Thursday, June 04, 2020

Teacher-student relations essential, so let’s rebuild them

Sep 07. 2019
Yiqiong Mai (left), Brown (middle), Emi Mitani (right)
Yiqiong Mai (left), Brown (middle), Emi Mitani (right)
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By Yiqiong Mai, Emi Mitani, Matthew Brown
Special to The Nation

Career English teacher Talubphet Hathaipon feels her students are slipping away, partly because of societal change, but also because of a failure of the education system to keep pace. 

Her secondary school, Bunyawat Witthayalai in Lampang province, has taken steps to engage students through local and internationally orientated extracurricular projects led by students, which include overseas exchanges, recycling programmes, local volunteer work and a community garden.

Yet Talubphet believes more needs to be done to update curricula for teachers to better engage students in a modern classroom setting. 

“Honestly, as a member of Generation X, I have found some difficulties in adapting to the younger generations centred on technology,” she said. “The teacher-student relationship has become loose and distant due to technological innovation, which has required me to adapt my positions and create a new identity for myself as a teacher.”

In the fast-paced modern world, the top-down education model seen throughout Asia is struggling to incorporate much-needed approaches at every level of the school system. 

Teachers such as Talubphet are adapting to these changes, but they need support from students and administrations to transition to a more sustainable approach to education.

There is growing recognition that quality school leadership is essential to positive learning. Whereas traditionally that was primarily associated with school principals, who of course continue to play a vital role, evolving concepts of leadership are increasingly looking towards decentralisation, school autonomy and accountability, including those of school administrators as well as teachers and students.

Talubphet and other teachers see re-establishing the teacher-student relationship as critical to the functioning of schools. 

“Adapting to the rapidly changing world is my biggest leadership challenge,” she said. “When methods of learning are changed, the methods of teaching must also change.”

From his perspective at Palau High School in the Republic of Palau, Principal Smyth Rdang shares Talubphet’s focus on the connections with the students. 

“Leadership means relationship. We can’t live without relations,” Rdang said, adding that it was important that everyone be on board to promote school leadership.

From principals and teachers to students, that theme of building relationships extends throughout the education system. 

“As a student government president, you need to be a representative of the teachers to the students and a representative of the students to the teachers,” said Marat Dononbaev, a 16-year-old student from Kyrgyzstan. While he acknowledges the importance of interventions by teachers, he takes an active role in establishing a dialogue to enable students to first solve problems among themselves.

Social life in school can be difficult, especially with different groups of students having conflicting ideas and preferences, which raises particular challenges for student leaders in interacting with their peers. 

“Keeping fairness is important when it comes to settling a conflict, but it is tough because you have to take an objective point of view to your friends and keep in mind that they are your friends at the same time,” Dononbaev said.

The growing recognition that students such as Dononbaev are a crucial component of school leadership is changing views of education in Asia, a process that is accelerated by communication at every level. 

At the recent Regional Seminar on Innovative School Leadership and SDG 4.7 held in Bangkok, 70 teachers, school principals, policymakers and students from 21 countries in the region had a chance to share their views. 

Another event planned for World Teachers’ Day next month will continue the conversation with a focus on improving the retention rate of young teachers in the region, which is linked to changing relationships with students.

Working within a UN framework places the evolving ideas about education in a global context and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), with SDG 4.7 seeking to “by 2030 ensure all learners acquire knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development”. The 17 SDGs and associated targets, however, are inextricable from each other, and closely linked to concepts of global citizenship.

The “big concepts”, though, such as sustainable development and global citizenship, can be overwhelming. 

“Global citizenship is nothing new,” said Noor Hayti Uteh, head of the Educational Planning and Research Division of Malaysia’s Ministry of Education. “[But] people are working on it without awareness.” 

She added that people should link “small things”, even just turning off the lights, to better understand the larger issues.

Communicating at multiple levels during the seminar also enabled participants to re-evaluate their roles and cooperation. Many education approaches still identify principals as centres of school improvement, which leads to their own self-definition and tendency to assume most responsibility. 

“I used to make the final decisions on most of the school issues,” said Rdang, adding that he was now re-examining that approach. “Teachers are the engine of education. They should have their right to take leadership and show themselves.” 

Engaging all teachers in a school was not an easy task, he said, but he was optimistic about making positive changes continuously through a process of trial and error.

That same process of re-evaluation can also be empowering for teachers and students. 

“I used to think that I didn’t have a voice in solving problems at school, although I am a student-government president,” said Hengly Te, a 17-year-old student from Cambodia. “However, I now feel that students can play key role in tackling these problems.”

For Hengly Te, that expanded role extends beyond the schoolgrounds and means taking a lead in student-led initiatives to address social issues both inside and outside her school, such as students’ poor reading skills and plastic burning in the community. 

“I’d like to encourage all the students in the world to raise their voices to make a positive change,” she said. That goal, as stated by one student, is itself providing leadership in the concept of global citizenship.

Yiqiong Mai, Emi Mitani and Matthew Brown are graduate student-interns at Unesco Bangkok working in Educational Innovation and Skills Development and Education for Sustainable Development.

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