Interview: Focusing on teachers in uncertain times

Like so many organizations, Step by Step Albania has encountered an unprecedented situation after the lockdown due to COVID-19 outbreak was announced. Focused on the professional development of teachers, the organisation reaches more than 4 000 educational practitioners with its training and ECEC resources. 

To respond to the current crisis, director Gerda Sula explains how they have supported practicioners in a holistic way: from technical issues such as migration to an online learning setting to emotional and social aspects, such as coping with stress and anxiety in uncertain times. With schools being reopened, a new phase is about to begin. Gerda is sure it will bring many positive lessons, for instance, the ones that lead towards more blended education system in Albania. 

Gerda, what is the current situation of the ECEC services in Albania? 

Schools restarted in Albania at the beginning of June. However, the ECEC community is worried about the measures that will be implemented. Children are requested to maintain social distance from their peers and follow strict rules of movement within the school. In Early Years setting this is simply not possible. We know that playing with the same toys, exchanging experiences, touching each other play an essential role in the development of the young child. Observing these rules in not only not realistic, but we also believe that it might hurt children psychologically. For them it is very difficult to make a good distinction between physical distance for health reasons and their friend being the enemy - the suspicious one who might have the virus. This can really hurt the children’s social development. During the early years, a child is still in the operational state in which things around her or him have to be visible in order to make sense. We are lobbying for the Ministry of Education to revisit this protocol because we find it logistically unrealistic and harmful for children. The only exception to this rule are the creches and kindergartens which have been open already because they are seen as social service to support parents in their daily work. Also, high schools are already open for a very short time so that teenagers can do their final exams. 

What solution does your organisation propose in order to accomplish this new phase in a better way?

We have very few coronavirus cases and parents are starting to go to their workplaces. However, since schools remain closed, they try to find informal care for their children like neighbours and relatives. This sort of parking solution doesn’t benefit the child and shouldn’t last longer. Thus, in order to restart the school facilities in a good way, we believe that it would be better to relax the unrealistic measures and be creative. Summer temperatures are already here, so teaching can be done outdoors, bringing the class furniture outside as well, and remaining flexible as weeks go by. This can be a great opportunity to practice learning through play, allowing kids to enjoy each other, lessening the pressure on the scolarisation of the youngest children – a phenomenon which is very present in our country. It focuses on pre-reading and pre-writing skills at kindergarten level instead of learning what they are supposed to in a fun and engaging way. We hope this new situation will bring more attention to this. 

How are practitioners dealing with this changing situation?

All teachers understand the need to reopen for the economic activity to continue, and they feel much more supported by parents and society in general. Thanks to the lockdown, parents are appreciating much more the work of the Early Years Education teachers than before. They used to think it was mainly about taking care of their children and now they have realized that it is much more and that playing means learning, that social and cognitive skills develop this way. Having said this, teachers have experienced a lot of stress due to the need to quickly migrate online, with no support at the national level. The first case was diagnosed on March 9th, and that same day the country went on the total lockdown. There had been no time to prepare, and theachers hadn’t acquired skills to work online. They had to start with what they had. For example, WhatsApp groups that they already used with parents before, became the essential communication tool for them. 

How has Step by Step Albania supported teachers and which actions have you implemented during the lockdown? 

We provided webinars on how to use different online modalities such as Zoom and Google Classroom. Via our social networks, we sent activities that could be shared with parents at home, giving continuity to the holistic development of the child on which the school setting was based. At the beginning, there was a huge resistance to online teaching and now teachers have embraced it in a very positive way. At the same time, we have been working with the national radio stations so that they include more programs for kindergarten education. This was possible via the channel that they already had that is dedicated to compulsory education’s home learning. We also had a great help from young volunteers whom we have trained to show parents how to practice homeschooling. Those are simple ideas that can be implemented while doing daily tasks, such as asking their child to help them with the laundry by passing them “the blue pant and the red shirt” or the two pairs of socks – a wonderful way to practice colors and counting. It seems straightforward, but this is very challenging in certain communities where the majority of the adult population is illiterate, like Roma communities. Through these young Roma volunteers, who become the role models, parents can learn how important education is for breaking the circle of poverty, starting from the Early Years. 

What are the main tasks you detected at the start of the lockdown which remain in this new phase? 

What we worry the most is increasing inequality: not all the families have access to online materials because not everyone has internet access, and if they do - it doesn’t work perfectly every day. Also, many households do not have laptops and tablets for children to use. We are very concerned that there will be a larger gap between the most vulnerable kids and the rest due to this lack of access. We have asked several organisations for their support in order to buy hardware that we could distribute among these families. Besides, we are in contact with internet providers some of which are ready to provide free Wi-Fi if it is used for educational purposes. 

Can you give some tips on how we can safeguard the well-being of the education practitioners in these uncertain times?

When our work is appreciated, our enthusiasm is renewed. In case of the teachers, this is a positive outcome of COVID-19 crisis. The other aspect we have to ensure is to keep networking among professionals. Teachers and other practitioners need to talk to each other and share their experiences and challenges, how they are copying with the difficulties. This peer communication can help them to realize that they are not alone and that they are not the only ones who don’t know their way through. Another positive outcome of this situation is that it has empowered prospective teachers who are young people. All of the sudden they know more than the veteran ones about the digital world. They have worked together very nicely and developed stronger bonds between the different generations.

How have you been personally through this crisis? 

I have been a full supporter of blended learning for a very long time. I believe it is the apex of education nowadays and I was very disappointed that in Albania it wasn’t being taken seriously. Until today! I am very happy to see how people are starting to experience and value the benefits of combining online and physical learning, of building a closer relationship between teachers and parents and experiencing the positive inputs that distant collaboration can bring to schools. This has also been a very productive period of educational and pedagogical information which will be used in the future as well. Personally, I have enjoyed being with my family and I haven’t feared the virus. I think we can draw many positive lessons from this strange situation.