The role of the teacher in the age of crisis

Dr Saima Rana

This article is by Dr Saima Rana – Principal-CEO of GEMS World Academy, Dubai. She is also Chief Education Ambassador for the Varkey Foundation.

The teaching profession receives mixed reviews. Some societies revere teaching and see it as among the highest of professional callings. Others see it as a purely instrumental necessity, maybe even a necessary evil. And others still treat it with disdain, happy to dismiss teachers along the lines of ‘Those that can’t do, teach.’

What the Global Teaching Awards underlined for me this week is how marvelous and inspiring the teaching profession is. And as we live through these terribly difficult times, this is becoming clearer to nearly everyone. Steven Fry, introducing the awards, was surely right to foreground the context of the global pandemic that sets the terms for this year’s awards.

He called our times ‘heartbreaking’, and this is surely an apt summary of the tragedy that has befallen all of us. Yet, alongside courageous health care workers in hospitals and care homes for the elderly and other essential workers, teachers have been asked to step up and continue their invaluable work with all our children. The disaster has flushed out a hidden truth about the teachers: we need them and value them. They too are being acknowledged as essential workers.

Charles Dickens, ever alert to the intricacies of modern life’s heartbreaking periods, wrote of the time of the French Revolution as being ‘the best of times, the worst of times.’ French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre wrote about the Nazi occupation as a time when every correct decision was a decision rather than a habit.

What he meant was that in times of great trauma, anxiety and ‘heartbreak’, decisions about what to do can no longer come from unthinking conventional attitudes and doings, but rather have to be the result of thinking afresh about the situation being confronted.

In troubled times we are thrown away from what keeps us safe and coddled and forces us to confront the deepest of our commitments. Sartre puts it vividly: ‘Exile, captivity and especially death which is usually hidden in happy times, when they become the perpetual objects of our concern bring this new focus. We learn that they aren’t avoidable accidents, not even constant and exterior threats, but rather have to be seen as our lot, our destiny, the profound source of our human reality. It makes us realize the reality, in each banal second, of the equally banal phrase: ‘we are mortal.’

The pandemic has brought in its terrible wake some insights that have made us all ponder on what we really need and what we really value. And one thing that has been brought into focus has been the desire for our fellow humans to be compassionate, smart, innovative, brave, knowledgeable, fit, resilient, diligent, capable of communicating and listening, leading when required, following when that too is needed, cooperating with others as well as having a strong sense of purpose and self, citizens who with zeal and fortitude want to trust we can do it and make our futures work for generations to come.

And with these insights it’s been clear that all these values and aptitudes are what we hope our educators are aiming to achieve with their students, and so it has come to be that everyone can see the importance of education. And with that comes the realization that teachers are rightly conceived of as being key workers who need to be cherished and lauded.

In the teeth of this horrible unfolding pandemic threat the teachers have stepped up to push back against the impending disaster. Because the pandemic poison has crept into everything we do and think, we’ve had to reassess what the correct response really is.

What are our real commitments in the face of this? What are our priorities? And some things that seemed so serious have turned out to be little more than trivial in this situation, things we like rather than essential. With education everyone has said that educating our young people must continue, either in physical schools, colleges and universities wherever possible, and where not, in virtual versions of the same.

The pandemic has forced everyone to take a very long hard look at themselves and their values and make a decision about just what we think is worth keeping doing and education and teachers have been acknowledged as being existentially crucial.

Teachers have continued to work with their students despite the continual and imminent threat of Covid. They’ve had to work in conditions that have been extremely challenging with social distancing and wearing face masks making the communication between teacher and student much more difficult than before. And thinking of masks brings me to thinking about the face. The face, as everyone knows, is not just an ordinary object or body part.

The face has a special role in how we express ourselves as fellow humans. Philosophers talk about ‘subjectivity’ as being that sense of inner life that comes with consciousness and being a person, and the face plays a crucial part in this. French phenomenologist Emmanuel Levinas talks about the face as the special place where all our ethical commitments are formed. It’s a commitment he takes from the great Russian novelist Dostoevsky who writes: ‘We are all responsible for everyone, and everything, and I more than all others.’

By seeing another face looking back, or speaking, we are for Levinas immediately committed to caring for this other person, because for him the face of another commands this Dostoevskian responsibility.

Teachers work with the many faces of their students and are committed to taking up this responsibility. Perhaps before the pandemic we lost sight of this commitment and wrapped our views about teachers and teaching in the cooler language of professionalism and careerism.

But this crisis has brought us all back to seeing the teacher differently, as being people who are, like health workers, following a calling, and one founded on this command to take responsibility for other people. Ironically, in a time where we all are wearing masks, and where the face has become more difficult to see, Levinas’s thoughts about this ethical imperative have become more pertinent.

What is enthralling to see, as a teacher working alongside teachers, is how teachers have continued to work with their students to ensure they provide the nurturing succor that a challenging, great education can bring in all its varied dimensions. And what is also heart-warming and gratifying is how the wider society has begun to see how valuable the teacher is and how essential to our present and future wellbeing they are.

It’s a re-evaluation that strikes me as being less a restatement of something we already knew and more a matter to paraphrase Sartre, ‘… of a correct thought being a conquest defeating the venom of our days.’

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