Real and possible: Transformational teacher professional development in practice

Read three examples of how effective teacher professional development practices are being used in 3 GPE partner countries.

March 23, 2020 by Deborah Gleason, Perkins School for the Blind
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5 minute read
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A teacher in front of her class at the Nyamachaki Primary School, Nyeri County. Kenya.
A teacher in front of her class at the Nyamachaki Primary School, Nyeri County. Kenya.
GPE/Kelley Lynch

This year, the Perkins School for the Blind is celebrating 100 years of sharing our expertise with fellow teachers of children with multiple disabilities around the world. Mary Burns’ January 2020 GPE article on “The 7 deadly sins of donor-funded teacher professional development” had us cheering in agreement.

In schools of all sizes across 92 countries, we’ve seen how avoiding these ‘sins’ results in more learning for children with multiple disabilities. Because our children have the most complex learning needs, and depend on skilled teachers, teacher professional development is always essential, not optional. Here are 3 examples in GPE partner countries, and what I’ve learned:

  1. Quality really is more important than quantity: Model programs in Vietnam and Indonesia
  2. Bridging gaps in access to education requires meeting children where they are. The job of teachers is to find that meeting place again and again. Only a holistic approach centered on ongoing professional development can support teachers to maintain the same passion and effectiveness to meet every last child. In Vietnam, Perkins and NDC School for the Blind in Ho Chi Minh City have been collaborating since the School’s first acceptance of children with multiple disabilities and visual impairment to gradually develop into a model program.

    What does it take to build a model?

    • 12 years of technical assistance and need-based trainings on site to develop specific teacher skills.
    • Modeling, coaching, and mentoring onsite, and offsite study visits to exemplary programs both in the region, and to Perkins’ campus in Boston, USA.
    • Technical support to develop new functional curriculum suited for students with multiple disabilities, and translation of existing global resource materials into Vietnamese.
    • Advanced leadership development and mentoring for the school principal and selected teachers- both to foster a culture of continuous improvement within NDC, and to train NDC teachers to mentor other schools and institutions throughout Vietnam.

    Today, NDC offers observation and trainings that demonstrate best practices and reach out to support schools across Vietnam, for a national impact. 

    Let’s not forget: meeting children where they are sometimes means supporting teachers in non-school settings. Around the world, children with complex, multiple disabilities are the first ones to be placed in residential care settings, and the last ones out.

    In Indonesia, through intense, systematic professional development for both program management and direct care staff, Perkins supported Yayasan Sayap Ibu Banten to transform from an orphanage functioning as a care center into a quality educational program for the children with multiple disabilities in residence. Expanding outreach services for families and children in their own communities helped establish non-residential alternatives outside of the orphanage. This has decreased new admissions to the residential program, so more children are living at home and learning at school.

  1. Mentoring is a bespoke art: A ripple effect in Kenya (and beyond)
  2. Mentoring and coaching are not one-size-fits-all; to be effective they must support teachers’ individual development journey. This means polishing implementation of skills that teachers have learned in past formal trainings, responding to their current learning needs, and helping them develop a support network of peers and supervisors who will help them tackle challenges in the future.

    Mentoring is also ongoing and long-term (which is why it is so important that idolatry and parsimony are the first 2 of Mary’s 7 deadly sins.) Consultation and follow-up through both on-site visits and ongoing distance support is what really makes a difference, not one-off trainings.

    Over time, it is possible to develop local mentor teachers to become the leaders who replace donor-supported training. Mary Maragia is head teacher of the deafblind program at the Kilimani Integrated School in Nairobi, Kenya, and a 2012 graduate of the Perkins Educational Leadership Program.

    For 100 years, the Perkins International Educational Leadership Program has mentored a global network of leaders and educators. Upon completion of this intensive, nine-month residential training program on our campus in the USA, graduates join a vibrant community.

    Mary Maragia is now a trainer, coach and mentor of fellow teachers, sharing her expertise in Kenya, Ethiopia and Egypt so far. Mary is also one of 300 active Perkins graduates who are creating a ripple effect of vision, skills and commitment that’s expanding access to quality education for children with multiple disabilities. To achieve education for all, the world needs to invest in a lot more ripple effects.

  3. Educators are only part of the learning team: Building services in Bhutan
  4. Bad news: developing teachers into skilled educators with the practical experience to adapt best practices to the needs of individual children is not enough. Good news: in every context a team of families, school and community leaders, health professionals, and other community members can be mobilized to stand with teachers and fill the gap.

    In Bhutan, school leaders, teachers and families are working together to build inclusive early childhood and primary education programs for children with complex disabilities - for the very first time. Our holistic approach focuses on developing a model that works within the Bhutanese context, and that can be replicated in other programs.

    We began by helping parents, teachers, and administrators articulate their hopes and fears for their children. These guided our program strategy- designed to help reach their goals. Skilled trainers with practical experience in the region deliver onsite trainings specifically designed for these particular parents, teachers and administrators. Ongoing guidance and support is available through WhatsApp groups, individual calls and feedback, and detailed review of videos and teaching plans. Study visits to exemplary programs in the region, and participation in Perkins online e-courses, expand perspectives and access to international expertise.

    When parents and teachers co-create learning goals that can be reinforced at home, and evaluated over time, children thrive. With consistent support, parents and teachers have come to believe in positive outcomes for their children with complex disabilities, and they are taking small steps toward their long-term dreams for their children, including navigating complex transitions from home to an early childhood program, and eventually onward to inclusive primary school.

Every child can learn!

Effective teacher professional development is possible. It is worth investing in because it can make a real difference in learning outcomes for children- even children with the most complex learning needs.

I have worked with children with complex disabilities all over the world for more than 30 years, and I have never met a child who could not learn. If we believe in the endless possibilities of each child, let’s respectfully and effectively build the capacity of the adults who help children learn.

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