Building teacher leadership to navigate the new normal in education
Being disconnected from school education since March 2020 has affected students in more ways than one. Although the learning gap is an inevitable outcome, its extent and nature remain unknown, while other skills such as collaborative and social-emotional skills are also bound to suffer. The nature and extent of discrepancies among students are unique to each community, with some commonalities across the region. Such a scenario demands teachers to design approaches based on individual student needs instead of applying generic or top-down solutions. Teachers need to act as leaders who can engage students, parents, the administration and other community members to co-create and implement community-rooted, learning-need-based solutions for equitable education.
In the wake of the pandemic, teachers took several initiatives to stay connected to their students and teach them. They took live classes on Facebook, created WhatsApp groups and phoned or texted students who did not have the internet. The pandemic suddenly gave them a license to innovate. However, many teachers have either been laid off with the prolonged school closure or face the risk of termination. Most teachers now feel demotivated and many have switched their field of work entirely. The initial momentum in initiatives and innovations got primarily disrupted by the inability of many teachers to cope with the new skill sets required to overcome the digital divide, stay connected and teach in the new normal. Empowering individual teachers to lead these unprecedented times can reinstil a sense of purpose into them and drive them to engage deeply within their schools' communities.
Leadership in teaching-learning
For starters, it is essential to equip the teachers with a repertoire of skills on blended learning approaches that have worked within and outside the country in similar contexts. The existing general ICT training for the primary and secondary government school teachers merely introduces them to some hardware and software, with little hands-on knowledge of integrating technology with pedagogy. Hence, a tech-phobia among many teachers prevents them from confidently taking the lead. Once they have the basic understanding of the blended pedagogy and can tango smoothly between tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches, they can create the recipes that best fit their case for equitable education. If given a clear understanding of the nuances of varying pedagogies—the science behind learning and learning in the new normal—teacher leaders can propose pedagogies of change as a response to specific students' contexts, needs and vulnerabilities, and engage relevant members of the community in the process.
Anyone can lead
We must promote a culture that believes anyone, whether in formal or informal roles, can practice leadership by actively driving change towards a shared purpose. Often, it is assumed that leadership will be exercised only by those in the role of formal leadership, typiﬁed by positions such as head teachers, teacher officers, principals and school leaders. However, if we shift away from this top-down, hierarchical model, we can promote the agency and capacity of others to lead. Teachers who are empowered by their principals and school communities to make decisions both autonomously and collaboratively, and are involved in decision-making, will practice leadership not only for the development of the students and the school but also the community. It is essential to trust teachers to make autonomous decisions and lead change fully. Mutual trust needs to be complemented with a safe environment that accepts failure, and redefines it as a learning opportunity.
In a study by McKinsey, it was said: "Human nature being what it is, risk aversion (even fear) will rule people's actions if they do not actually believe it is safe to fail." Teachers will not be motivated to work as agents of change without the option to fail. However, the opportunity cost for failure is relatively high in education as children's future is involved. So, it is also essential to cushion the students from any fallout and prioritise their well-being.
Reflection is more than mulling over one's decision; it is an analytical process with purpose at its core that begins with diagnosing the problem, defining and redefining it, designing and redesigning the solution, and evaluating the impact to make informed choices. When this is done with colleagues in a safe and constructive environment that promotes critical evaluation of one's work to unlock new learning opportunities, it is called collaborative reflection. Teachers can allocate short periods of time during the week when they work with each other and other community members, like parents and local education authorities, to understand the nature of the problem in their schools, co-create a solution, and distribute responsibilities—and then reconvene to evaluate the impact and re-design the solution for greater efficacy. The colossal nature of the challenges we face demands that we engage all the relevant stakeholders to drive change through distributed leadership and collaborative reflection.
Removing existing barriers
On regular days, teachers are swamped with administrative duties. In government schools, teachers have to enlist voters, map catchment areas, in addition to performing their regular work, which makes it challenging for them to take on new roles and initiatives. Remote learning has reduced many of these added tasks and given them a scope to be at the forefront of innovative change. In some government schools located in remote areas, the number of teachers is insufficient. This overburdens the existing teachers. For them to move beyond their traditional roles, they need to be given room and flexibility.
So recruiting sufficient and qualified teachers to ensure a 1:28 teacher-student ratio is paramount to enabling teachers to practice the art of leadership. There is limited scope for career progression in the teaching profession in the country. By opening the doors to promotion into Zila and Upazila teacher officer positions and tying it with teacher performance and their leadership skills, community-rooted leadership practices can lead to equitable education across the country.
Azwa Nayeem is the Chairperson of Alokito Teachers and Alokito Hridoy Foundation.