NGO seeks to end education inequality

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NGO seeks to end education inequality

By Jinan Al-Habbal
Special to The Daily Star
Friday, August 07, 2009





BEIRUT: Instead of allowing top graduating students from various universities to get on a plane and leave the country, Teach For Lebanon, a local NGO, is trying to re-direct these human resources toward Lebanon and its needy rural areas.

Teach For Lebanon (TFL) seeks to “eliminate educational inequality while fostering youth leadership and promoting civic engagement” due to the large disparity between the quality of education between towns and cities, and rural areas.

Discussions on the feasibility of the initiative started in 2006, when the organization held a number of interviews with university students.

TFL then settled on three steps for implementation. First, recruitment efforts targeted students at different on-campus activities at most Lebanese universities, seeking the top graduates from all majors, whose academic qualifications were enhanced by leadership and communication skills. An assessment process then followed, to produce a final list of Fellows for TFL.

The Fellows who were accepted after the assessment are now participating in a six-week intensive Teacher Training Summer Institute, co-hosted by TFL and the Education Department at the Lebanese American University (LAU).

The summer course, which is scheduled to end on August 7, is “both academic and fun,” according to Raissa Batakji, TFL’s communications director. “The fellows are going to become leaders of their own classes and suggest a change in these communities; they are going to become idols for their students,” she added.

The net result is for the Fellows to have a full-time teaching job for two consecutive academic years, at selected underprivileged schools.

“There’s a big gap between the level of education available in rural and urban areas, so by taking our Fellows to villages, we are building a bridge that will give a chance to reach privileged schools to those who cannot reach them, and bring in a new approach to village life,” said Ali Dimashkieh, the Chief Executive Officer of TFL. The selected schools are underprivileged, free-of-tuition, and associated with the private sector. The program has specifically chosen its fellows to teach Grade I, II, and III students. This is due to the estimated figure of over 20,000 dropouts annually beginning at Grade IV, when automatic promotion policies end, and comprehensive end-of-year examinations begin. But the TFL Fellows won’t suddenly be thrust into the difficult job of grade school teacher – they’ll be there to help out.

“The fellows will not be replacing existing teachers,” Batakji said. “We call them ‘Fellows’ not teachers, and they’re going to be there for only two years.”

TFL will be providing Fellows with a monthly salary of $800, while covering accommodations, transportation and health care; other incentives include help from sponsors, to provide job opportunities with the help of business partners.

TFL’s current plan is to recruit 18 Fellows for the first group, in the hope that the number will rise in the coming years.

The “Teach For” initiative is being applied in 10 other countries: the US, the UK, Chile, Germany, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, South Africa, India, and Australia, as part of the global network of Teach For All, an international NGO.

While Teach For All offers consultancy services and facilitates an exchange of best practices among the participating na*tions, the seed money of Leba*non’s NGO comes from a group of Lebanese businessmen living abroad, who formed their own organization, Act For Lebanon.

Other active supporters are Booz & Company, which structured the business plan, and Deloitte, which is responsible for human resources and auditing, as well as academic institutions LAU and the American University of Beirut, which are offering five fully-paid scholarships each, for TFL Alumni to pursue their graduate degrees.

Pamela Chemali, TFL’s program manager, argues that rural education needs are such that TFL can only help the situation.

“The program will work because any step forward is a step in the right direction. It may take longer than we expect but it will work out,” she said.

Spokesperson Batakji is certain: “It will work out – no doubt – and the results are going to be measurable in the first five years, if not less. We have the full blessing of prestigious academic institutions and business partners, and the credibility of the success of the initiative in other countries, so why not Lebanon?”

The Fellows’ summer orientation is intensive, from 9 a.m. till 7 p.m., five days a week at LAU’s Beirut campus. The18 would-be-Fellows are graduates from various universities and majors, such as Medical Lab, Political Studies, Visual Arts, Theater, Environmental Health, Engineering, Business, and Nutrition. Two Diaspora Lebanese are also part of the program.

The Fellows-to-be will receive a certificate of participation, which transfers a number of credits toward a teaching diploma. A range of trainers are helping participants gain the skills needed to teach certain subjects. These include setting goals, performing assessments, and classroom management techniques. Group work exercises are a standard feature of the training.

Riham Miri, an AUB graduate with a Bachelor’s in Environmental Health and minor in Public Health, decided to join TFL and help plant the seeds of new generations.

“The training has been very beneficial until now,” Miri said. “It’s helping all of the fellows gain experience from each other to reach our attained goal in teaching since we come from different backgrounds and majors.”

The trainees are also learning about how to deal with unexpected situations that the kids in class may cause or have, such as dealing with children having ADHD, dyslexia, and autism. The training stresses the idea of connecting the children with the outer environment rather than just the class, and letting them speak out, to be part of society, and not just receive lectures from Fellows.

“Fellows are involved in the children’s social skills and civics, because we are not only teaching them, but also raising them to be part of the community,” Miri said. The training also includes dealing with the administration and teachers, and parents, some of whom might be illiterate, to show them the positive side of students and encourage the idea of improving individual performances.

“School is not only about getting good grades, but about allowing students to have self-confidence. A “B” student can become an “A” student, but having a social life and specific personality traits are what really matters. Hopefully, we are going to form a new generation of educated students,” Miri stated.

The Fellows-to-be will likely be placed in schools in Ansar, Halba, Dahr al-Ain, Barsa, Sidon and Rashaya, for their two-year teaching experience, beginning next month. “You’re a bunch of very smart students,” Zeina Youssef, an English teaching trainer, told the Fellows upon ending her session.

Intelligence might get the TFL Fellows through this summer’s orientation, but the bigger challenge of a new profession in a new community awaits.
 
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