World Teachers’ Day, observed annually in October, is designed to focus on “assessing, evaluating and improving the status of teachers around the world.” This year, it arrived amid the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which for more than a year has caused a shift in teachers’ roles and changed the nature of the profession.
With schools closed and forced to suddenly pivot to online education, teachers have found themselves in unconventional learning environments that require new appropriate teaching methods and tools. (See a related article, “Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?”)
Education experts, policy makers and teachers’ advocates are still assessing the impact of those changes and what needs to be done to support teachers and improve education.
According to Sobhi Tawil, director of the Future of Learning and Innovation Team at Unesco, the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges related to providing equal access to education and affected learning quality, yet it forced everyone to adapt and create.
“Teachers were the ones who led this work,” Tawil said. “Then we came back and discovered the central role teachers play in the educational process and society in general.” (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
Despite calls for teachers’ appreciation and improving their financial income, their situation in a number of Arab countries remains unsatisfactory, with frequent complaints about poor salaries, living conditions, and capabilities.
“The situation for teachers is very difficult. It is rare to find schools with financial support. A teacher’s salary does not exceed $125, which is not enough to meet one’s basic living needs.”Ahlam Rashid
An Arabic teacher in the Atma refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border
The picture is gloomier in countries experiencing armed conflicts, such as Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Thousands of schools have been bombed and destroyed, and there are not enough classrooms to accommodate students. (See a related article, “Middle East Suffers Largest Share of Attacks on Higher Education.”)
“Our attempts to teach online were unsuccessful, because of the poor Internet connection, lack of mobile phones, computers, and little financial capabilities,” said Ahlam Rashid, an Arabic teacher in the Atma refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border. “This led children to drop out of school.”
The situation for teachers is very difficult, she added. “It is rare to find schools with financial support. A teacher’s salary does not exceed $125, which is not enough to meet one’s basic living needs.”
According to Rashid, most teachers receive low wages and some work for free. “We organized a voluntary humanitarian campaign to collect donations to provide teachers’ salaries, to guarantee the continuation of educational services offered at schools of refugee children,” she said.
Even in more stable countries, teachers’ pay is low. In the 2018 Global Teacher Status Index, a survey by the U.K.-based Varkey Foundation of public attitudes toward teachers in 35 countries, Egypt ranked last or near the bottom on measures of what the respondents considered fair pay for teachers and what people thought teachers were paid, compared to what teachers actually were paid. (Egypt was the only Arab country among the 35 nations represented in the survey.)
Technology Is Not an Alternative
Amid questions regarding the role of technology in education, and whether it is a substitute for teachers or a mere helping tool, education experts believe in the importance of teachers’ role and the need to develop the teaching profession.
“Teachers’ role cannot be replaced by technology. Now, we have a deeper and better understanding of the vital role of school teachers.”Malak Zaalouk
Director of the Middle East Institute of Higher Education at the American University in Cairo
“Teachers’ role cannot be replaced by technology,” said Malak Zaalouk, director of the Middle East Institute of Higher Education at the American University in Cairo. “Now, we have a deeper and better understanding of the vital role of school teachers.” (See a related article, “Solutions from the Inside Out: Developing Egyptian Teachers as Researchers.”)
The problems that surfaced with teaching online during the Covid-19 pandemic increased Zaalouk’s conviction that education cannot happen with computers alone, and that teachers must be there. “It is not enough for you to know how to run a computer to become a teacher,” she said. “A teacher needs educational training on how to transmit knowledge.”
In turn, Hilmi Hamdan, an educational expert and trainer at the General Union of Palestinian Teachers, sees a need to raise the quality of education to enable students to become creative and innovative. “This can only be achieved by developing teachers’ professional skills and improving their social status,” he said.
“They are the tools we use to serve education,” he said.
On the other hand, Amera Mahmoud Alrawi, a professor of microbiology at the University of Mosul, believes that technology serves professors better than students, especially students of applied and practical sciences. “I think there is no harm in online education for humanities,” she said, “but it will not be as efficient as in-person education in the case of students of scientific and medical colleges.”
A Teacher Shortage
According to a UNESCO study, the Arab region is one of the hardest hit in terms of a projected shortage of primary school teachers. By 2030, the region will face an explosion in its school-age population with 9.5 million additional students.
To meet this challenge, many countries in the region have increased recruitment over the last decade. To achieve universal primary education, the region will have to create an additional 500,000 teachers’ posts by 2030 and replace the 1.4 million teachers who will have left the profession.
“Recruiting teachers is not easy. There is a global decline in enrollment in teacher-training programs,” which is causing concern “not only in Arab countries but around the world.‘‘Mostafa Abdel-Fattah
A professor at Sohag University’s Faculty of Education
“Recruiting teachers is not easy,” said Mostafa Abdel-Fattah, a professor at Sohag University’s Faculty of Education, in Upper Egypt. “There is a global decline in enrollment in teacher-training programs,” he added, which is causing concern “not only in Arab countries but around the world.”
Abdel-Fattah believes that the labor market and economic competition have led to a scarcity of talented teachers, and a dwindling number of people choosing to become educators.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Potential solutions to recruit more teachers, he said, include providing attractive salaries and benefits, to attract young people to the teaching profession. Other steps include improving conditions in schools, such as ensuring reasonable uncrowded classrooms, which constitutes another obstacle facing teachers.