Of the many days of horror during India’s second wave of Covid-19, there is one in particular that sticks with Neeru Gupta, a maths teacher at a government school in Amritsar.
Her mother had died of Covid-19 little more than a week previously, then her father-in-law had passed too, in the space of just a few days. Then her husband had tested positive.
On that particular April day, at 11am, Gupta, 34, was running an online class for her pupils from her living room.
Her husband was sequestered in another room while her three young children, attending their own online class in another bedroom, kept disturbing her class by running into the living room to ask her questions.
All this, while she was still submerged in grief.
“I felt like jumping off the balcony. I was unable to attend my mother’s funeral because I was looking after my father-in-law. Nobody I loved – my sisters, my dad or my friends – could come and hug me. Yet I had to be bubbly and smiling for my class,” Gupta recalled.
Across Asia, from India to Indonesia and Singapore to Malaysia, teaching during the pandemic has been fraught for thousands of teachers like Gupta.
Many of the problems stem from getting to grips with a new way of teaching, with most countries having had to switch to online classes for at least part of their school years.
This has meant maintaining discipline via a screen, preparing every class as a presentation, grappling with unfamiliar technology such as Zoom or MS Teams, explaining concepts, coping with being in a goldfish bowl knowing that parents are watching like hawks, all while dealing with classes as well as – for many – managing their own children’s online schedules.
These are just some of the challenges. Teachers, like the rest of us, have been hit financially.
A survey in February of teachers in Hyderabad found 100 per cent of 220 respondents had exhausted their life savings and 50 per cent had taken loans from relatives either to pay rent or for Covid-related medical expenses.
Then there is the stress of dealing with distraught parents who have suffered their own losses, who call the schools to plead for more time to pay fees or waive them altogether.
The result has been a toll on mental health. A survey by the Singapore Counselling Centre of 1,325 teachers released on Sept 22 found more than 80 per cent of respondents felt their mental health had been negatively affected by their work amid the pandemic.
More than four in five reported working more than 45 hours a week, while more than 62 per cent said their physical health had also declined, reporting ailments such as irritability, insomnia and recurring headaches.
More than four in 10 said their personal relationships had suffered and around one in three fell sick easily.https://www.tiktok.com/@micolel/video/6995782929410526465?is_copy_url=0&is_from_webapp=v1&sender_device=pc&sender_web_id=7012557
For many teachers, one of the most painful aspects of the switch online is that they no longer feel as good at their jobs and that students may be suffering as a result.
“I felt the pressure of feeling that parents were judging me. It made me self-conscious. Overnight, teaching became stressful for me because I found it hard to be myself in front of a camera. I need face-to-face contact to be at my best,” said Gauri Matonde, a teacher at Rajiv Gandhi Vidyalaya School in Nainital, India.
For Nishi Jauhar, the headmistress of Step by Step Junior School in Noida, it was troubling to see children’s anxious faces on the screen as their lives turned upside down with not even the familiarity of routine to soothe them.
“Children were frightened. We would start a class and find that someone’s parents had tested positive and were self-isolating. These children were scared their parents were going to die. We had to watch their faces without being able to hug or comfort them,” said Jauhar, whose own anxiety became so bad she often struggled to breathe.
Many teachers have found it hard to settle as schools have shifted between operating online and in-person as national caseloads have waxed and waned.
Nora, who has been teaching in a Singapore primary school for six years, said she and some of her colleagues had struggled to adapt to constantly changing expectations.
Schools in the city-state had shut completely from April to June and have since been operating a mixture of physical classes and online learning.
Nora said the switch online – one Zoom session per subject per week lasting 30 to 45 minutes – had made it hard for students to absorb the material.
That meant sometimes reteaching subjects when students returned to school, putting a further drain on teachers’ time.
“We have to achieve the same outcomes despite shorter timelines. The level of anxiety is much higher as the policies and restrictions change by the week and we have to keep up,” she said.
The additional workload coupled with distancing measures that reduce interactions with colleagues had made it hard to stay positive.
“We end up just trying to solve our own issues and tell ourselves that tomorrow will be a better day,” she said. “To be honest, there are many days where I dread going to school because I don’t know what to expect.”
In Malaysia, too, schools have had to yo-yo between operating online and in-person, as caseloads have risen and fallen.
With online classes tending to be shorter than face-to-face sessions, teachers in the country – which has reported 2.22 million cases and more than 25,000 deaths – say it has become harder to cover the curriculum, though their workload remains at least as heavy as before due to preparation time.
Meanwhile, students are learning less but find themselves working just as hard. Younger pupils have found themselves managing their own schedules for the first time in their lives.
Nurunnawal Yem, who teaches at a primary school in Malaysia, said the consequence was that both teachers and students were burning out.
“My colleagues have quit and some have their contracts terminated due to complaints from parents. We have school counsellors who actively conduct workshops not just for staff but for parents as well.”
Irna Minauli, a clinical psychologist based in the Indonesian city of Medan, the provincial capital of North Sumatra, said that in some cases the pressure on both teachers and students had been so great they turned to self-harm and depression.
“The workload that some teachers already felt was excessive pre-pandemic has felt even more excessive and students have also felt overburdened and frustrated.
“Teachers have said that teaching online feels more tiring because there is a lack of interaction, especially when all students turn off their cameras and microphones, so it feels like teachers are just talking and talking. As listeners, students often lack focus because they can do other things when they are studying online.”
At the same time, young clients told her they despaired that they weren’t learning enough and felt their academic progress was being delayed.
Beyond the technicalities, there is also the problem of ensuring attendance.
Khairy Al Hafyz, who teaches English in Malaysia, said that to accommodate the switch online some of his classes had been rolled together. In one of his recent Form 1 classes, of the 79 students supposed to have attended, only 11 logged on.
“What’s worse is that this has been going on since May [when the school closed],” he said.
“At first, I would personally call them and tell them to join my Google Meets. However, after a personal session, I had with all of them, I gave up. I started to realise why and I changed my approach.”
During a recent class, he asked students to personally message him on WhatsApp to tell him about the issues they were facing.
“I was appalled and saddened by the responses. I came to find out that quite a number of them were very much near-depressed, even though they weren’t actually saying it.
"One of them told me that he has been constantly thinking of running away. Why I find this to be shocking is because this boy is a really nice kid in school. He’s very soft-spoken and would do everything I assigned him.
“After some digging, I found out last week that his father was retrenched from his job. His mother is not working, and they were evicted from their house soon after. They are currently living with his paternal grandmother.
"His mum and dad are constantly fighting and there’s nothing the grandmother could do. Since his grandmother’s house is small and a bit run down, he had to sleep and study at the living room, with whom he shares with his younger sister.”
He found out that another student had been barred by his family from leaving the house following the death of a relative. The student has not been outside since mid-June.
For many older teachers used to relying on blackboards, it has been stressful getting up to speed with technology.
But at least those in hi-tech, connected cities like Singapore – where 89 per cent of households own computers and 98 per cent have access to the internet, according to government figures – are teaching children with the necessary equipment.
For teachers in rural areas, where internet coverage can be patchy and even smartphones a sign of privilege, the problems are multiplied.
Kamala Devi teaches at a government junior school in Dhanachuli, a village in north India. Her pupils are from poor families where one phone is shared by everyone and usually kept by the breadwinner who needs it for work.
“I’d fix a class but find that the phone was with the father who is a driver. Or there had been an all-night-long power cut and they hadn’t been able to recharge the phone. I spent more time banging my head over connectivity than I did preparing my Hindi classes,” said Devi.
In Indonesia, the world’s largest archipelago with 6,000 inhabited islands, and the Philippines, reaching students in remote communities is particularly problematic.
Indonesia began to close schools in March 2020, but has reopened some on a reduced schedule since July 2021.
Since the reopening, however, the Ministry of Education has reported Covid-19 clusters in more than 1,200 schools, raising a question mark over continued face-to-face learning in a country that has reported over four million Covid-19 cases and more than 140,000 deaths.
Viktorius Veni, a secondary school teacher in Kupang, the provincial capital of East Nusa Tenggara, one of the poorest provinces in Indonesia, has been teaching online for more than a year.
“In a pandemic situation, online learning seems the easiest solution but there are many obstacles. One of them we face in East Nusa Tenggara is the lack of an internet signal. The networks sometimes don’t work and in remote areas, it is even more difficult for students to log on because of the lack of internet coverage.
“It is not like in cities where everyone has cell phones. We have found that many parents have been unable to supply their children with cell phones due to limited funds and low socioeconomic status, which causes even more stress.
“Then students can also struggle to follow the material even if they can get online due to the lack of supervision from parents and teachers.”
He said that because of the limitations teachers often ended up visiting students at their homes, which meant safety protocols weren’t effective anyway, and the situation created more stress for all involved – students, parents and teachers.
In the Philippines, schools have been shut since March 2020.
With the Delta variant fuelling a surge that has seen its death toll pass 37,000 and its total number of cases go beyond 2.5 million, the resumption of face-to-face classes seems a long way off.
“We’re scrambling to keep our mental health,” said Joyce Caubat, a private schoolteacher in Manila.
“We had no training to undergo remote learning and older teachers are struggling to keep up. There is added pressure for teachers because of this.”
Her friend Ina, at a different school, said she blamed herself when previously top-performing students were left behind and became depressed.
“Was I not giving enough? Is it my mode of instruction? Am I not finding the right digital tools?” she said.
Caubat, who is also a member of ACT Private Schools, an organisation of private schoolteachers, said job insecurity was now greater than ever, especially for part-time teachers.
“The hiring or rehiring process will depend on the teacher’s evaluations. And if a teacher’s performance is affected because of uncontrollable factors like the speed of her internet connection or if she doesn’t meet the 21st-century skill of being technology-driven, then there’s an added layer of uncertainty in keeping her job.”
But it would be wrong to suggest that the switch online has all been negative. The flip side is that both teachers and students have learned new skills.
“The negative impact of online learning on the mental health of children or students is that children or students become passive in their learning because they do not interact directly with teachers,” said Antonius Remigius Abi, a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at Santo Thomas Catholic University in Medan.
“However, the positive impact has been that teachers or lecturers have been forced to upgrade their skills relating to the use of IT to teach as well as the science of teaching itself. Of course, everyone has also had to learn how to be more patient.”
In Malaysia, where schools are expected to reopen – albeit at half capacity – on Oct 3, about 90 per cent of teachers have now been inoculated, according to Education Minister Radzi Jidin, and there is a sense among many that a corner has been turned.
Harinderjit Singh Sekhon, a secondary school teacher in Malaysia, was among those looking on the bright side.
“Early on into this lockdown, there were obvious dips in results even with the bright kids. [But while teaching’s been] very different, it’s not been impossible,” Harinder said.
There had even been some positives, such as increased freedom, though he missed personal interactions with the children.
“That is the ultimate experience of being a teacher and I can’t wait to go back,” he added.
Back in India, Jauhar, the headmistress in Noida, found that having parents floating around in the background watching her class helped to involve them in their children’s education.
“They also learnt from us. By watching us handle a class, they learnt how to handle, discipline, and get the best out of children. I hope this greater involvement continues and they remain supportive,” she said.
Then there are even those teachers who – whisper it – relished the challenge of experimenting and making online teaching fun.
“They had to learn how to keep their pupils engaged online and actually enjoyed becoming a student again to become a better teacher,” said Sangeeta Tenesse, principal of the Aster Public School in Greater Noida.
The whole online experience has given schools and teachers more options too.
For example, there used to be panic in New Delhi when schools had to be shut for several days because of disruptive political rallies or dangerously high levels of pollution.
Said Tenesse: “We always worried how we would make up the lost time but now no one is going to bat an eyelid. Simple. We will teach from home.”
- Samaritans of Singapore: 1800-221-4444
- Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019
- Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800
- Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222
- Silver Ribbon: 6386-1928
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.