On Teacher's Day, Let's Ask Ourselves What India's Teachers Need

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn't spared an inhabited realm, institution or enterprise on the planet, and education is one of them.

When we think of teachers and the COVID-19 pandemic, a few distinct images are sure to flash before our eyes. A teacher setting out to teach her students at their home in Tamil Nadu. One on her rooftop to improve network reception on her phone in Munnar. A mathematics teacher in Mumbai using her transparent refrigerator tray to hold her phone while she teaches her students over the internet. These are all heart-warming images.

Then, there are the images of a teacher becoming a banana-vendor in Hyderabad, another selling vegetables on the roads of Delhi, and protests by teacher groups demanding vacancies in Punjab be filled asap. This pandemic has brought to the fore the ingenuity, grit and dedication of the country’s teachers even as it exposed glaring vulnerabilities, a lack of support and great risks.

The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t spared an (inhabited) realm, institution or enterprise on the planet, and education is one of them. Without adequate guidance, training or resources, teachers have been required to practice distance-learning modalities, to become designers and tutors both, almost overnight. But still, shift they did. A UN report states that across 194 countries, 1.6 billion learners have been affected. The closing of school and higher-education institutes has affected 99% of learners in low and middle income countries (LMIC) and up to 94% in developed countries.

Many institutions scrambled to get online to keep students’ lessons from being completely disrupted. However, we haven’t monitored this new mode’s effectiveness. In developed countries, distance learning covers 80-85% of learners, but plummets to just 50% in LMICs, thanks to a widening digital divide and low digital literacy among teachers, among other reasons.

A survey conducted in India in April this year found that internet infrastructure in the country doesn’t adequately support online education. More than two-thirds of people use a mobile phone hotspot and only 15% use a broadband line at home; more than half of this 15% in turn had poor connectivity and over a third had signal issues. So the poor internet infrastructure is a major hurdle for online education in India to be effective.

Additionally, educators also lack basic information and communication tools as well as the skills to use them. In spite of our present time being, among other things, the Information Age, the government has neglected this area of skill development for a long time. Even where there are training opportunities and facilities available, they are limited largely to the privileged, further widening the access gap.

There has also been a lot of enthusiasm about online learning eventually and permanently replacing face-to-face learning. Many institutes have followed a hybrid learning system for a while and even others are bound to adopt it in future – but face-to-face learning is here to stay, from primary to higher levels of education. Recent studies have shown that the completion rate and student retention in massive online open courses (MOOCs) are both low, and that while they purport to be democratic, their implementation and practice leaves much to be desired. The virtual school experience hasn’t been very encouraging either. It remains that technology can’t entirely replace the fundamental component of education – teachers – but it can  help them.

With India’s GDP contracting by a historic 23.9%, together with a history of spending little on education, the government’s and the country’s road to educational recovery is not going to be easy. Added to this the increasing fiscal pressure on developed countries, which could further cut funds earmarked for education, as they often do in LMICs.

The global recession of 2008 showed that, at least in higher education, government funding in most economies remained at pre-recession levels. At the same time tuition fees increased, and institutes also closed campuses, limited library services, shut computer labs and cut salaries as well as jobs, all in an effort to cut costs. Then again, a recession is also an opportunity, like any crisis tends to be, for India to usher in governance and administrative reforms, improve internal and external efficiency and enhance access and equity. If governments don’t endeavour to achieve this, there are bound to be ‘lost generations’ of students, leading up to a downward spiral of social and economic statuses.

A survey of 93 teacher unions in 67 countries revealed that nearly two-thirds of teachers in private institutions were adversely affected by salary cuts, late payments, failure to renew contracts and payments by the hour. My aunt teaches in a small primary school in a town in Odisha; her salary is already preposterously low. Every Teachers Day, she is given a sari and feted – except this year, presumably because without fees, they don’t have the funds to conduct such events. There are many such stories across India’s states, and likely the world’s countries. We need to focus on the social and emotional welfare of teachers, guided by a national or at least a state-level blueprint.

Sambit Dash teaches in Melaka Manipal Medical College, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE), Manipal. He comments on public policy, healthcare, science and issues of social interest. He tweets at @sambit_dash.