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Prioritize student wellness: Lessons in teaching, e-learning during COVID-19

With over a billion students out of school worldwide at the height of the coronavirus lockdown, innovative approaches in learning made sure that children didn’t stop learning in marginalized communities.

Teach For All is a global network where educators in over 50 countries tackle complex challenges facing children in disadvantaged communities with under-resourced schools.

Archana Iyer, based in Bangalore, India, is Director for Student Outcomes at Teach For All. The following is adapted from her remarks at LEARNTech Asia Virtual Conference 2020:  

Working with disadvantaged communities, we have persistent challenges including access to quality health care and food uncertainty. Those challenges are heightened because of the COVID-19 crisis. Students in Pakistan are unable to access quality health care where they were previously able to go to primary health care services being provided by the government. 

Students in India are having to choose to have one meal a day because their families are currently experiencing unemployment and do not have the resources.

We’ve seen a dramatic increase in domestic abuse and volatile home environments. Students are now experiencing deep anxiety about missing out on school and learning. 

Governments have marched forward with virtual learning, and teachers have been mandated to take the curriculum forward. In many households children are grappling with so many challenges that being present for learning experiences cannot be prioritized. 

Archana Iyer, Teach for All
Archana Iyer of Teach For All

Our students are seeing the news. We’re seeing a genuine fear of losing loved ones. They can see their parents and their loved ones having to go to work as essential workers, knowing full well the risks that their loved ones are putting themselves in. In some cases, our students are grappling with grief over the loss of loved ones in light of this COVID-19 crisis. 

When you see such complex adverse childhood experiences, what does that mean for the purpose of education? What is the role of teaching and learning in a context like this? What would it mean for us to be thinking about these challenges? 

Many of these challenges are not new. They’re persistent but so much more heightened given the COVID-19 context. And what does that make us think about student well-being and learning? 

We haven’t figured the answers to such big questions. But what we are hoping to do is to try and get to some of the lessons from what we’re seeing.

Well-being before e-learning in developing countries

In order for our students to grow as leaders, in order for them to learn, they need to feel safe and be cared for. 

When we look at this challenge from a trauma-sensitive lens, we can see that our learners’ brains are asking three questions: 

  • Am I safe?
  • Am I loved?
  • What am I learning from this? 

It is like Maslow’s hierarchy of our brain needs. When we think about the fact that our students are not feeling safe, or they don’t feel cared for — what that results in is a lack of learning.

In light of our current global movements, we can see that our students are constantly operating in a space that devalues their humanity. Whether it’s through racism, casteism, any other -ism that acts as a system of oppression. It impacts the brain and therefore inhibits learning.

And what that means for us as educators, is to engage more in deeper self-work, understand our own identities, unlearn what we have learned from dominant culture, and hold space for our students to pause, process, reflect, share, and grow.

Teach For Nepal on their commitment towards ensuring their student’s wellbeing and continued learning.

A great example of this is Bishwas Regmi, a teacher with Teach For Nepal who first quickly enabled access to Zoom for his students. The minute they went into lockdown, he intended on teaching science and math to his students via Zoom. But he realized that his students needed a space to emotionally express their stress and troubles. 

So they started maintaining a collective, lockdown diary. They would come together in virtual spaces where students share their concerns about their communities, their anxieties about exams that weren’t happening and what this teacher Bishwas realized was that these spaces were a foundation for his students to be able to come back in the sessions for science and math because they felt that they had been listened to. They felt that they’re being cared for.

Connectivity isn’t a given. Teacher commitment and creativity is.

In most of the contexts that our teachers are working, connectivity is not a given. But what is a given is teacher commitment and creativity. 

We’re seeing incredibly creative uses of messaging apps like WhatsApp to deliver asynchronous learning. We’re seeing teachers do conference calls between small groups of teachers and students. What is the difference, however, is the deep intention and purpose that they are operating with. They’re aware of their learners’ environment, the constraints that the students are experiencing, as well as the deep assets that the students’ homes have. 

A great example of this is Rabiah Chaudhury, a teacher with Teach For Pakistan. When schools closed, this primary school teacher in Islamabad did not have computers for her students, but most of her students had access to phones that came with free data connections and messaging apps.

Rabiah began to send videos and audio lessons over WhatsApp, and soon she realized her students were sending her pictures of finished assignments and voice notes to clarify their doubts. She says she didn’t anticipate how well students would adjust to learning from home.

What was a special bonus was these were all first-generation learners, so in many cases the parents were learning alongside the students. It also brought about a revolutionary kind of individualized attention and personalized learning that we previously only associated with very high tech classrooms.

Learning is a collective endeavor

We’ve all heard that in order to raise a child, it takes a village. 

Many times in our traditional schooling models, we typically rely only on the teacher and student dynamic within the classroom for teaching, learning and development. But this crisis has exposed how teachers, students, peers, parents, grandparents — in fact, everybody — needs to come together in order for our students to be supported in their learning.

We found that in so many households across our network, there’s one device for a family of six to seven. So when we as teachers are designing virtual learning, it’s not realistic to expect students to spend five hours in front of a computer or a phone. 

In many cases parents and students are learning together. What is important was for us to broaden our understanding of what really constitutes learning. Is it only reading, writing, math, and science? What about valuing the wisdom that resides with the families of our students? What does it mean to learn when you’re learning alongside your mother? How to cook or bake? How are you learning gardening with your grandfather during these times?

And what does that mean when we broaden our understanding of student learning beyond academic knowledge? Lastly what also about providing the space for parents to be vulnerable so we can strengthen this learning community as this is a crisis for all of us, including parents?

A great example of this is Asmae El Idrissi from Teach For Morocco. When school shut, Asmae began reaching out to her preschool children’s mothers saying, let them do lessons over WhatsApp and relay back to us what their children are doing. 

There was a lot of resistance to innovation because rural Moroccan traditions came in the way. Asmae worked with the local grocer to get the fathers to get mothers to access WhatsApp so that they could support their child’s learning.

You’re seeing here the trust that she built in the community and how the community came together in order for those preschool children to continue their learning, even during this pandemic. 

A post-COVID-19 world does not mean we relapse back into what we believed was previously considered to be normal.

Our current systems are broken in many ways. Quite often they were designed without being inclusive of those in the margins. COVID-19 has ripped off a Band-Aid and exposed a wound we all knew already existed.

What this can now help us do is to re-imagine teaching and learning alongside educators and students while keeping humanity and connection at the heart of this effort. 

For more resources of e-learning in developing countries, please refer to the Teaching Without Internet Alliance’s resources on How to Reach Students Without Internet

LEARNTech Asia
LEARNTech Asia showcases innovation in learning in Asia. We feature stories and resources in online learning, workplace learning, adult education, EdTech, and creative solutions by teachers and trainers in learning institutions, non-profits, and enterprises that enhance human capacity and inspire communities of lifelong learners.