This past July and August, while most teachers were on vacation, 10 Alberta teachers returned to school as volunteers with Project Overseas, Canadaâ€™s assistance program for teachers in developing countries.
Each summer, 10 to 12 Alberta teachers give up five weeks of their holidays to bring much-needed training to colleagues abroad, many of whom labour under conditions considered primitive by Canadian standards. In some host countries, teachers have little more than chalkboards to work with and barely a sixth grade education, says Tim Johnston, the ATA staff officer responsible for the program in Alberta.
â€œTraining through Project Overseas may be the only professional development some of those teachers ever get in their careers. It means a great deal to them.â€ The benefits go both ways, he adds. â€œMuch of the learning that takes place is by the Canadian teachers. Most describe their time with Project Overseas as a life-changing experience.â€
Teachersâ€™ organizations across Canada provide names of their members who have applied to take part in Project Overseas, operated by the Canadian Teachersâ€™ Federation (CTF). The skills of these Canadian teachers are matched to requests from overseas teacher organizations, and teams of Canadians are formed around these requests.
An orientation takes place in Ottawa before departure for the overseas destination and this is where the team members meet up for the first time. The orientation provides information on conditions to expect in the country of destination and allows teams to develop plans for working with their colleagues overseas.
Canadians who volunteer for Project Overseas share their talents and skills with teachers in the developing country who become friends. In return, they learn first-hand about the conditions that others work in, share experiences within the country, and return to Alberta classrooms better prepared to help interpret the world to their own students.
Project Overseas has been in operation since 1962, and the first Alberta teachers took part in 1964. Since then, Alberta teachers have filled 327 teaching positions on Project Overseas. These participants have been supported by approximately $2,225,000 in member fees.
Project Overseas also receives funding from the Canadian International Development Agency, The Alberta Wild Rose Foundation and the CTF Trust.
Hereâ€™s what past Project Overseas participants said about their experiences helping teachers around the world.
Alberta Teachers Help Their Malawi Colleagues
Malawi is a small, landlocked African nation in the Southern Hemisphere. More than half the countryâ€™s population of 12 million is under the age of 13. Approximately 25 to 40 per cent of the population has the AIDS virus and, according to the United Nations, Malawi is the world’s ninth poorest nation.
Teachers in Malawi earn the equivalent of about $80 a month teaching extremely large classes ranging anywhere from 85 to 200 students. Supplies are essentially non-existent. A classroom can be a small room where students sit on a cement floor or an outside area where students sit under trees. In the latter case, children are sent home when it rains.
In 1993, the country moved from a dictatorship to a democracy, and the incoming political party decreed that all children would have access to free education. Consequently, thousands of children entered the public school system causing a tremendous strain on too few teachers. To meet the teacher shortage, many teachers have been hired with little or no formal training other than having graduated from high school. This is where Project Overseas is having a positive impact.
Project Overseas participants helped teachers prepare for state examinations and developed a leadership course with administrators and members of the Teachersâ€™ Union of Malawi. Along with two members of the teachersâ€™ union, Canadian teachers provided information on becoming better leaders.
We left Malawi believing that the experience of Project Overseas made our 41 administrators and union leaders much better leaders in their own schools and union, as well as in their nation. I believe I am a better professional and a better person because of my experiences in Malawi. It was an experience of a lifetime.
Jordanian Teachers Eager to Learn
Susanne Drodge and Joe Fornal
Although the 20 teachers in each of the other three workshops were well trained technically, none had received any formal teacher training. Typical high schools in Jordan have a lab of older computers used only for teaching computer science at the Grade 10 level. As a result, few teachers in the math workshop were familiar with their operation. A goal of Jordanâ€™s education ministry is to improve the access of teachers and students to modern computers.
We were impressed with the desire of teachers in Jordan to improve their teaching skills on their own time and at their own expense. Their pay is low compared with the cost of living, their work load is considerable (about 50 students per class) and although teachers traveled long distances to attend the workshop, they displayed an eagerness to hear what we had to offer.
Friendships Last a Lifetime
The minute I arrived in Grenada, I was welcomed as an integral part of an educational team. The Caribbean teachers and their union became my family, and we worked together towards â€œa bright future for Grenada.â€
Over summer vacation, teachers from across Grenada travelled great distances to acquire computer skills so that they could later pass on their knowledge to their colleagues and students. The teachers were dedicated, open to sharing their experiences and committed to providing the best education for their students.
During a visit I made to a local all-boysâ€™ school, a four-year-old boy took my hand and led me to a table where I was shown how to make play dough animals. My new friend, his fellow students and I laughed together at our creations. At times like this, the goals and rewards of Project Overseas become clearâ€”the fostering of understanding and acceptance, joining other teachers to make a difference in education, and experiencing the hopes and dreams of children.
In September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan ravaged Grenada, I contacted my Caribbean colleagues and friends to make sure everyone was safe. â€œBuildings can be destroyed, but friendships last a lifetime,â€ I was told.
Upon hearing about my experiences and the devastating aftermath of the hurricane, my students in Canada became passionate about helping others and raising funds for Grenada. â€œI want to make a difference and help people like you, Miss Armstrong,â€ a Grade 7 student told me.
Weâ€™re all part of the global picture. Iâ€™m blessed to be part of an education that extends beyond notebooks and into the hearts and lives of children.