Teachers protect the most vulnerable. We must protect them back

In the run-up to World Teachers' Day, we must do more to help people in a profession that is becoming increasingly difficult

October 5 is World Teachers' Day, a celebration of all teachers around the globe. The event commemorates the adoption of Unesco's recommendations concerning the rights and responsibilities of teachers. I can't sing the praises of teachers loudly enough, not because I am one, but because they have benefited me so greatly.

Teachers are the architects of growth-promoting experiences, creating stimulating, safe spaces where young people flourish. For a vulnerable youngster from a troubled home, a caring teacher can be the difference between a tragic life trajectory and a triumphant one. Along with the alphabet and the timetables, great teachers impart life lessons that are no less valuable. Implicitly, through their actions and mode of being, these individuals instil values. For example, they teach us about our own self-worth, the value of kindness, courage and respect for others.

Peter Gurnham, now retired, was a teacher cast in this mould. He taught me at Granby Street primary school in the 1980s. The school was in Toxteth, an inner-city district of Liverpool. At that time, Toxteth was one of the most deprived areas in Britain, with unemployment exceeding 40 per cent and many other social problems. I like to think Mr Gurnham came to the school that needed him most.

Although I can't remember the specific content of Mr Gurnham's lessons (sorry, sir), I can remember enjoying them. I also recall that he enjoyed teaching us. His love of teaching and learning spilt over into the classroom. It was infectious, and we were compelled towards curiosity whatever the topic. The late poet Maya Angelou summed it up best when she said: "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

Mr Gurnham made me feel safe, valued and excited to learn. On top of that, due to staffing issues, I was fortunate enough to have him as a form tutor for two years running. He also led our school trip to Colomendy in North Wales. For many of us inner-city children, this was the first time we ever experienced the countryside, running wild in nature, finding fossils and climbing mountains. There is a photo of me at the end of that trip. I don't think I ever looked happier. I understand now why education is a human right.

I can only speculate about just how valuable my time in Mr Gurnham's class was. I suspect I owe him a debt of gratitude far greater than I could ever repay. Of course, I didn't realise or appreciate any of this at the time, but I guess you don't when you're 10 years old.

I know I am not alone in realising the powerful impact of a teacher after the fact. In 2010, former England and Arsenal football star Ian Wright was reunited with one of his childhood schoolteachers, Sydney Pigden. Wright was overwhelmed with emotion and gratitude towards the teacher, the person, that had given him so much support, guidance and self-belief. The footage of this tearful reunion went viral online, garnering more than 3.5 million views. Wright later described Mr Pigden as "the greatest man in the world".

In Arabic, there is a saying "al hilm qabl al ilm", or kindness before knowledge. Teaching is undoubtedly a caring profession, and when it's done well, it is characterised by kindness. This aspect of the teacher's role is becoming increasingly important.

In 2019 – before the outbreak of Covid-19 – the UN issued a news release titled "Increase in child and adolescent mental disorders spurs new push for action by Unicef and WHO". In it, Unicef executive director Henrietta Fore said: "This looming crisis has no borders or boundaries. With half of mental disorders starting before age 14, we need urgent and innovative strategies to prevent, detect and, if needed, treat them at an early age." Teachers are frontline workers in this crisis.

Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, teaching is becoming an increasingly stressful job. A 2019 survey by Education Support, a UK charity, found that 75 per cent of UK teachers described themselves as "stressed". Additionally, more than one third of them had experienced a mental health issue in the past academic year.

A large body of research demonstrates that teachers' well-being is the major factor in creating an environment supportive of learners' well-being. Equally compelling is the evidence that interventions such as mindfulness can help learners and teachers better cope with stress and develop greater resilience. As a result, many forward-thinking educational institutions have begun integrating mindfulness into the curriculum and school life in general. However, beyond mindfulness, we also need to address the sources of stress, be it workload or working conditions.

The theme of this year's World Teachers' Day is "Teachers at the heart of education recovery". The focus is on how best to support teachers to fully contribute to the post-pandemic recovery process. Initiatives aimed at reducing occupational stress while simultaneously boosting resilience will help immensely.

Published: October 3rd 2021, 9:00 AM
Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas

Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National