We need to value teachers more | Sandro Caruana

COVID-19 has forced us to appreciate the importance of the teaching profession. But former Faculty of Education dean Prof. SANDRO CARUANA argues that teachers remain sadly undervalued in Malta

Prof. Sandro Caruana
Prof. Sandro Caruana

At the end of March, government announced that schools will remain closed until the end of June – suggesting that (all other things remaining equal) they will re-open as usual next September. Do you agree with this as a tentative target? Is it realistic to expect a return to normality in just four months?

Schools will need to adapt to a new normal, like everything else; but I would think that September is a realistic target towards which projections and plans should be directed – although any reopening ultimately depends on the direction given by Public Health officials.

Obviously, the measures and precautions that ought to be taken must, first and foremost, be geared towards safeguarding the health of all students and educators. And there should first be a campaign to inform the general public, especially students, educators and parents.

These include physical measures (for instance, availability of hand-sanitizers at entry points to schools and classrooms; ensuring that all sanitary facilities are constantly kept clean; placing desks apart in classrooms, etc.), measures which involve personnel (young children would need constant assistance to make sure that they wash their hands regularly; supervision is needed during breaks to avoid having students assembling in large groups, etc.) and others which regard school management in general.

If, for example, classes are to be divided into smaller groups, this would impact time-tables and teacher recruitment. Different break-times, so as to avoid having overcrowding in outdoor spaces, require time-tabling arrangements; while possible re-organisation of school days requires liaising with teachers, unions, parents, companies that provide transport, and so on.

This means that there is much planning that needs to be done, and the involvement of stakeholders from all sectors is crucial. Furthermore, as already being seen in some European countries, when schools reopen they ought to be monitored closely and constantly to detect any possible outbreaks as soon as possible.

May I add that September is also the ‘target’ month for MATSEC exams, so preparations need to be made for this too.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced radical changes on the educational sector: including the introduction of e-learning. Given that the technological tools for this transition were all already in place... was this a case of schools having been caught unprepared for the crisis? Shouldn’t we have been adapting to new technologies anyway, regardless of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The technological tools were in place in some contexts, but less so in others. The Church school sector, to my knowledge, was still in the process of upgrading hardware, and was in discussions with the Ministry when schools were forced to close in March.

So whether schools were unprepared, and to what extent, is debatable and varies greatly. Ultimately, however, technology is a tool that may be used by teachers, just like so many other pedagogical tools. The effective use of technological tools can contribute to learning, even in normal circumstances.

But, ultimately, teachers are kingpins – that is why, as a country, we need to invest much more in this profession, give teachers the trust and respect they deserve and provide them with opportunities for continuing professional development, with adequate incentives.

In fact, at a recent conference you argued that, while teachers generally ‘rose to the occasion’, there is still need for more investment in human resources in education (as opposed to structural investment). Was this comment specifically about the situation now, or do you feel that the teaching profession remains undervalued generally?

We need to appreciate teachers’ work much more. It is enough to read comments on the social media and in the press, whenever there are issues regarding education, to realise that the general public has a very limited knowledge of the importance of this profession.

Maybe today, as a side-effect of this pandemic, we are all realising how important teachers are in our society, and how much children miss their schools, their teachers and other educators.

So unfortunately, yes, the teaching profession is undervalued. And maybe some do not realise that this has serious long-term consequences that could affect all sectors, including the economy.

May I add that it is not only important to value teachers, but also to understand the importance of quality education that caters for the needs of groups of different socio-economic backgrounds.

Unless you form, maintain and strengthen a robust teaching profession, aware of both the theoretical and practical components of education, this will just remain an illusion.

Apart from salary/working conditions, what sort of investment, specifically, do you feel is lacking locally?

First of all, I must stress that adequate salaries and good working conditions – and ensuring that these match the responsibility teaching entails – are important. Many teachers today, as also evidenced in some local studies, find it hard to cope because they are stressed, and because they feel that they are not given the respect they deserve.

Often, to put it plainly, they are not treated as professionals. While they are consulted from time to time, the feeling persists that they are then expected to implement reforms which they do not own. Many complain of reform-fatigue. And I wish to be clear that this is a problem which is deeply-rooted, and which goes back many, many years in our country, but which we still have not managed to resolve.

I have been involved in teacher education for over 20 years now. Our students are passionate and enthusiastic, and they aspire to do what they know how to do best – teach! Once they graduate from the Faculty of Education they are competent enough to prepare lessons, to assess their learners and to carry out all duties related to the profession.

So while it is correct to have ongoing professional development, it is sad that teachers express frustration when there is excessive red-tape and, especially, too much paperwork. This distracts them from what the profession is mainly about, namely engaging directly with learners.

You pointed out how the successful adaptation to the crisis also came about thanks to private initiatives by many individual teachers. Do you feel that teachers were given enough support to undergo this transition? Or was it case of having to make the most of limited resources?

While I am sure that schools provided support, I think that many teachers are performing miracles. Keep in mind that they had to switch completely to distance methods of teaching, in a matter of days.

Although I believe that a number of them resorted to learning management systems and to repositories of lesson plans and resources, ultimately it was up to them to keep their learners engaged, despite not having physical contact with them; to help them organise their work and sometimes even to resolve technical difficulties.

Maybe most importantly of all, in today’s circumstances, they often also had to support several learners emotionally. This pandemic has affected the mental health of many, as we know, and obviously children were not spared. And teachers, who had to face their own problems and keep up their commitments, had to deal with this too. I am aware of cases where they did so admirably, without feeling the need to trumpet this on social media...

Coming back to e-learning: at the same conference you said that – unless ‘blended’ – it has its limitations. Could you expand on those limitations…

Research on the benefits of e-learning is obviously far from conclusive, although there are findings that indicate that it may work best, in normal circumstances, when one alternates online learning with “real-life” classrooms.

My background is language learning; and in this field, direct interaction is essential for one to improve – hence ‘blending’ input from technological means with direct personal encounters.

I understand, of course, that the pandemic impedes such encounters. But, then again, e-learning can take on different shapes and forms, and it also depends on the target groups.

For example, with older learners a teacher might resort to placing a short video clip online and then expect feedback which can also be delivered in writing – in a similar fashion to a social media chat. This is also a way to ensure and encourage the participation of all, and the interventions can be monitored better by the teacher, thereby understanding the active engagement of each student.

With younger learners, however, this is harder – they need to move around, and cannot be expected to follow a full school day by sitting down in front of a computer screen. With them, parental involvement is key.

The reliance on digital technology for education may also be creating an educational divide, with students from poorer households without access to the same technology as others…

This is a huge concern for teachers. Over the past weeks I think every teacher, and student-teacher, with whom I interacted mentioned this.

The digital divide is a major issue, and in poorer countries it is obviously even worse than it is here. But this is not a matter that can be resolved in the middle of a pandemic, as it involves major long-term planning.

It also requires the involvement of the community – so this again brings to the fore the fact that we must understand that schools do not function in isolation, and therefore the need to fully respect the role of teachers and school management teams.

You were also very critical of the omission of teachers/parents from an education ‘think-tank’ launched by the Education Ministry last week. Why do you think the government failed to consult the main stakeholders when planning for future education in Malta?

I think that my criticism was justified because the ministry itself, within days, included other stakeholders within this think-tank. We should learn from experience that educators will not own such initiatives, and the reforms they may possibly envisage, unless they are part of them.

The positive experiences of a journey are found by participating in the journey itself, and not only by meeting at a destination determined by others.

Furthermore, till today, I believe that the remit of this think-tank is unclear, and so is what it sets out to do. Maybe the Ministry will clarify this in due course, although now it seems that it will be looking more at long-term solutions.

If this is the case it might consider having a look at the contribution of the Faculty of Education on teacher education and teacher competences to a working group appointed some years ago by the Ministry itself, in order to evaluate the Teaching Profession.

This included a number of stakeholders who also formulated a number of recommendations in 2018, while discussions regarding the new Education Act were ongoing.