Earlier this week, on 5 October, many countries and organizations around the world observed World Teachers’ Day (WTD). Proclaimed by UNESCO in 1994, WTD is an opportunity to celebrate the teaching profession, highlight the vital, yet often unseen, contributions made by teachers, promote awareness and understanding about the various challenges and issues related to teaching, and encourage the appreciation of and respect for teachers.
The initiative for WTD dates back to 5 October 1966, when UNESCO and the ILO adopted a special recommendation on the Status of Teachers. Importantly, the recommendation established international standards and guidelines related to skills development, employment, and working conditions. Furthermore, the recommendation was an important milestone since it represented the first time teachers’ rights and responsibilities were globally defined and asserted.
According to UNESCO, education is a fundamental human right and is essential for the exercise of all other human rights. Education also promotes individual freedom and empowerment, and is a critical factor for socio-economic growth and sustainable development. In this context, the importance of teachers is readily apparent. Through providing vital instruction and transmitting knowledge to children, adolescents, and young adults (among others), teachers are a means of implementing various national education goals and helping to promote the realization of fundamental human rights. Furthermore, teachers are vital in helping to achieve inclusive socio-economic growth and development. Essentially, without teachers, no socio-economic well-being can occur. Teachers are the change agents providing the impetus for the emergence of educated communities.
Teachers are also important because they help develop societies based on morals, values, and ethics, and they are an essential source of encouragement and support in the lives of students. Teachers are the people who educate the youth of society who in turn become the leaders and change-makers of the future. Additionally, as socialization agents, teachers set positive examples or models for students, and teachers are also often the ones with whom students have the most contact and engagement. Quite frequently, not even parents spend as much time with children or understand the capabilities of youth as well as teachers do. Moreover, teachers are the individuals who impart knowledge upon children during their most formative and impressionable years. Generally, what children learn from teachers will most likely stay with them in some facet for the rest of their lives.
In Eritrea, teachers have long played a significant and constructive role in society, making tremendous contributions and helping to initiate and lay the foundation for important positive changes. During the decades-long independence struggle, teachers were a vital part of a unique system of educational programs and institutions established within areas held by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF). Teachers, who were often wounded or disabled fighters, helped to extend education to other independence fighters and their children, orphans, refugees, and other groups traditionally excluded from opportunities to learn, including women, nomads, and the rural-based population. It is hard to overlook the dedication and commitment exhibited by teachers (as well as students and others), even under the greatest of challenges and obstacles. For example, while Ethiopian fighter jets circled menacingly high above, incessantly and indiscriminately bombing and terrorizing, “classrooms” (which were often just the shade under a tree) were simply shifted to caves and lessons continued.
Recently, UNESCO showcased data on literacy trends around the world as part of World Literacy Day. Figures for Eritrea illustrated that the country has experienced one of the “biggest increases in youth literacy [in the world] over the past 50 years.” Today, Eritrea’s youth literacy rates (ages 15- 24) are the highest in the region, and notably also higher than the continental or global average. Encouragingly, youth literacy rates are also considerably higher than those for adults, suggesting that the country’s efforts to strengthen the supply and quality of basic education programmes have largely been successful. Regarding adults, nearly a half-century ago, less one-fifth of adults were able to read and write, while approximately 95 percent of Eritrean women were illiterate (a figure which was only slightly improved by independence). However, today adult literacy is well above 80 percent, and female literacy has greatly improved. Similarly, national enrolments rates have also improved dramatically. Recently released figures show that there are approximately 750,000 students enrolled in schools throughout the country, a massive increase when compared to independence (e.g. 247,567 students in 1992) or several decades ago (e.g. in 1961 there were approximately 50,000 students enrolled).
Not only are these advancements a testament of the national prioritization of and considerable investment in education – government expenditure on education is between 8-10 percent of the national budget – they are also reflective of the fundamental importance of teachers. Simply, none of these dramatic and positive changes would have been possible without the integral role played by teachers. Schools can be built, but teachers are needed to staff them. Educational resources may be provided, but teachers are the ones who will provide students with the requisite skills and tools to effectively and appropriately utilize them. National curricula, educational policies, and literacy goals may be established, but teachers are the ones to implement them and put them into practice.
Ultimately, teachers in Eritrea have played a positive role in imparting knowledge, supporting the realization of fundamental human rights, helping ensure inclusive and equitable education, and promoting learning opportunities for all. Moving forward, Eritrea should continue to invest in education across all levels, while also extending support to teachers. Supporting and investing in teachers will underscore a commitment to teachers, serve as recognition of their great efforts, and will also help to strengthen and augment much of the educational progress already made. The following are several ways that teachers may be supported.
First, teachers may be supported through expanding their access to teaching and educational resources or materials. For teachers, resources and materials serve as a key mechanism to assist and support student learning. These materials play a large role in making knowledge accessible to students and can encourage a student to engage with knowledge in different ways. When teachers have access to more resources and materials they can be more effective and students will often benefit. For example, since different students may have different learning needs and capacities, teachers with access to resources and materials may be better able to differentiate and tailor lessons or instructions to more effectively reach the varied learning styles within the classroom. Moreover, resources and aids frequently help to invigorate and energize both students and teachers since they present information in a new, exciting way or offer a fresh alternative to established patterns and routines.
Additionally, it is vital that there is continued investment and focus on teacher development and professionalization. Quite simply, good teachers are essential for good education. A high quality teacher is one who understands and demonstrates ability to address the content, character, challenges, and complications of being a teacher. Every child deserves a caring, competent, and qualified teacher, and research has shown that the quality of teaching is one of the most important school-related factors in ensuring students’ achievement (Adedeji 1998; Greenwalls 1996; Lewin 2004). For example, in Finland and Singapore, competitive salaries, a respected profession and coherent government recruitment, development, and training policy combine to produce and retain quality teachers and successful students (Darling-Hammond 2012). Encouragingly, Eritrea is taking steps to improve the quality of teachers through investment in teacher development and professionalization. Recently, it has established partnerships with various international organizations, institutions, and governments in order to improve pedagogical practices and curricula. Moreover, it has expanded teacher training and development programs (e.g. both at the Asmara Community College and the Eritrean Institute of Technology). These are positive initiatives and should be expanded since they will enhance the quality and capacity of Eritrea’s teachers and will help improve the quality of education throughout the country.
Prior to moving back to Eritrea, I had very little experience or understanding of botany. The only shovels I had held were in the winter to clear the accumulated snow from sidewalks and driveways. However, after having joined the Green Club at the College of Arts and Social Sciences (CASS), I began to regularly plant trees, water plants, and learned a great deal. Some basic lessons include that in order for a tree to grow, it requires a combination of factors including proper soil, adequate sunlight, enough water, and close attention. Interestingly, this serves as a mirror for a child’s success in school, which is also often based on a combination of school, home, and community-related factors. Accordingly, teachers should be supported through greater community and parental involvement. For example, parents should be in regular communication with teachers, while also monitoring, guiding, and supporting children’s learning at home. Additionally, parents and the community can become involved through the creation and active participation of local school boards. Ultimately, the success and progress of children is not solely due to the teacher, but the result of a collaborative approach involving the close coordination of the family, community, teacher, and educational institution.