In a rundown classroom with few desks and fewer books, Sally Angelson watched a local teacher struggling to teach tired, hungry children. Overcrowding only worsened the situation.
It’s a scenario the former teacher and aid worker has seen often. From teaching in a bush school in South Sudan to a refugee camp in Lebanon, Sally has seen first-hand how conflict and poverty shatters children’s dreams for the future.
“When you see communities where whole generations have missed out on an education you can see the damage it’s inflicted. I’ve worked with children and adults learning together in the same class.”
Sally knew there had to be a better way.
Drawn by ChildFund’s focus on listening to children, Sally joined the organisation to set up a teacher interchange programme with teachers from New Zealand and Zambia. But she wanted it to be much more than just a chance for Kiwi teachers to talk about poverty in their classrooms.
For answers Sally looked to New Zealand’s own child-centred learning and teaching techniques. With help from ChildFund’s education specialists and the International Literacy Association (formerly the International Reading Association) she developed a teacher training programme adaptable to different environments. The result was ATLAS – Active Teaching and Learning Approaches in Schools, a programme that would first be piloted in Zambia.
Kiwi know-how meets Zambian tenacity
On her visit to Zambia, Sally met the head teacher of Mukupi School in the rural Mumbwa district. For a time, Melvin Moonga was the only teacher at the school with a roofless classroom and scarcely a desk for the 400 students who turned up.
Sally was impressed by his dedication given the condition of the school.
“The school was in a terrible state, and no teachers wanted to teach in such a place. But Melvin remained committed to the students and continued teaching with hundreds of students to care for.”
After Melvin reached out to ChildFund, generous Kiwis supported the repair of the school, adding more classrooms, an Early Childhood Centre, a science block, teacher housing and clean, safe toilets.
Along with other teachers in the region,. He told Sally that being able to experience a range of teaching approaches from the other side of the world was “life-changing” for him.
“I used to be like a bus driver, just driving the students where I thought they should go. Now I have stepped back and joined the passengers and we are all on the journey together.”
Melvin now acts as a trainer teaching others about how to engage students in their own learning. Schools with ATLAS-trained teachers have seen an increase in child-centred activities, a drop in absenteeism and a dramatic rise in pass rates for school subjects.
Taking ATLAS to the world
Inspired by Melvin and his fellow Zambian teachers, Sally looked further afield to Sri Lanka. On its eastern shores lies the district of Batticaloa whose people have suffered through decades of civil conflict and the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami.
Separated not only by the Indian Ocean and 6500km, Mumbwa and Batticaloa are also populated by different cultures and peoples. Similarities abound though. Both communities are rural with many people living distant from each other and relying on subsistence farming. Yet, while Zambian parents know the importance of a good education, parents in Batticaloa who have had to survive without the most basic education struggle to see its value.
According to Sally this isn’t surprising given what people have lived through.
“The people have lost their education, as well as so many members of the community. The ATLAS project will undo at least some of what they have lost. It will also compensate for the severe shortage of teachers.”
Education in war-ravaged areas of Sri Lanka took a distant second-place to surviving, but now with support, families are getting back on their feet. Ten-year-old Meena gets up at 4am just to study and wants to become a teacher. But schooling is a challenge for her and other children, with the majority still failing core subjects.
There are teachers like Mrs Swendra who believe strongly that education will help give children the better life their parents so desperately want for them. Standing in a village school in Batticaloa, Sally observed her taking a class.
“About 10 minutes into the lesson the teacher Mrs Swendra, though well intentioned and trying her best, lost control of the class. She is really the reason we were in her classroom as she approached ChildFund for assistance for her school. It took real courage to put herself out there like that.”
Dedicated to her students Mrs Swendra struggled to get through the school day.
“I love teaching. But I find it exhausting. A key feature of ATLAS is classroom management, and how to focus the energy and knowledge of students into their learning and helping others learning too. That will help immensely.”
Parents here are very poor. For those parents who want to help their children in school there is too much work to do just to get by.
Trapped in a cycle of poverty, children have little to look forward to. Sally has seen this all before.
“If a student here fails science, which most of them currently do, they have no chance of becoming a doctor or engineer. If they fail maths, they can’t continue with their education at all. They get stuck in a cycle of poverty. This project will give them the opportunity to have the quality education that they deserve. They are good, intelligent kids – they just need some help to grow.”
A pilot in several schools in Batticaloa has lifted pass rates and attendance with dropout rates plummeting. Peer-to-peer learning techniques have also involved parents, allowing them to fully participate in their children’s achievements.
“The ATLAS model works because it uses tried-and-tested Kiwi techniques adapted to local needs and empowers children, teachers, parents and entire communities. We just need Kiwi help to make it a reality for many more children like Meena.”
Do you believe every child deserves a great education?
ChildFund is planning to extend the ATLAS programme in Batticaloa and nationwide across Sri Lanka. You have the chance to help make Meena’s dreams come true by donating to Meena’s appeal.
Sally Angelson (née Hewlett) is Programme Manager for ChildFund New Zealand responsible for overseeing programmes in six core partner countries: Kenya, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste (East Timor), Vietnam and Zambia.