In reflecting on my recent trip to Kanungu, Uganda, I want to tackle my take on teaching teachers.

I’ve had the absolute privilege of facilitating and participating in a wide range of professional learning in my career as an educator. I’ve seen different applications of teacher support in my role as a coach, coordinator and now VP, and I’ve been involved in PD in many locations including conferences in the Dominican Republic with Teacher Mentors Abroad last summer. I’m prepared to argue that regardless of where, the power of empathy to inform your understanding of context, and then to collaboratively agree on areas of growth, proves to be a key driver to change. Not perfect, but powerful.

‘What started with new handshakes, morphed to hugs by the end.’

Likewise, when navigating the complexities of a Ugandan teacher’s day, you had to consider the vulnerable position they held as they welcomed these visitors. So much of our identity is wrapped up in being a teacher! Who am I to enter into your space to make observations around your practice when we’ve just met and I’ve never witnessed a school like this? A fellow colleague and I were asked to support the team’s feelings and confidence around our role as observers. We spent time empathizing, recalling our own feelings when being observed, and formulating some ideas to frame conversations.

Any fears I may have held quickly dissipated the first week as my school’s teachers warmly welcomed and celebrated our presence.

When we arrived each day (after a 45-60 minute rocky van ride), teachers would exit their classrooms to greet us with ‘Agandi. You are welcome madam. And how was your evening?’ What started with new handshakes (Ugandans barely touch your hand and cross over their opposite arm as they reach out) morphed to hugs by the end. That joy of greeting may have been unique to our school given its small staff and sense of family, but it’s easy to see the impact of that ‘drop everything and welcome’ value. I loved the intentionality, the formality. Add that to my purposeful entry toolkit.

Here is a photo of my school family to start. Because professional learning is about people first, then programming. You’ll see: teacher Christopher back right who is 70 but was the biggest ambassador of student talk; teacher Monic back left whose baby, Witness, was just 4 weeks when we started. She teaches and nurses her across the day. My fellow friends (and washroom guards) Katherine and Jason. In red is Penlope, whose love and care go far beyond any director’s job description. Florence and Festus, John and Godon, Aggre and Aphia. We ate together, laughed together, learned together.

So how does one Canadian end up on a global team of educators in Uganda? A friend of mine, Susan Grieve, asked me to research an organization as her daughter was considering the possibility. I caught the bug immediately. I marvelled at the history, widespread impact, and values revealed in the Limited Resource Teacher Training website. That planted the seed of a crazy idea that became a spectacular month in Uganda!

Briefly, LRTT’S design supports teacher training around 6 concepts: Mindset, Climate for Learning, Preparation for Teaching, Teaching for Learning, Assessment for Learning and Professional Culture. We focused on the first three.

These concepts are realized through practical modelled strategies as outlined in the course program though we were not relegated to only using the strategies provided. To me, the power behind the LRTT design, however, is the observations in classrooms over 3 weeks punctuated by targeted professional learning each weekend. This, I believe, we could learn from in our context. Short intensive narrow foci to leverage the momentum of daily interactions in class. What may have been modelled one Saturday was fodder for experimentation on Monday.

Our large LRTT Ugandan team benefitted from 2 team leads (former fellows), 1 in -country lead who also works across 3 countries, and 2 Ugandan coordinators.

These leaders were a tremendous support long before we even stepped foot off the plane. Indeed, LRTT requires pre-fellowship learning modules and webinars to expand and equip fellows with the toolkit they need to manage the responsibility of professional learning. These leaders made you feel a little less alone and brought their depth of experience to our conversations. Not to mention, they were my saviours around access to intermittent data, coordination of excursions, monitoring of curfew (~sigh) and, well, wine 🤷‍

No doubt their positive energy was the glue that held us together across the month.

Our fellows team was divided and deployed to a number of schools across the Kanungu District (southwest Uganda next door to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest). Our school had 3 fellows who were assigned to a team of 3 or 4 teachers. On my team were the director and owner of the school, the head teacher, a retired head teacher who had returned to teach and a relatively new teacher.

However on conference days, these teams were cross-pollinated across a number of schools. As a fellow then, you play a role on 3 teams: school team, conference team, and whole team. Read TEAM. Now given the complexity of human interactions, these opportunities to nurture and participate in teams can be on a spectrum of powerful to pitiful. I liken the experience to dams; at times, holding back the flow of ideas to allow for a natural current to meander in eddies and rapids, then at other times, opening the floodgates to invite waves of what ifs. All across a brand new landscape. For some, the generating of ideas that would meet teacher/ student needs is invigorating, whereas for others, it’s foreign and too far removed from their preliminary experiences in teaching. Some fellows had few years of teaching experience. Others had international experience.

I struggle to outline all the additional contributing factors that enhanced our effectiveness, but surely these teachers’ ( and students’) eagerness to learn, to grow, to please was an astounding piece of that. We faced a language barrier, not that students could not speak English as it is the language of instruction. Instead it was their way of rote learning which built vast vocabulary banks but not necessarily optimal ability for critical thinking.

One way we sought to address and bridge this gap was to encourage teachers and students to use their first language.

This won’t come as a surprise to my ELL colleagues who know the power of tapping into one’s first language. And when our Ugandan teachers or students heard us struggle to use even the simplest Rukiga phrase, appreciation laced with laughter bonded us. Again, empathy.

Both the implentation of the Q Chart in raising awareness and developing higher order thinking questions, or in designing prompts for community circle, the freedom to think and speak in their first language helped us all imagine the process with more success. Of course, our instruction was in English but our extension was for them to consider its impact on student learning in Rukiga.

We took questions from their curriculum to sort, we bumped them up to inspire deeper thinking. We employed think/pair/ share often to instigate student talk. My 70 year old teacher was possibly the greatest adopter who witnessed the power of student interactions. By our last week, he had combined genders in small groups working on a math problem collaboratively as he circulated, and then invited them to share their thinking at the board. Unheard of!

{Please note that LRTT challenges our privilege and power around taking photos, as consent is a thorny issue in this context. My intention is always to try and position myself to be aware of the impact, and to share discreetly. }

The Ugandan education system relies heavily on testing at every level every year in August for a week. I believe it determines student placement the following year and is data that attempts to compare schools across the district. These test booklets were quite advanced and in English. Teachers at our school rotated so there were no home room teachers. All teachers had many classrooms. And many accessed the ‘outdoor’ classroom as well.

If a teacher was absent, a classroom sat. Direct supervision was not standard.

Their school day went from 7:30am to 5pm. Little ones recieved posho, a porridge drink, at break if their parents could afford it. Some students walked home at lunch, others hung around in their classrooms.

Definitely most heartbreaking for me was the lack of absolutely any book. Sure, teachers had their curriculum and a student sample book that dictated their instruction, page by page, but students did not read except for the words or sentence they had just written.

I tried to investigate whether oral storytelling was happening, but I never witnessed it. I wonder if that is a home experience. It’s one of my great regrets not encouraging teachers to have students create their own books. For example, one class was working on domestic vs wild animals. What an easy illustration and caption per page for a whole class to contribute to. Paper is valuable. Drawing is not learning unless it is a map. Pencils are sharpened with a razor blade. Every student carries one wrapped in wax paper.

I was paralyzed by fear everytime a child started pulling the blade across a pencil stub.

Limited resources but maximum generosity best describes my school. Still wishing Katherine, Jason and I were pulling up in the van to start the day.

Written by Annette Gillbert

LRTT Fellow, Uganda

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