“When I saw the ad in our union magazine …I thought: Okay, why not?” says Rachel Heller, teacher and International Coordinator at Maartens College, and a member of EI’s Dutch affiliate AOb. “I had spent two years Malawi as a teacher before. I wanted to do it again.” “I thought: That’s my chance to take such a trip and do something for education in another country,” remembers Irene Meertens, Curriculum Coordinator at the Centrum voor nascholing of the University of Amsterdam, and also a member of AOb.
In August, they both left Holland to meet colleagues from abroad through a teacher exchange programme set up by the Dutch NGO Edukans. Heller travelled to Burundi, and Meertens to India. In Burundi, Heller provided training to English teachers, who sometimes have to struggle to meet the needs of up to 100 students in a single class. “We helped them with how to get their students to practise speaking, how to organise a classroom. Also, teachers need to teach in a more engaging, less traditional, way and students must become more active in class,” Heller said. There was also a computer aspect to the programme, which faced many challenges. “We visited four schools with electricity, with only two to four computers each. All the computers needed repairs, so two teachers per schools were trained to do back up maintenance.” She found that the level of the Burundian teachers’ training varies widely. Some have been to university while others only had a single year of training. Meertens also found poor working conditions and lack of qualifications in some schools in India. “It was shocking to see that the headmaster came late to school. The reasons? Salaries are low; teachers have not much control over their work; and they do not want to work in very remote areas,” Meertens explained. “It is a question of attention and attitude. The difference in salaries of teachers has to be dealt with by the government.” A group of Dutch and Indian teachers along with NGO representatives identified different levels of teacher professionalism in India: Some are well educated, with two years of training, but where there is a severe shortage of teachers, some have as little as one week of training. “But even two years is training of low quality in our opinion,” Meertens said. Teachers involved in the exchange programme came up with two major recommendations: Teachers in India need more skills in active learning; and more attention must be paid to the motivation of teachers. According to Trudy Kerperien, AOb International Secretary, it was important “to have the unions involved to promote the importance of real schools and well-trained teachers.” What was the most striking aspect of the summer exchange? “There was a very good atmosphere, and it was wonderful to share experience with Indian teachers,” Meertens reports. “They were surprised that we paid more attention to the quality of education and of teachers, while in India they pay more attention to facilities and materials.” “I learned how difficult it is for someone from one country to really understand what is going on in another country,” she said. “You can help from the sidelines, but only Indian people can make things change really.” Heller added: “It is fascinating to see how we can teach them. They got three weeks of practice in speaking English. But they are not able to practice it otherwise.” They both are very curious to see what their foreign colleagues do now with the training they received. “What will be done with the recommendations in India?” Meertens wonders. And they remain deeply involved in the sustainability of this two-year programme and its follow-up. “We would like to go there again,” Meertens says. “It is a pilot project, so we do not know if it is possible. Next year, other Dutch teachers will go.” A teacher in Burundi asked Heller for textbooks, so she is organising fundraising at her school. “They were listening to tapes of a textbook, but the text was read by a person with a Burundian accent.” So she asked a colleague who is a native English speaker to record the tape. By Claude Carroué.