Our Hero Teachers: The many challenges of overcoming COVID19

Our Hero Teachers: The many challenges of overcoming COVID19

Chameera Laknath
02 December 2020

Atop a steep and winding road in the chilly, hilly District of Nuwara Eliya of Sri Lanka’s Central Province, sits Our Lady's Upper School, a  Catholic middle school that is home to more than 700 boys and girls of all religions, ethnicities and social backgrounds. At the helm are a group of innovative and hardworking educators that made many sacrifices to ensure that their students could continue to develop and flourish during and after the COVID19 lockdown.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, curfews were enforced and remote learning became the only option. This came with many challenges that were not easy to overcome. Structural impediments to remote learning could only be overcome through creativity and hard work.

Mr. Shashi Jayasingha, a History teacher, points out that

“Internet coverage is a big problem in some areas. Some people in this area don’t have smartphones or computers and may not know how to download an app. Even some of our colleagues were not familiar with some of the technology. We informed parents and other teachers about the new website and how it will function through online videos shared through whatsapp. It took a lot of effort and individual outreach to help teachers, parents and students understand and use the technology. It also took a lot of trust building to convince parents to let students frequently use smartphones for their studies since smartphones are usually not allowed in school and in many homes. We had to take on this responsibility”.

Mrs. Thatchayani, an English teacher at the school, lives at home with her husband, her 6 year old son and her sister-in-law’s family which includes two children as well. She talks about how it was not easy to adjust to these new teaching methods and observes that it required an open mind and a lot of extra hard work.

“I had to work really hard on creating online videos. I had to make sure that each video was short enough and clear enough for students to understand. I had to wait till my household went to sleep at night before starting to record and upload my videos. We also had to think about the time and quality of the clips which meant that I had to script every video to make sure the delivery was smooth and effective”, she says.

Mr. Shashi concurs when he says “Even if we knew the technology it was challenging to create videos. We had to wait till we finished our household chores or till everyone would go to sleep”.

This was not all. Due to the reduced interactivity associated with remote learning, extra efforts had to be made to help students understand new concepts and lessons.

“We had to create videos, upload videos, make pdf worksheets and even create additional voiceovers to accompany the pdfs and explain concepts. We also had to translate everything that we were reading or teaching into Sinhala and Tamil because not all students are proficient in English. In class, it was easy to talk to students and help them understand. Online posed a challenge in this regard so we often had to provide full translations in all three languages” notes Mrs. Thatchayani.

She also points out that her role was not restricted to that of a teacher alone. She was also a parent and a daughter. “I also had to look after my own kids and my family”, she says. “Their teachers sent them work too so we also had to help them and keep them occupied. Making the children study at home was not easy.”

Even when school restarted, these hero teachers stepped up to the plate. They took extra steps to ensure that no child was left behind.

“When school was slowly phased back in, starting with Grades 10 and 11 (ages 14-16), Father Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo Rev.  also held special remedial lessons for students we had identified as lagging behind. We worked with them individually to help them catch up on work before the rest of their classmates formally returned to school”

Mr. Shashi.
Close relationships between teachers and students help overcome many COVID-19 challenges
Chameera Laknath
Close relationships between teachers and students help overcome many COVID-19 challenges

Mr. Shashi also says, “For my Grade 6 students, who were doing History for the first time, this was a really important year. Many will never take the subject again if they are not given a proper introduction. I didn’t want anyone to miss out.  If we noticed that anyone was struggling we would send voice notes to class groups and parents on whatsapp”.

Uthmini, an O-level student says,

“We should really thank our teachers. Some students might have been scared to ask questions on the whatsapp group. In these cases teachers would reach out to us individually”.

These teachers also realized that they had to look after the general well-being of their students.

“When school first re-started, we didn’t focus on work very much. For the first couple of days we spoke to them about how things were at home and how they felt. This was important to make sure that children were adjusting to the new normal”, .

Mr. Shashi
Teachers provide academic support, emotional support and mentorship during challenging times
Chameera Laknath
Teachers provide academic support, emotional support and mentorship during challenging times

Re-starting school also meant that these teachers had to shoulder the responsibility of allaying parental fears of a return to school, breaking up class sizes (which was not popular with students) and ensuring that new safety guidelines were in effect. 

Mrs. Thatchayani notes that “For the most part everyone follows the guidelines. But we still have to be vigilant and always remind students to stick to the new rules. That is our responsibility”.

School Principal Rector Rev. Fr.M. Shiwantha Rodrigo is effusive in praise of these heroic teachers. “One thing I must say is that I have the perfect staff. Any request and they get it to work. Without them we could get nothing done. They are the real heroes.”

Speaking to these teachers it is abundantly clear how much they care for their work and their children. Although smiles may be covered by masks, it is abundantly clear that these children are so happy to be back at school. 

“When I ask students whether they prefer school or working online from home, everyone says they prefer school” Mr. Shashi says with a smile. “That’s because they miss their friends and their teachers. For many of these children, school is their favorite place in the whole world.”

Ramuditha, an O-level student, speaks for his peers when he says “We really have to thank our teachers for all their hard work. Without them, we would have not been able to manage through this difficult period.”

With hero teachers like this, it is easy to see why students and parents are so thankful.

UNICEF supports communities nationwide to deal with the pandemic. Interventions in education have focused on identifying and assisting underserved students and families who face particular challenges when it comes to distance learning. To address these needs, UNICEF has provided curricular content for blended learning,  carried out competency-assessments to identify and address learning gaps, and rolled out an awareness campaign at all levels to promote knowledge of IPC guidelines and instil confidence in a safe return to school.

The teachers of Our Lady’s Upper School, Nuwara Eliya District, Central Province, Sri Lanka
Chameera Laknath
The teachers of Our Lady’s Upper School, Nuwara Eliya District, Central Province, Sri Lanka