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Providing Hope Through Better Teaching

A TC effort is addressing education for refugee children at the most basic level

HEROIC EFFORTS Teachers at Kakuma refugee camp, most of whom are refugees themselves and lack formal training, face classrooms of more than 150 students. (Photo Credit: Danielle Falk)
HEROIC EFFORTS Teachers at Kakuma refugee camp, most of whom are refugees themselves and lack formal training, face classrooms of more than 150 students. (Photo Credit: Danielle Falk)
Half of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are children. While the majority are now found in urban areas, vast numbers still live in refugee camps and settlements where hope is often in short supply.

The crux of the problem: “Not only have they lost their homes, but also the ability to go to school,” notes Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, who oversees education policy and advocacy for Save the Children, the non-profit dedicated to the health, safety and welfare of children in 120 countries across the globe.

More specifically, nearly half of all displaced primary-school age children do not attend school. Among refugees who do complete primary and secondary educational requirements, only one percent advance to college-level studies.

“Not only have they lost their homes, but also the ability to go to school.”
— Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Director of Education Policy & Advocacy, Save the Children

No single panacea can remedy this epic crisis – but Teachers College Associate Professor of Practice Mary Mendenhall knows where the effort needs to begin.

“We have to start with the teachers,” Mendenhall told a roomful of advocates and stakeholders at “Promising Practices for Refugee Education,” an event held in New York City in late September.

Save the Children, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Pearson Education company co-sponsored the symposium, which featured presentations by representatives from relief agencies and non-profits dedicated to solving collateral damage growing out of the refugee emergency.

Among the highlights was Mendenhall’s presentation of “Teachers for Teachers,” a groundbreaking Teachers College initiative that has improved learning for 30,000 students occupying Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp.

Mendenhall and a team of graduate students from TC’s International & Comparative Education program launched the project last year at Kakuma, where nearly 178,000 refugees have fled from neighboring South Sudan and Somalia, among other countries.

Dr. Mary Mendenhalla
“We have to start with the teachers.”
— Mary Mendenhall, TC Associate Professor of Practice

“Teachers for Teachers” is an intensive professional development program that focuses on the classroom skills of teachers who, at the primary school level, face classrooms of more than 150 students – and who themselves are refugees, for the most part lacking any formal training.

Drawing on research that shows that “teachers are the strongest school-level predictor of student learning,” the TC program has introduced three components to address the “significant gaps” in support provided to teachers:  

  • A training regimen focused on, among other things, child protection, well-being, pedagogy, curriculum and instruction.
  • Peer coaching to reinforce and support “collaborative learning” and counteract the challenges of teaching over-sized classrooms.  
  • “Mobile mentoring,” a follow-through component that encourages Kakuma teachers to reach out to mentors around the world using WhatsApp on their cell phones.

Fifteen months after TC began working with an initial cohort of 130 teachers, Mendenhall and her team report evidence of improvements in teacher-student relationships, protection of children, and teacher motivation.

“Teachers who participated in the ‘Teachers for Teachers’ program reported better preparation, higher confidence, a stronger sense of purpose – not just as educators, but also as advocates for child protection and positive discipline – and that they were more aware of useful practices that can be used in their classroom,” the research team writes in “Strengthening Teacher Professional Development: Local and global communities of practice in Kakuma Refugee Camp Kenya,” a case study presented at a symposium.

“I used to be a reactive teacher. Now I am a changed teacher, I see every learner smiling back. Because I smile, they smile.”
— Kakuma primary school teacher Chaltu Megesha Gedo

Kakuma primary school teacher Chaltu Megesha Gedo credits “Teachers for Teachers” for helping her attain a previously unimaginable level of professional and personal growth.

“I used to be a reactive teacher,” Gedo acknowledges in an essay published in the TC case study, adding that she was quick to discipline her students with a cane.

Once a “gloomy” and “harsh” teacher, who rarely shied from “corporal punishment,” Gedo writes that now “I go to class, I see now I am a changed teacher, I see every learner smiling back. Because I smile, they smile.”

Mendenhall emphasized to her New York audience that “Teachers for Teachers” is still just getting started.

Plans are already underway to continue the training of a second cohort of 420 refugee and national teachers in Kakuma and a nearby community with support from UNICEF and the European Union. Teachers from the first cohort have already stepped in to co-facilitate the new trainings and to provide ongoing support to their peers.

The TC researchers also are devising ways to measure the impact of “Teachers for Teachers” on classroom performance, a task Mendenhall says is complicated by the “difficulty of collecting data on learning outcomes” in contexts of displacement.

The TC team also plans to redouble its emphasis on child protection as it delves into the impact of trauma on refugee students’ ability to focus on their studies.

Regardless of the hardships their experiences have imposed on them, the young people occupying refugee camps are no different than their counterparts around the world who awaken each morning in comfortable homes. 

"They all have dreams," said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children and former Prime Minister of Denmark. "And what we are doing here is honoring those dreams." – Steve Giegerich

Strengthening Teacher Professional Development: Local and global communities of practice in Kakuma Refugee Camp Kenya,” was written by Mary Mendenhall and TC students and recent graduates Lauren Bowden, Jihae Cha, Sophia Collas, Danielle Falk, Sarah French, Shenshen Hu, Emily Richardson, Makala Skinner‌

Published Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017

A TC effort is addressing education for refugee children at the most basic level

HEROIC EFFORTS Teachers at Kakuma refugee camp, most of whom are refugees themselves and lack formal training, face classrooms of more than 150 students. (Photo Credit: Danielle Falk)
HEROIC EFFORTS Teachers at Kakuma refugee camp, most of whom are refugees themselves and lack formal training, face classrooms of more than 150 students. (Photo Credit: Danielle Falk)
Half of the world’s 21.3 million refugees are children. While the majority are now found in urban areas, vast numbers still live in refugee camps and settlements where hope is often in short supply.

The crux of the problem: “Not only have they lost their homes, but also the ability to go to school,” notes Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, who oversees education policy and advocacy for Save the Children, the non-profit dedicated to the health, safety and welfare of children in 120 countries across the globe.

More specifically, nearly half of all displaced primary-school age children do not attend school. Among refugees who do complete primary and secondary educational requirements, only one percent advance to college-level studies.

“Not only have they lost their homes, but also the ability to go to school.”
— Joseph Nhan-O’Reilly, Director of Education Policy & Advocacy, Save the Children

No single panacea can remedy this epic crisis – but Teachers College Associate Professor of Practice Mary Mendenhall knows where the effort needs to begin.

“We have to start with the teachers,” Mendenhall told a roomful of advocates and stakeholders at “Promising Practices for Refugee Education,” an event held in New York City in late September.

Save the Children, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Pearson Education company co-sponsored the symposium, which featured presentations by representatives from relief agencies and non-profits dedicated to solving collateral damage growing out of the refugee emergency.

Among the highlights was Mendenhall’s presentation of “Teachers for Teachers,” a groundbreaking Teachers College initiative that has improved learning for 30,000 students occupying Kenya’s remote Kakuma refugee camp.

Mendenhall and a team of graduate students from TC’s International & Comparative Education program launched the project last year at Kakuma, where nearly 178,000 refugees have fled from neighboring South Sudan and Somalia, among other countries.

Dr. Mary Mendenhalla
“We have to start with the teachers.”
— Mary Mendenhall, TC Associate Professor of Practice

“Teachers for Teachers” is an intensive professional development program that focuses on the classroom skills of teachers who, at the primary school level, face classrooms of more than 150 students – and who themselves are refugees, for the most part lacking any formal training.

Drawing on research that shows that “teachers are the strongest school-level predictor of student learning,” the TC program has introduced three components to address the “significant gaps” in support provided to teachers:  

  • A training regimen focused on, among other things, child protection, well-being, pedagogy, curriculum and instruction.
  • Peer coaching to reinforce and support “collaborative learning” and counteract the challenges of teaching over-sized classrooms.  
  • “Mobile mentoring,” a follow-through component that encourages Kakuma teachers to reach out to mentors around the world using WhatsApp on their cell phones.

Fifteen months after TC began working with an initial cohort of 130 teachers, Mendenhall and her team report evidence of improvements in teacher-student relationships, protection of children, and teacher motivation.

“Teachers who participated in the ‘Teachers for Teachers’ program reported better preparation, higher confidence, a stronger sense of purpose – not just as educators, but also as advocates for child protection and positive discipline – and that they were more aware of useful practices that can be used in their classroom,” the research team writes in “Strengthening Teacher Professional Development: Local and global communities of practice in Kakuma Refugee Camp Kenya,” a case study presented at a symposium.

“I used to be a reactive teacher. Now I am a changed teacher, I see every learner smiling back. Because I smile, they smile.”
— Kakuma primary school teacher Chaltu Megesha Gedo

Kakuma primary school teacher Chaltu Megesha Gedo credits “Teachers for Teachers” for helping her attain a previously unimaginable level of professional and personal growth.

“I used to be a reactive teacher,” Gedo acknowledges in an essay published in the TC case study, adding that she was quick to discipline her students with a cane.

Once a “gloomy” and “harsh” teacher, who rarely shied from “corporal punishment,” Gedo writes that now “I go to class, I see now I am a changed teacher, I see every learner smiling back. Because I smile, they smile.”

Mendenhall emphasized to her New York audience that “Teachers for Teachers” is still just getting started.

Plans are already underway to continue the training of a second cohort of 420 refugee and national teachers in Kakuma and a nearby community with support from UNICEF and the European Union. Teachers from the first cohort have already stepped in to co-facilitate the new trainings and to provide ongoing support to their peers.

The TC researchers also are devising ways to measure the impact of “Teachers for Teachers” on classroom performance, a task Mendenhall says is complicated by the “difficulty of collecting data on learning outcomes” in contexts of displacement.

The TC team also plans to redouble its emphasis on child protection as it delves into the impact of trauma on refugee students’ ability to focus on their studies.

Regardless of the hardships their experiences have imposed on them, the young people occupying refugee camps are no different than their counterparts around the world who awaken each morning in comfortable homes. 

"They all have dreams," said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children and former Prime Minister of Denmark. "And what we are doing here is honoring those dreams." – Steve Giegerich

Strengthening Teacher Professional Development: Local and global communities of practice in Kakuma Refugee Camp Kenya,” was written by Mary Mendenhall and TC students and recent graduates Lauren Bowden, Jihae Cha, Sophia Collas, Danielle Falk, Sarah French, Shenshen Hu, Emily Richardson, Makala Skinner‌

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