Let us take a moment to reflect on this year's World Teachers' Day theme, "The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage". This shortage is not a new phenomenon. Most of us working in the education sector know this all too well.
The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG 4) expressly calls on countries to significantly increase teacher recruitment and training in order to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
This goal can be realised only by the efforts of qualified, well-supported, and empowered teachers, capable of providing inclusive quality education which speaks to the needs of each and every learner.
The Unesco Institute for Statistics (UIS) reported in 2016 that in order to achieve SDG 4 by 2030, upwards of 68 million teachers must be recruited globally. For the Asia and Pacific region, the Unesco Education Costing Model 2020 projected that for young learners globally to achieve one year free and compulsory pre-primary education by 2030 will require a total of 9.4 million newly certified teachers on the frontlines of classrooms.
In addition, to enhance the quality of early childhood care and education (ECCE) and achieve a pupil-teacher ratio in line with internationally recommended standards — 15 students per instructor — the number of newly minted teachers at this pre-primary school level would have to increase in Asia and the Pacific by over 11 million teachers.
Challenges facing workforce?
At present, the ECCE workforce in the Asia-Pacific region faces considerable concerns due to a lack of formal recognition, adequate quality training, fair compensation, and decent working conditions.
The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen in the long-term effects of heightened stress resulting from lockdowns and health fears which created a mental health crisis for young children, parents, and of course, teachers. During the prolonged global health crisis, a period stretching from early 2020 through the end of 2022, Unesco researchers estimated that approximately 70% of ECCE centres across Asia and the Pacific largely remained shuttered.
As a consequence of this, how many of those centres have reopened to date, and how many ECCE teachers and educators who had to leave their profession have returned to their former classrooms?
The 2019 Global Education Monitoring Report, had already, well prior to the pandemic's emergence, clearly documented that teachers often feel they lack professional support and consider themselves ill-prepared to teach in diverse, multilingual, and multicultural classrooms.
This is especially the case in the Asia-Pacific region, even if the attrition rate of pre-primary teachers varies greatly. As of 2020, for example, the teacher attrition rate was 12.49% in Lao PDR; 26.09% in the Cook Islands, and 7.61% in China.
Teacher stress and burnout have long been an ongoing challenge in education at all levels, let alone the pre-primary and early primary levels. If these stressors are not managed effectively, teachers' skills are negatively impacted, leading to job dissatisfaction and, ultimately, teachers falling away from the profession entirely, thereby unintentionally exacerbating the already short supply of skilled ECCE educators.
To address these challenges and ensure that teachers are retained in the field, as well as new ones recruited, there is a clear need for the provision of new tools for teachers' self-care, which, managed successfully, has the potential to translate into increased effectiveness in their work, and contributing to ensuring promising outcomes for young children.
Self-care is not simply about addressing or reducing professional stressors; in addition, it is about enhancing general health and well-being, and fostering long-term resilience.
In the end, self-care helps to facilitate teachers' ability to cope with the demands of the classroom, and maintain self-composure, patience, and compassion, as well as better serve as positive role models for young learners.
Leveraging psychosocial needs
There is a clear need for prioritising social and emotional learning in schools not only for the sake of learners, but just as important, for the sake of teachers themselves, so that in turn, they are able to support learners' psychosocial needs and create strong foundations for lifelong learning.
A key component of ECCE recovery, therefore, must be to substantively address the social-emotional needs of the workforce.
In agreement with the recently published Asia-Pacific ECCE Teacher Training Handbook for Social and Emotional Learning, mechanisms that help teachers manage and respond to their own emotions and integrate social and emotional learning into their teaching and learning environments can lead to the holistic development of their learners and the betterment of their own psychosocial well-being throughout their profession.
Reversing the current teacher shortage will take time, and whether we can do that by 2030 may be up for debate. But what we can do now is to genuinely recognise that educators' social and emotional competence and well-being are critical components of effective teaching. Valuing our educators and underscoring the importance of their psychosocial well-being are key to attracting and retaining teachers so that they stay in the profession to which they have passionately committed themselves. Maybe only then will we be able to have the teachers we need for the education we want.
Catherine Wilczek is Associate Project Officer in the Section for Inclusive Quality Education of the UNESCO Multisectoral Regional Office in Bangkok. The article marks World Teachers' Day on Oct 5 annually.