In a new BOLD podcast series, educational researcher Nina Alonso shares powerful stories from teachers around the world, as well as insights from experts on learning and development. In a conversation with BOLD Editor-in-Chief Gemma Wirz, Nina explains what motivated her to create the podcast, and what she has learned from talking with teachers across the globe.
Gemma Wirz: Why is it so important to listen to teachers?
Nina Alonso: Teachers are on the front lines. They help to shape children’s day-to-day learning experiences, worldviews, and attitudes. Because of the nature of their work, they may not always have time for reflection. When asked to share stories, however, they have a lot to say about the flexible, dynamic, and adaptable processes of teaching and learning. Their insights are important for ensuring that no child is left behind.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of teachers. However, there is still an urgent need to raise the status of the teaching profession and boost teachers’ skills. When we listen to educators’ stories and experiences, we are better able to recognise and appreciate their work, as well as the challenges and obstacles they face.
“When we listen to educators’ stories and experiences, we are better able to recognise and appreciate their work.”
GW: Why did you decide to launch a podcast to share those stories? What makes podcasts such powerful storytelling devices?
NA: I have always been fascinated by oral traditions and communication as a means of disseminating culture and education. I believe that teachers’ stories need to be shared. They deserve the power and intimacy of the voice.
Podcasts can create a personal connection, erasing the distance between the host and the listener and creating a space for reflective and focused thinking. Listeners become absorbed in what they are hearing. Through their simplicity and accessibility, podcasts encourage engagement, and they are particularly appealing when our bodies and minds need a break from screen time.
GW: What has the COVID-19 pandemic been like for the teachers you have spoken to?
NA: My admiration for teachers has grown immensely as I have witnessed the challenges they have faced during the pandemic. They have been forced to improvise in creative and flexible ways. They were not prepared for long school closures and social distancing, and had to adjust their teaching methods to keep students engaged when homes became classrooms. The importance of investing in teacher training is more evident than ever before – and it is particularly crucial to focus on developing skills and enabling teachers to fully exploit the potential of remote and blended learning. We also need to invest in socio-emotional monitoring and psychosocial support to promote teacher well-being and prevent burnout.
“The importance of investing in teacher training is more evident than ever before.”
GW: Your podcast series features powerful testimonies from many different types of educators all over the world. Why is it so important to learn from non-traditional teachers, too? And what do these educators all have in common?
NA: I have met amazing teaching assistants and librarians in both schools and informal learning settings, such as local community centres. Many of these practitioners are exceptionally imaginative and dedicated, often focusing on students struggling to overcome barriers. They also support traditional teachers and families. Whatever their role, whether it is to participate in interventions or to work with smaller groups of children, they provide direct support for learning.
These educators, just like classroom teachers, can have a long-lasting impact on children’s lives. Anywhere in the world, and whatever the socioeconomic context, all educators are crucial agents of change. An education system is only as good as its teachers.
I once heard someone say, “To teach English to John, you need to know more about John than about English.” The best educators are mindful of the needs of individual learners at any given moment. They are attentive to variability.
Good practitioners are also committed to ensuring the well-being of their students and creating the best possible conditions for learning and thriving. They encourage students to collaborate and learn from one another in order to become motivated, creative, critical thinkers. The acquisition of “21st-century skills” is particularly important in this context. In addition to working with students, educators around the world face the challenge of dealing with families and sometimes difficult bureaucracies.
“The best educators are mindful of the needs of individual learners at any given moment.”
GW: In the course of your career, you’ve experienced a variety of learning contexts – schools, informal learning environments, teacher training activities, and diverse socioeconomic settings. What has this taught you about the current state of education and the importance of teachers?
NA: I have found that we need to bridge the gap between what frontline practitioners are able to accomplish, what governments require, and what research suggests.
Each episode of the new podcast features an expert who puts the themes of the teachers’ stories in context. I hope listeners will recognise how important it is for educational researchers and practitioners to communicate with one another – and think about how the gap between those two groups might be bridged. This could have implications for teaching, professional development, educational policy, and decisions about funding educational innovations and programs.
GW: One last question… Can you tell us about any particularly inspiring teachers you have encountered?
NA: The teachers who have most inspired me have demonstrated exceptional personal commitment, beyond the scope of their normal work hours and learning objectives, and have focused particularly on children who need extra help. After the pandemic forced her school to close, one such teacher, Cicilia, would set out on horseback every two weeks to visit students who were living in remote areas of the Chilean Atacama region and lacked internet access.
Another teacher, Sonia, told me how teaching a Senegalese orphan enough Spanish to follow her classes led to other activities to help his integration – and ended with Sonia adopting him. Then there was the special-needs teacher from Saudi Arabia whose work has always been inspired by one of her teachers, who was a role model for her during her childhood.
These stories are fascinating, and they deserve to be shared widely. I invite anyone interested in education to listen to our podcast to hear teachers describe their experiences in their own words.
Listen to the new podcast series here:
Nina Alonso is an international educational researcher specialized in equal access to learning and culture. She holds a PhD in Education from the University of Cambridge. Her wide perspective of the field of education was developed thanks to direct experience in school contexts, in informal learning environments, and training teachers. As a researcher she has worked extensively in low, medium and high-income countries for international public and private organizations. She believes in the value and power of successful stories about education and the oral and written transmission of them.