No Country for Children

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Teachers are facing a compelling crisis stemming from the continuous closure of schools and problems arising in conducting classes online, Divajini Ratnayake, an English teacher at a leading National school in Kurunegala said.

She told Ceylon Today, the crisis has complicated education more than ever, where virtual education does not work properly in some contexts.

“Presently, remote internet based or online education is limited to nearly 45 per cent of students in our classrooms. There is a wide variation of internet connectivity and affordability. Most parents cannot afford to buy technical devices for children. Not only they, sometimes, even we cannot afford to buy these devices. With the current economic crisis we have to give priority to survival rather than to education. So, we find it difficult to connect with students via virtual platforms,” she said.

Ratnayake also said, virtual learning will be different from age to age and it is the responsibility of teachers to find the most suitable teaching method for each age group.

“Sometimes we cannot see all the children in the virtual classroom. I teach English in both junior and A/L sections. Therefore, I can see how different the situation is. I believe teachers must be creative in finding various teaching methods. Overall, I am not happy with the concept of virtual education,” Ratnayake added. She said these situations have created significant learning losses.

Reopening schools

“We cannot think of the immediate reopening of schools. Definitely, teachers will face the problem of covering the syllabus. And the hasty completion of the syllabus may cause backward children to give up on education. They will not be benefitted either from online learning or physical learning. As teachers we feel helpless as what we can do is very limited. As a teacher, I urge the Ministry of Education to think from the teacher’s perspective and take steps to uplift teaching as a profession,” Ratnayake further said.

Meanwhile, Toshanthi Jayasundara, a young teacher who teaches French in a popular school in Kurunegala said, a problematic situation had arisen in covering subjects with a wide syllabus.

“During this time it is difficult to cover the syllabus of subjects with a wide syllabus. As a foreign language teacher, sometimes it is difficult to work online. Children’s participation and attention is relatively low. Teachers too, face day-to-day issues that have cropped up. Sometimes we are compelled to wait in fuel queues for days and days. Due to power cuts, it is often difficult to teach online. As power cuts occur according to different schedules in different areas, it is not even possible to allocate a convenient time for online classes,” she said.

 Apart from that, attention should be paid to the mental state of teachers these days, as they are going through severe stress. “Working from home is different to teaching in school. Sometimes we cannot give 100 per cent of our attention to work. We have to teach while engaging in housework. I think it has a huge impact on our professional life. Another problem is the mental state of teachers. We have to teach while facing a crisis. Perhaps personal problems have increased with this crisis,” Jayasundera added.

She said, no matter what these problems are, their ultimate hope is to provide quality education to students.

Rural schools face insurmountable difficulties

In addition, Ceylon Today learns that the situation in rural areas is vastly different to that of urban schools.

Padmini Kumari, a teacher in a rural school in the Kurunegala District said, teachers in rural areas face insurmountable difficulties due to the prevailing crisis.

“Since the last Covid-19 period, we have been trying to provide online education to our children, but compared to urban areas, we have been facing difficulties on all sides. Teachers of some popular schools in Kurunegala have been provided with the required devices by parents of students in these schools. But, that does not happen in schools at this end because of low income levels and the lack of education among parents. Also, there are connectivity problems in our areas. All this has prevented teachers from teaching online,” Kumari said.

She also highlighted that the authorities must take steps to make teachers comfortable in their profession.

“In some cases, no matter what the crisis is, higher education officers put us under pressure in some instances like covering the syllabus. Teachers are also responsible for preparing children for examinations. Then pressure is also on teachers. Perhaps we have to deal with parents who come from different social backgrounds, mostly from lower educational backgrounds than parents from urban schools. Then the support they give is far less. We have to take on almost all the responsibility. Under the prevailing conditions, teachers struggle with everyday problems but, we do our best to provide a good education to the children,” she added.

Teaching issues

We contacted, former Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dr. Tara De Mel to get an insight into issues related to virtual education and covering the syllabus.

Speaking to Ceylon Today Dr. De Mel spelt out the major problems that teachers face during this period of crisis, “Actually teachers face the same type of problems that students face. Our teachers who serve in 10,170 schools in all parts of the country have many issues. They too, faced transport issues due to fuel unavailability, they too had to face massive cost of living related matters, food scarcity and lack of health care facilities. They too, are victims just like all of us. More relevant and disturbing during these troubled times is when teachers are asked to conduct online lessons to students who are forced to stay at home.  Some teachers can’t afford suitable devices and some have to buy data packages with their own meagre salary. And we know that teachers are one of the lowest paid categories amongst the entire public sector. We saw what teachers went through during the pandemic-induced school closures and how difficult it was for teachers to conduct remote lessons,” she said.

She also said, today, with one blanket ruling given by the Ministry, all schools (Provincial and National) have closed again, therefore, a large number of schools situated in very rural parts of the country where teachers usually walk to school, are asked to shut due to the fuel and transport crisis.

Classroom teaching

“Moreover, Provincial schools are governed by Provincial and Zonal Education Directors. And the latter are empowered to make decisions on school opening and closing based on each locality. Yet, they don’t wish to undermine the Ministry directives. The net result is that students lose out on education once again. And teachers aren’t able to teach inside classrooms,” she added.

 In addition, Dr. De Mel said that it is not necessary to cover the whole syllabus. “This mad rush to ‘cover syllabuses’ has led to chaos on all fronts, as we saw during the pandemic. Teachers have to race through lessons at terrific speed, often forgetting that children are expected to learn, and not cram facts only to reproduce these at examinations. The existing rigid structures prevent teachers from examining ‘learning outcomes’ of students and prevent them from diagnosing what learning they lost during school closures. The NIE has prescribed large numbers of learning out comes, but teachers on their own can innovate and design their own diagnostics to identify learning outcomes. Teachers need to be educated, equipped and empowered to manage learning on all fronts. In my opinion teachers are more than capable and have the capacity to do so. 

The current multiple challenges we are facing don’t provide a conducive environment for national examinations. At least until mid-2023, these examinations should be put on hold. How can teachers teach, and how can students learn with the peace of mind in this crisis, let alone preparing for important examinations which anyway generate so much stress and anxiety, “Dr. De Mel further said.

Alternate education

Former Education Secretary explained the role of a teacher during this period of crisis and the alternative education methods that can be used in these conditions.

 “Methods of alternate education have been tried and tested by different groups during the pandemic. Today, there’s a volume of literature published on pandemic-education using illustrations and research studies done in several countries. UNESCO, UNICEF and the World Bank have taken a lead role in disseminating valuable information on the merits and demerits of remote learning, home schooling and other alternate methods. In fact, there’s plan to launch an all-country treaty led by the Worldwide Commission to Educate All Kids (Post Pandemic) to never close schools again, unless due to a calamity resulting from natural disasters and serious climate-related tragedies. These initiatives are coming in the wake of substantial research showing  the perils of long-term school closure and the damage such closure causes to the growing, formative  minds of young children. Teachers face similar challenges and they too, need to return to the classroom soon, and do what they do best,” she further said.

It is surprising and sad that even though the Government has decided to release fuel for essential services, educational services are not given priority as an essential service and we are left in the lurch. Teachers have to wait for days to get a fuel token. Some teachers complain that the number of tokens issued to teachers is relatively lower than the number issued to other services. Under these circumstances, it could be clearly observed the  Government’s priority for education in Sri Lanka.

Is it surprising that teachers face such problems in a country where education is not considered an essential service?

 BY Sahan Tennekoon