Training superhero teachers to transform Haiti

29 jan 2019 |

“Education is too narrowly defined as what happens in schools, but education happens in interactions on a neighbourhood block,” says the co-founder and CEO of Anseye Pou Ayiti (Teach for Haiti), Nedgine Paul Deroly.

“Education is what happens under a beautiful tree when a folk story is being told and kids are having their imagination sparked.”

Deroly is spearheading a national movement in her home country to transform the way children are taught, raising the standards of education and creating a new generation of Haitian civic leaders.

Only 20% of primary school teachers in Haiti are formally trained – and only 30% of their children finish primary school, while only 1% go to university, according to Nedgine, who has been invited to speak at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019.

“We have a situation in Haiti where, while access has been at the forefront of efforts, quality has been steadily decreasing,” she says.

“So, you have a ton of effort at building infrastructure and making sure that materials and supplies are in the hands of community members and kids and teachers, but at the other end, you have a lot of kids who are struggling to make it out of sixth grade in primary school.”

Beyond teaching

With a team around her, Nedgine set up Anseye Pou Ayiti (which means Teach For Haiti in the native Haitian Creole) to create a “standard of excellence” and achieve a quality education for all children, whether they’re in a public or private institution or in rural or urban areas.

But the movement goes beyond teaching.

“We know the most important factor is the person in the classroom, how well they are equipped to do their job. But, on top of that, we’ve said the classroom can’t only be about academic measures, let’s also make it the location in which civic leadership and citizenship are created.”

Since 2014, APA has recruited and trained more than 150 local ‘teacher leaders’ (a mix of existing teachers and new graduates) to transform classrooms largely in under-served rural communities. Following an intensive four-week ‘summer immersion’ training session, each cohort works for two years in a disadvantaged primary school, with continual leadership development and coaching.

“We believe the classroom is a microcosm for what we desire for our society, so everything we do there is meant to reflect the generation of civic leaders we aspire to have in the next five to 10 years.

“Whether it’s our teacher leaders, student leaders, or parents, we want to build competencies to make sure that it is citizens we’re equipping not just test takers.”

By 2020, they aim to inspire 20,000 civic leaders in the country.

Part of their mission is also to recognise and shine a light on the cultural assets Haiti has that can be used positively in the teaching experience.

“We worry that there’s a lot of deficit thinking in international education, a lot of, ‘How do I fix this gap?’ Instead, we look for the assets and reproduce them.

“We thoroughly use our native tongue of Haitian Creole instead of French, which is still very much tied to our colonial past. We use our proverbs and folklore to teach reading and social studies. And we go outside by the lake and use our natural resources to teach science.”

Time to heal

Of the teacher leaders APA recruits, 80-90% come from Haiti’s rural communities, because Nedgine believes those who have experienced injustice and inequity themselves are the best “solution bearers”.

She says her team were surprised when they realised the word ‘trauma’ didn’t even exist in Haitian Creole, “which goes to show it’s very taboo”, so healing the wounds of the past is something they focus on in the programme.

“Our teachers are a product of a system they are looking to transform, so there’s quite a bit of healing that needs to happen. They remember what it was like to suffer through corporal punishment, to be told, ‘Only speak in French’, to be punished instead of encouraged to collaborate.

“We want to help them deconstruct it and understand why that was what it was, and replace it with something that’s truly life-giving and much more filled with love and respect and hope.”

While Nedgine was born in Haiti and started primary school there, her family moved to the US and it was there she spent her formative years.

As a child, her parents, including her teacher father, instilled a sense of pride in her about her Haitian roots and she carried this with her as she grew up, eventually focusing on the history of education in Haiti for her thesis at Yale.

“I was raised to understand the nuance of history and how it can inform change,” she says.

No one was surprised when she decided to return home to Haiti and join forces with others to live out the age-old idea that “a group of committed individuals can come together and shift the course of our nation’s history”.

Superheroes

In 2018, she was named as one of the 20 inaugural Obama Foundation Fellows and met the former US president Barack Obama twice.

“He looked to Haiti and a couple of other countries and said, ‘Even in countries that have been written off for being mired in trouble, there are bright spots, and if we focus too much on what has been creating negativity, we will never understand the assets and potential that every community has to be great’.”

She considers teachers to be “superheroes” and is grateful that there are others, like her, who want to help transform her home country.

“One of the things that always strikes me is when the teachers say, ‘I didn’t know there were others still like me here’ because there’s such a brain drain from our country. There’s a lot of people who become very cynical and discouraged, understandably.

“But when you bring together 50, 60, 100 teacher leaders who say, ‘Wow, there are others who believe in the assets of our culture, there are others who want to lift up Haitian Creole to be on the same pedestal as other foreign languages’, those are the kind of things that have ignited our movement.”

Hear from other changemakers like Nedgine Paul Deroly at the Global Education and Skills Forum 2019. And learn more in Changemakers @GESF and EduPolicy @GESF sessions.