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2030 – What happens when there’s nobody at the blackboard?

To celebrate World Teachers’ Day 2013, UNESCO Bangkok invited people from around the region to send notes of thanks through our website to the educators who most inspired them.

The responses ranged from the succinct but enthusiastic – “You’re awesome!” – to more involved tributes underscoring the fact that in terms of generational impact, it is difficult to conceive of a more important job.

“Teachers are the backbone of our society,” one student wrote. “Without them we have no chance of moving forward in [the] right direction. Let’s stand united for teachers and further ignite their passion[s] to take us forward.”

The importance of teachers in shaping the minds of future generations is widely understood and appreciated – in principle, at least. But a look at projections from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) related to looming teacher shortages throughout the world and specifically here in Asia-Pacific suggest these sentiments are not carrying over into practice.

This year’s theme for World Teachers’ Day, “A Call for Teachers”, is in recognition of that reality.  

In her World Teachers’ Day message, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova stressed the essential role that teachers play in reaching the long-term goal of inclusive education around the world.

“Since teachers are the most powerful force for equity, access and quality education, a call for teachers means calling for quality education for all,” she said. “Quality education offers hope and the promise of a better standard of living. There is no stronger foundation for lasting peace and sustainable development than a quality education provided by well trained, valued, supported and motivated teachers.”

The immediate numbers in this regard at both the primary and secondary education levels show cause for concern.

As 2015 draws near, one of the gravest threats to the goal of education for all appears to be teacher shortages.

At the primary level, 213,000 teachers will be needed to fill new posts by 2015. Attrition, one of the main factors driving teacher shortages here and around the worldwide, will result in the need to replace some 1,234,000 educators.

Meeting the goal of universal primary education in this part of the world by 2015 would require 1,447,000 teachers to be hired.

Similar gaps exist at the lower secondary level. By 2015, 1,281,000 posts would need to be created to meet classroom demand.

With 2015 less than 15 months away, there is little time for countries in the Asia-Pacific region to realistically meet these demands and find the tens of thousands of teachers needed to fill these spots.

What becomes essential then is to heed this shortfall, examine its roots and start laying a foundation to ensure that the trend does not greatly worsen over the next decade and a half.

UIS projections show that at the current rate, 331,000 teachers will be needed to fill new posts at the primary level and 1,337,000 at the secondary level.

Far more alarming is the number of teachers who will need to be replaced at the primary level due to attrition: 8,023,000, up from 1,234,000 in 2015. By the same projection, 8,354,000 new teachers will be needed to realize universal primary education goals in the region.

One of the root causes for this projected massive spike in attrition is undoubtedly the conditions many teachers face in the region, both in terms of inadequate pay and class sizes.

In 2011, for example, Cambodia had the highest average class size with a massive 47 students, followed by Afghanistan with 45, and Pakistan and Bangladesh, with 40 each.

Working with such unwieldy class sizes and often without strong policy and training support, it is not difficult to understand the frustrations many of the region’s educators face and the reason why many chose to leave the profession and few volunteer to replace them.

However, a mere recruitment drive is not the answer to the looming dearth of teachers in the Asia-Pacific region. Quality educators are needed and for this to take place adequate training and support must be in place.

As grim a picture as the statistics paint, initiatives currently afoot hold the promise of change. Teacher training efforts, technology to improve learning in remote areas and dozens of other initiatives at both the policy and grass-roots levels are helping to improve the projected outlook.

Teachers from around the region, for example, gathered from 2-4 October 2013, for a follow-up Workshop on Telecollaboration and Project-based Learning to Reorient Teacher Education towards Education for All and Education for Sustainable Development organized by UNESCO in Bangkok.

Many teachers and teacher trainers were on hand to share their successes and challenges in implementing student-centered learning techniques, a shift that bodes well for the future of education in the region.

As such initiatives spread throughout the region, the importance of teachers to this region and its future may finally be reflected in the practical realities of everyday life at the center of the classroom.