooms? The ones who made their students think and do, so that they grew up confident and competent.
Too much to expect?
We still look for these, but even if we do not find them, at the very least we need competent teachers who can raise literacy and numeracy levels in the classrooms of the world. We need teachers who care enough to land up in class, and we need them to hold the cohort together and push them to achievements appropriate to their level. We do not even expect them to teach as was traditional. In the brave new world of the flipped classroom with edutech resources and blended learning tools to hand, the teacher curates and leads explorations.
Still too much?
Then just teachers to teach the basics and keep the classes productively occupied so that they do reasonably in their tests and examinations? Land up, take attendance, listen to the students and exhort them to do better? Maybe as a support teacher or a substitute teacher?
But where shall we find the teachers? The shortage of teachers is a global reality. This year, Unesco estimated that 1.6 million new teaching posts need to be created to meet the goal of universal primary education by 2015, and this rises to 3.3 million by 2030. (Source: http://www.uis.unesco.org/Education/Pages/world-teachers-day-2013.aspx) To this, one needs to add the number of teachers that need to be replaced due to the high rates of attrition from this profession. This in itself should be a warning signal to policymakers and educationists for high rates of withdrawal from a vocation can only mean that something is deeply wrong and needs careful attention. India, too, has a large chunk of the shortages. Without trying to reconcile these with the global numbers (for education statistics is a whole new minefield) I just repeat the reported shortages to be between 1.2 million and 1.4 million currently. (Source: http://www.deccanchronicle.com/130707/news-current-affairs/article/india-faces-shortage-nearly-14-million-trained-teachers, http://zeenews.india.com/news/nation/shortage-of-1-2-mn-teachers-in-india-sibal_646295.html) The story of teacher shortages is repeated everywhere— states in America, Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) and Arabia.
With 57 million children out of school, many of them in remote inaccessible areas or in conflict zones, the teacher shortage is an even more complex issue than simple supply and demand. The teaching profession is in turmoil, with many countries reporting high levels of dissatisfaction among teachers due to administrative workloads, relatively lower pay and unsafe working conditions. At the same time, teachers face pressure from administrators to prove performance in classrooms as measured by student achievement. This in itself is a controversial issue that does not enhance the desirability of the teaching profession.
The biggest minefield here is the debate over trained teachers or untrained ones being recruited to government systems. While some experienced teachers have succeeded without training, this clearly cannot be a systemic response to recruitment. At the same time, ‘contract’ teachers (or para teachers, and even substitutes) have been seen to perform adequately in the classroom. They are seen as a way to boost the numbers—and this has seen mixed reactions. However, it is generally acknowledged that underqualified teachers are likely to end up in lower cost schools (as they do) and it is richer students who will be able to take advantage of better qualified and experienced teachers.
The current solutions for meeting the teacher shortage are largely local or national. Globally, the trend seems to seek to fill the gaps with education technology solutions. While everyone is agreed that not even the venerated (and now on trial) MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can replace teachers completely, there are a number of charter schools and academies that have nascent proof that certain blended learning models do improve student achievement. So, with teachers and with graded pathways, education technology does reduce teacher workload and free them up for other things. Does this mean that they can handle multi-grade cohorts and reduce the number of teachers required? Will this help reduce the shortage? It may well be the way forward till we find and train the right teachers.
So, for now, if there are fewer teachers than we need and standalone e-learning technologies cannot fill the gap, then what can we do? A few suggestions:
1. Technology has a role to play in education to reduce teacher workload, to introduce standardisation and to mechanise the process of assessment. It is a great feedback tool even though it may not be the best source of inspiration to learn. The issue with most edutech tools so far is that they have been created by developers distant from the classrooms and sold to teachers. This is like the computers of the eighties when only a few ‘trained’ personnel could enter the hallowed halls of computing. E-learning solutions must be demand-led, not supply-driven. It is up to the e-learning community to invest more time in understanding pedagogies, understanding the needs of the students in their various contexts and then building support systems for core teaching. All learning takes place in social contexts, so the materials must adapt or be customised to new situations—not merely translated or transliterated.
2. Teachers need to be grown, and then supported. If the teaching profession is seeing a shortfall, then this needs urgent attention. More and better people need to be drawn into the profession, trained as they teach and supported through their teaching careers. Teachers need to remain motivated to be able to inspire generations of learning. More on increasing the pool of teachers here http://eduvichar.wordpress.com/2013/05/09/increase-the-pool-of-teachers/ . This needs to be seen as a global crisis that needs immediate attention and funding.
3. A crisis often is an opportunity to innovate. The teacher shortage forces us to find other solutions to educate and skill our youth. Tools such as peer-to-peer learning, flipped classrooms etc need to be deployed to support higher student attainment. Other innovations such as travelling teachers, mobile and online events, among others, need to be brought into the mix to create solutions for teaching and learning communities.
Bringing in teachers, training and supporting them well is essential to educating our next generations, but this is not a simple recruitment drive. Finland, known for its excellence in teaching and learning, invests seven years per teacher—as much as a doctor or a surgeon. It takes national commitment to build a strong cohort of teachers, and it takes even more to retain them in the profession—an investment that is essential to our futures.