The global pandemic has created immense pressure on education systems to keep students not just learning, but also safe and well. In our work at Teach For All and inHive, we noticed a common attribute in the education systems that seem to be adapting and rebounding quickly: networks – the networks of people who mobilized around them. This leads us to believe that education systems can recover and rebuild fast, if we invest in new, or strengthen existing networks.
We find that the strongest networks in education are alumni networks – of schools, institutions, and leadership programs. People in these networks often have similar purposes and values. As a result of their shared experiences, they have deep, emotional connections to each other and an in-built willingness to share solutions and work together to support others.
We’re seeing this everywhere: from the teachers, parents, and former students who coordinated emergency food parcels for vulnerable families in Liberia and Pakistan, to the network of educators and civil servants who came together to start the Oak National Academy – a virtual school reaching over a million students in the UK – in under two weeks. When everything is uncertain, as with COVID-19, we turn to the people we know, our trusted networks, to accelerate social change and rebuild more equal systems.
Alumni networks have emerged as particularly effective in supporting education systems during this time. Here’s why:
1. Alumni networks don’t wait to be told what to do
In strong networks, alumni feel they have permission, autonomy, and a shared sense of purpose to contribute and drive change. Alumni networks also foster a sense of collective responsibility, so members proactively call on each other for support and advice. For example, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic young alumni leaders of Columba Leadership in South Africa launched an online public health campaign. In Sierra Leone, alumni of One Girl are leading online girls’ clubs to deliver workshops about how to prevent gender-based violence and other increased risks for vulnerable girls.
2. Alumni networks are well-placed to find solutions
Their proximity to day-to-day realities and challenges mean that alumni networks feel the greatest urgency, and also have the best ideas to transform what’s not working. For example, alumni of Building Tomorrow’s teaching fellowship in Uganda have been appointed as new technical advisors to local government. With their first-hand experience in the classroom, they recognized that school attendance will be a challenge once schools reopen and are advising the government on a coordinated mitigating response. Similarly, when schools closed in Brazil, Ensina Brasil’s teachers asked themselves what they could do to make the isolation different—and better—for their students. They launched, Ligação do Bem (“Good Calling”), a one-on-one phone call initiative between teachers and students that seeks to protect the human aspect of this relationship. It also makes students feel like they still belong, that they are valued and cared for—in the hope of reducing drop-outs when schools resume.
3. Alumni networks spread good ideas rapidly
At Teach For All, we see how local leaders move faster when they are part of a network because they have more exposure to innovations from other contexts. For example, when teachers from Enseña Chile learned about radio lessons that their peers at Teach For Nigeria had created as a result of school closures, they were inspired to do something similar. They now have a far-reaching impact all over the rural part of their country through broadcasting radio lessons while also spreading insights to other Teach For All network partners across Latin America.
4. Alumni networks are sources of moral support
Alumni networks prioritize relationships and play an important role in recharging and energizing leaders, especially those operating in the most difficult circumstances. This feeling of interconnectedness can also be a powerful tool to support mental health and wellbeing. At inHive, we’ve seen a surge in high school alumni who galvanized support for their former schools by creating new mentoring relationships and offering remote work experience placements. In New Zealand, alumni of Mangere College have put together videos to remind students and teachers that they are part of a wider community.
Alumni networks have been and will continue to be a critical part of the recovery from COVID-19. They foster connected and coordinated solutions, effective and locally rooted leadership, and more resilient communities. Alumni networks are low cost and sustainable. They represent the greatest untapped resource for unlocking the full potential of our education systems.