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If someone told you there was a floating school in Bangladesh, you’d immediately begin to questions its logistics and structural integrity. If someone told you there was a floating school in Bangladesh that featured computers with internet access which were powered exclusively by solar panels, you’d think they’d begun to confuse reality with a Terry Pratchett novel.
However, that is exactly what is happening as you’re reading this. Mosammat Reba Khatun is 40 years old and lives in a small riverside village in Bangladesh. For the past ten years she has been teaching Bengali, Maths and English on Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s floating school on the Gumani river in the Pabna district in northwest Bangladesh. In total, the school teaches 90 students between six and nine years old. Almost two-thirds of the pupils are girls.
It may seem like a bizarre and fantastical notion at first but the rationale behind Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha’s floating school is quite logical. Mosammat tells us that “flooding is a major problem in Bangladesh. In the monsoon season, at least a third of the country is affected by flooding which isolates entire communities and means children can’t get to school so we thought ‘if the children can’t come to school, the school will come to the children’”.
Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha was a 2012 WISE Award winner (World Innovation Summit in Education, Qatar). You can find many more details, including videos, about the solar-powered floating schools on the WISE website.
Because the school is mobile, it is able to travel around villages in the remote river basin where it makes port. This means that the teachers within the school can discuss and converse with local parents easily. As if the case with much of the developing world, Mosammat tells us “the children under age 5 are malnourished and infant mortality rate is high. Girls are not allowed to move around freely. We meet with the parents monthly to encourage them to send their children to school regularly…as a result; the rate of early marriage is reduced” The fact that the school doubles as a means of transport enables wider communication, a truly novel and innovative idea.
The solar-powered nature of the boat means that technology can be used aboard it The latest EFA Global Monitoring Report 2013/4 notes that technology as an excellent means of disseminating information not only for pupils for also for teachers, the internet provides an excellent platform for teachers in developing countries to take a self-guided approach to their development. Macmillan Education have released TeachPitch, a free, global teacher-learning platform for teachers global to continually self-improve.
Despite the yet untold potential of technology and internet in developing communities, it seems there will never be a substitute for a caring, dedicated teacher. Mosammat finished her interview by saying “I decided to become a teacher because I love children and wanted to help them towards developing a better future,” Mosammat told us. “I think teaching is a gift of a lifetime. It has given me immense opportunity to give back to my community, help poor students to access to school, and impart positively on children.”
With the right attitude, a good deal of determination and even more innovation, Mosammat is helping deliver education to children in spite of natural and cultural barriers, she is a paragon of pedagogy and a trailblazer of global education.
What does it means to be a teacher in the UK? This is the question I was asked on twitter, when the Steve Sinnott Foundation asked me to write a post for #TeacherTuesday. I can only really speak from my experience, and I am currently trying to steer away from debates on pedagogy that seem to serve only to entrench positions. My post last week was an attempt to define myself through what I do, and this method has proved very effective in helping me be self-reflective, and in being able to express more clearly my values than through philosophising on pedagogy. Whilst I will thus approach this question from the same, personal, perspective, I will also attempt as far as possible to speak for my colleagues in the UK, and more specifically in England.
The question has two parts really: what it means to be a teacher, and what this means specifically in the UK. The professional network and learning community I have discovered through Twitter has enabled me to connect with educators in various countries, and whilst we share many common values and challenges, I will seek to define that which may be more specific to the UK.
So, what does it mean to be a teacher? Perhaps the first thing to say is that I rarely see myself as a teacher. There are two reasons for this. One, I suffer from the impostor complex, where I regularly believe I will be unmasked as a fake, an intruder. I look at my colleagues and see them as teachers, but still struggle to class myself, to label myself, as one. I see myself primarily as a learner, and this is, paradoxically perhaps, where my strength as a teacher lies. The second reason is that I have done other things before becoming a teacher and have thus been able to define myself professionally and personally in many other ways, and some of those definitions still appear valid to me. I am a teacher, but I am still a traveller, a resort manager, a receptionist, a shipwright, a property developer and a builder! These other definitions and other skills mean that I am able to relate learning to many different situations and skills. I am not alone in this diverse experience before coming to teaching. The image of a career teacher is still in the public conscience, but the reality is changing, as this collaborative blog is starting to show us. Teachers are all fascinating individuals with other passions, experiences and skills.
Being a teacher is a career which has a very long and complicated job description, which goes from pastoral care of children (in loco parentis), through daily classroom teaching, to administrative and managerial tasks. I believe that the care element of our job is the most important one, and without it, all the other tasks are impossible or ineffective. I remember that when I first saw the table of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, I understood better my gut feelings about relationships and the classroom environment. If children are cold or hungry, or in fear, then they will find it harder to learn.
The purposes of education are various and often escape definition, but for me, our goal is to foster the personal development of young people, to help them to learn, and to prepare them for the world they will face when they leave full-time education. By this I do not mean moulding them to fit society, but rather equipping them with the skills they will need to shape the world of the future. As many commentators on education have noted, the system we have at the moment is perhaps not broken, but is at the very least out-dated and ill prepares our children for the future. Schools in England do not in general devote enough time or resources to career advice, and individual teachers are often ill-equipped to advise students. The best practice is often in isolated pockets, in rare schools which have developed a vision for the future, in departments, and more often than not, in the hands of individual teachers.
I believe that the most productive thing we can do to rise to this challenge is to listen to our students. It was very refreshing to read Cees’ post highlighting the benefits of student-focused learning and feedback from pupils. Too often there are barriers between teacher and student, hierarchies and power structures which can impede rather than help the learning process. It is through our dialogue with students that we can break down these barriers between us, between the present and the future. The relationships we build with students, together with the classroom environment in which we evolve, are as vital to learning as any pedagogy. Being a teacher means understanding your students, in terms of their academic level as well as their individual histories and needs. We are not machines transmitting or dispensing knowledge. As Arthur C. Clarke said, teachers who can be replaced by robots should be. The increasing use of technology in learning is forcing teachers to re-evaluate their role, and to make sure that they continue to offer what robots cannot.
What does it mean to be a teacher in the UK? This document shows that the status of teachers in the UK is not high, but it is about average for OECD countries. The public believe we should be paid a little more than we are for the job we do. We are generally respected as a profession – over 80% of the public trust us to tell the truth – although one must worry that over 10 % of the population do not trust teachers to tell the truth. We are second only to doctors in this survey and well above the police (65%), journalists (21%) and politicians (18%). We must maintain and build on this trust, and one of the key challenges to us is engaging parents and the wider community in what we do.
This information in the survey above begs the question: why do politicians have so much say in how we educate our children in this country? I do not intend to descend into politics, but for those reading this post outside of the UK, there is some background information (necessarily biased by my own values) of which you should be aware. The government, and specifically the Minister for Education, wield enormous power in terms of how they can reform the school system in England (there are separate systems in place in the other countries of the UK), and teachers are rarely consulted about these changes. The general impression at the moment is that while the government may be well-intentioned in trying to raise standards, their unilateral decisions and failure to consult teachers and educational researchers means that there are many wrong decisions being made.
Unions are in place, and do attempt to negotiate with the government. According to the unions, teachers are demotivated and dissatisfied with their jobs, yet whilst 47% have “seriously considered leaving the profession”, 68% are satisfied with their jobs. I find enormous satisfaction in my job, and whilst there are days when it is one of the hardest jobs in the world, teaching is a very rewarding profession. Many of the pressures we are feeling are being felt elsewhere as well, often more sharply. One of the biggest challenges facing teachers is to find the balance between defending the working conditions we need to do our jobs, and accepting the necessary changes that must take place in education.
The use of twitter and blogs has shown me the power that teachers can have in collaboration. Recently the schools inspection body in England (OFSTED) invited five prominent educators from the blogosphere to discuss the inspection process and the role of OFSTED in improving schools. The conversation resulted in the important development of OFSTED acknowledging that they would no longer grade individual teachers during their visits. This process shows how teachers can have more voice through informal collaboration than they may have through the unions.
So what are the main challenges and barriers facing teachers in the UK at the moment? Contrary to many teachers, I do not believe that the government, OFSTED, or school leaders are necessarily barriers to individual teachers effecting change. We can do this through the example of what we do, through speaking out on social media, and through building powerful professional networks. Whilst we must aim to improve our own classroom practice, to work with immediate colleagues and for the good of our schools, we must also look outside our classrooms, outside our departments and our schools to learn, to share and to collaborate. We must not forget the huge advances in education over the last century, the usually well-equipped working environment and the public support we have. The challenges are there, but we can accept them and enjoy meeting them. The barriers are there, but they are also, to a large extent, within us.
Rory Gallagher (@eddiekayshun) is a teacher of languages at The Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester in southern England.
He has been teaching in secondary schools in the UK for three years. Before that he taught English as a Foreign Language in Italy and in Japan, worked as a Resort Manager in the south of France, and ran his own business as a builder and decorator on the island of Corsica. He is always learning, and loves sharing his learning. His latest projects include a Masters in Education on student feedback, and a collaborative blog which gives teachers a forum to voice their values and experiences.
Until now, Teacher Tuesday has focused on countries that are still developing and learning how to produce good teaching structures and what is conducive to an effective educational system.
So today we observe the other end of the spectrum. Not only what are triumphs of teachers, schools and systems in the worlds’ most ‘successful’ countries in terms of education but also what problems are they facing? This week, we spoke to Cees, a history teacher from the Netherlands.
Dutch pupils are consistently among the highest performers in the Organisation for Economic Collaboration and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) with 15-year-olds scoring higher than average in literacy, mathematics and science.
‘I find it difficult to answer why the Netherlands are doing so well because what do grades mean?” – …To which countries did you compare?’ Is Cees’ first reaction when he is confronted with the statistics regarding exceptional performance in Dutch schools.
There are a number of reasons Dutch and North American/Western European education are successful, including:
Class sizes: Cess teaches several classes with an average size of 26. Many studies have shown that smaller, more focused classes are integral to a well-structured learning environment. This stands in opposition to the stories of Margaret and
Professional Development: Every year, Dutch teachers have to fill out a professional self-assessment, therein they have to set out their points for development and goals. Their head teacher goes through this with them and puts them on development courses tailored to their specific needs. Cees says ‘A teacher can spend anywhere between 5-10% of their work time on professional development’. By investing in its teachers, the Dutch education system is providing quality teaching for its students.
Feedback from pupils: All Dutch teachers are formally evaluated by their pupils. This accountability forms part of the basis for their professional development and constant self-improvement.
Pupil-centralism: Much of the Dutch education system is pupil-centric where pupils are in charge of their own education journey and teachers teach cooperation, self-motivation and how to learn as well as the topic they cover.
These are just a few examples of strengths within the Dutch education system. However, it is not without its own criticisms. There is an internal argument that this education system is ‘too standardised and designed to do well in international rankings such as PISA but which does little to address the needs of the individual pupil.’
This notion is exemplified by OperationEducation, an organisation in the Netherlands dedicated to individuals finding their own strengths and talents in a holistic manner, rather than being represented as data on a page. OperationEducation claim ‘We need a different definition of ‘excellent’ education’ and point out the need to find a means of expressing achievement that doesn’t come in the form of an education certificate to make a ‘valuable contributions to society’
Cees says he is ‘really hopeful about technology helping us to improve the organization that is needed to implement student-centered learning. Last Friday we had a mind-blowing presentation of the Dutch educational entrepreneur Bob Hofman that introduced ‘Peerscholar’. This computer program is a very good example of how teachers will be able to help students really reflect on eachothers’ work, and which will improve their responsibility to their own learning process. Less focus on grades and more on the content and the reflection of how they are learning.’
One of the undoubted dangers of writing about Africa is the potential perpetuation of the ‘single story’, that is, that Africa is more a country than a continent. A great deal of media portrays Africa as a single place with lots of the same problems. This could not be further from the truth, Africa is a continent as complex as any other in the World, perhaps even more so.
Kenya, for example, is excelling in many respects. Kenya’s capital Nairobi is home to the IHub, an institute set up by the University of Cape Town and the Carnegie Foundation to expedite the growth of technology in Kenya by linking scientists in Nairobi to their peers internationally.
Africa’s biggest urban slum is mere miles from this beacon of progress.
Kibera is enormous, home to over 1 million people who generally live in poverty without power or sanitation. However, referring back to the ‘one story’ perpetuation, the immediate assumption may be that Kibera is void of hope but that once again, that isn’t true.
Kibera has a sense of community and group spirit that bonds its citizens together and is helping it flourish. The Economist referred to Kibera as a ‘Boomtown Slum’ in a 2012 article.
One of the true paragons of that sense of community is Margaret, a teacher in Kibera, the following is a routine of Margaret’s day taken from this article:
• “I wake up at 4am, I get the bus in the morning and travel for two hours to my school. I have my regular duties to perform. I’m a class teacher of grade six with 85 children in a class. It starts at 8am, but we normally come early to mark the books. I also take care of the feeding programme so have to measure the food for the day. I have to mark my work. It’s normally a packed day. Today when you called I was issuing textbooks to all the different children. There is a lot of counting to be done and a lot of different activities.”
• “We end at 3.10pm and then the children have prep until 5pm. Between 6pm and 7pm we give an extra hour to some children that can’t do their homework at home because there’s no electricity or space at home. I leave at around 6.30pm. We have to make sure that we clear the compound. Sometime leave at 7pm. Imagine! But when I’m doing it I don’t mind. We work for the children. Five days a week.”
• “There is a persistent shortage of teachers. The government has its own way of doing things, but we are getting forgotten by policies. I am praying the government trains more teachers so we break the large classes into small classes of 50 so we produce the best children from the slum.”
• “The children share books, one to three children per book. The government sends the books but they get destroyed in their bags and sometimes the children sell their books at 50 to 100 shillings to buy food in the slum. 100 shillings, it’s about US$1.5. Children go out campaigning to get other children to come to school.”
• “There is a big difference between rural and urban school because they’re not densely populated. The way we do things in urban areas is different. In rural areas teacher to student ratio is 1 to 40, here is 1 to 70/100.”
• “There is no training for how to teach in slum schools! We’re given training to teach anywhere where there are children — not even in a school! Even if there is no school but there are children, you teach under a tree!”
As Margaret points out, the local and national government does have policies and legislation in place including the fact that every child is free to attend school and that no child can be turned away from a place of education. Of course these may be effective at a national level but in an locale as densely populated as Kibera, it results in overcrowded classrooms that don’t have enough resources.
Due to the lack of resources/infrastructure in Kibera, there is no formal structure for teachers to be employed/nominated and they are largely self-appointed. This is echoed by what Margaret says about children going out, campaigning for and recruiting other children into school, with Kibera being left behind at a national level, they are taking a pro-active stance and attempting to resolve issues for themselves.
Margaret mentions that her school provides meals for pupils which she has said ‘noticeably improves concentration and quality of learning’.
Kibera faces many of the same issues as other developing communities in Africa, inequality, lack of resources etc. but it is the community spirit of its children and exemplum like Margaret that are sustaining its educational structures and highlighting how highly regarded and important education is to its residents.
For many children, school is a safe, happy environment that means education and friendship. It is generally accepted that a happy school environment is contusive to quality education and learning. However, for many children in Syria, school has come to symbolise a place of fear after their places of learning were destroyed by direct attacks and bombings.
This week’s teacher is Mohammed, who teaches in Zaatari refugee camp in Syria. Mohammed has a university degree and 12 years teaching experience. The school and village he taught in was destroyed by conflict between groups, Mohammed described how ‘They bombed the whole village that time and they destroyed the school because it was in the area’, after this, Mohammed went to Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
Zaatari houses 25,000 children who are of school age, some of whom have missed up to 3 years of education because of conflict in their native countries. Sadly, this is a trend for children from countries affected by conflict, half of the 57 million children globally who are out of education come from countries affected by conflict. When conflict arises, education is often overlooked and pushed aside.
Mohammed says ‘Zaatari is a massive, massive place. It takes a couple of hours to walk across the camp.’ Naturally, providing resources for a camp this size is a struggle and that is Mohammed’s primary concern regarding education within the camp ‘Our main problems are the shortage of text books, we need boards and markers…The school doesn’t look like a school. I want a yard where children can play. We want our school to look like other schools.’
Being able to play and having sufficient resources would help the children who have been affected by conflict would not doubt ease the trauma and psychological damage that they have suffered. Mohammed points out that there are ‘many aggressive students because of the situations they faced during the crisis’. There are centres established to help children deal with the trauma they have suffered but Mohammed has said ‘we still need more support’.
Mohammed hopes to himself and his children back to Syria soon but has stated that if they are staying in the refugee camp for the foreseeable future then more aid is needed to improve conditions.
This week’s Teacher Tuesday saw Nahida, a headteacher from Kabul, Afghanistan explaining the difficulties education in her country faced under the Taliban government and the knock-on effect the previous government’s policy has had on primary education and teaching gaps, especially among women.
At present, Afghanistan has the greatest gender disparity for lower secondary education completion. The issue of gender is only exacerbated by the divide between young people living in urban/rural areas, this is sadly typical of education in developing countries.
Nahida herself graduated from Kabul University in the late 1980’s and became a teacher. When the Taliban government came to power in 1996, they closed girls for schools and prevented female teachers, like Nahida, from teaching.
Rather than simply accepting this injustice, Nahida bravely opposed government policy and started a home-school for girls. This was, of course, done unofficially and in secret because of the great risk to Nahida, her pupils and their parents.
After the Taliban government fell in 2001, Nahida returned to her primary school to find it a shell of its former structure. Nahida and her fellow teachers cleaned the classrooms and rebuilt the structures with mud and stones.
Nahida found it difficult to get young girls to return to school, the cultural effect that previous government had left in place had done a lot of damage and Nahida described girls’ return to her school as ‘slow’. She targeted families and mosques to ensure as many young people were brought into school as possible.
Of, course, where there is a lack of female completion of secondary school, there will inevitably be a lack of female teachers. Completing secondary education is the minimum requirement for becoming a teacher in Afghanistan and Afghanistan sorely needs female teachers to act as role-models for their young pupils, to encourage and nurture them and to show education does work.
However, it is not simply the legacy of Afghanistan’s previous government that is causing these deficiencies, there is also the issue of conflict and insurgency in the country. If insurgents attack a school, regardless of where it is in the country, parents will keep their children home for days, fearing for their lives. This is more likely in rural communities where there is less security and policing for residents and children.
However, despite the difficulties and the threats, Nahida continues to work tirelessly to deliver female education in Afghanistan. She is a paragon who, for 25 years, has continued teaching because she knows the power and the value of education. Education transforms lives and provides people with the skills they need to provide for themselves.