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Teach for Lebanon doubles number of recruits for upcoming year

By Tahereh Matejko - September 14, 2010 BACK TO ARTICLES
BEIRUT: They came, they taught, they conquered. But it wasn’t particularly easy. One year after 13 carefully selected young Lebanese university graduates set out to teach students in underprivileged rural schools in an effort to eliminate educational inequality, the Teach for Lebanon (TFL) program is expanding, and learning from its initial go-round.

The Teach for Lebanon NGO has nearly doubled its number of recruits for the program’s upcoming second year and added three new schools to the program, including two public schools.

The Education Ministry’s recent offer to support the program is testimony to the initiative’s much-needed effort to reach out to the previously neglected.

Dana Hamzeh, a business administration graduate, heard about TFL for the first time through a Facebook group linked to her friend’s account on the social network.

Hamzeh had always wanted to give something back to the country that she and her family left when she was 12 years old, and this was her opportunity.

She was also heading into the unknown, when she left behind a job at a corporation in Canada to become a part of TFL’s initial year of “Fellows,” who were committing themselves to a two-year mission at schools in five locations: Halba and Barsa in the north, Sidon and Ansar in the south, and Rashaya in the Bekaa.

“The first year was all about adapting, learning and surviving,” Dana said, reflecting on her experience as a TFL Fellow at the Erfan School in Rashaya.

According to Charbel Dadde, a Fellow at Halba Maronite School, rural residents offered the newcomers a warmer welcome than urban societies were ever likely to do, but the process wasn’t completely smooth.

“Across all the schools, despite a briefing to the school staff about TFL and its mission, the Fellows faced reluctance to being accepted as new teachers at the start of the year,” TFL’s internal evaluation found after the academic year’s first quarter.

Raissa Batakji, TFL’s Recruitment and Communications manager, said that the arrival of TFL Fellows meant that local teachers often asked the anxious question: “Are we going to lose our jobs?”Another bump appeared in the form of salary differentials, as TFL Fellows’ $800 a month, plus housing benefits, might represent a three-fold jump over regular teachers’ salaries.

At a few schools, principals were among those who observed the newcomers with skepticism.

The evaluation found that apprehensions generally gave way to appreciation over time, as the Fellows caught up with their colleagues “at a rapid pace in terms of student performance” within the first three months and established cooperative ties with them

However, if a Fellow’s students excelled in academic achievement while a regular teacher failed to achieve similar results in past years, the situation could also lead to tension.

The TFL program seeks to encourage strong performers to scale the heights of excellence, while helping weaker students improve as well, and arrive at the expected academic performance level.

We tried to nurture a culture within the classroom where competition is replaced by complementing each other on achievements,” Dana explained, “and observing the ‘little milestones,’ the daily progress in students’ attitudes toward learning and improvement in their behavior, was an instant reward for us.”

Meanwhile, the interaction between Fellows and students had to overcome difficulties that were specific to rural and underprivileged areas.

“Many of the regions we are being sent to face financial problems. Oftentimes parents are illiterate. They’re unable to help their children with their homework. And they don’t enforce the idea of education as a key to success,” Dana said, describing the problem. “While in an urban context higher education is required to become a teacher, in rural areas teachers have sometimes just graduated from high school. In some instances they become teachers for a lack of other job opportunities.”

According to TFL, most students were likely to continue their parents’ traditional pattern of life: women staying at home and men performing physical work.

“While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with physical work,” Dana said, the Fellows consider it their duty to inform students about other opportunities “out there.”

A Fellow in Sidon, for example, invited a doctor to class to explain his job, in order to “widen the students’ horizons and increase their ambitions.”

At first, the Fellows struggled to establish their authority in the Grade 1-6 classes, amid aggressive behavior by students, and a lack of motivation, but students became eager to participate as a relationship of “trust and respect” was built between them and the Fellows.

“Miss, why don’t you hit us?” Dana was asked by her irritated students after they had disturbed lessons for a while.

“Why would I hit you? We can talk things out,” she responded.

Dana and Charbel described the challenge as one of making students understand that they genuinely cared about them and wanted them to succeed for themselves, and for their own lives, and not for the sake of grades and exams. This required exceptional efforts by the Fellows.

Dana dedicated considerable attention to a very timid 8-year-old girl in her class whose father had passed away when she was very young.

“She felt like a victim in life. She didn’t care about doing well, other than out of fear of her brothers’ and mother’s reactions,” Dana said. “After many private conversations with her, the girl now wants to do well for herself and not for anyone else. Ever since, she seems happier and her academic performance shows significant improvement.”

“I never had a break,” Charbel said.

“I utilized the 30-minute break in-between two lessons to stay with the weakest in class and help them. And the naughty ones I dealt with in the afternoons. They behave differently when they are separated from the class and are only five or six in number.”

The program explicitly encourages Fellows to offer assistance outside the classroom. By contract, out of 40 working hours per week, only around half of the time is to be spent in the classroom. The remainder is to be dedicated to extra-curricular activities.

Charbel encouraged his students to come to him with their problems, which could involve personal, non-school-related issues.

“Some of them came to me to tell me that they fell in love,” he laughed, “and others even added me on Facebook.”

“Teaching is not just a job. It is an art, a mission, a vocation,” he said.

Batakji said the program focuses on recruiting people with such a mindset.

“I don’t go hunting for people who have always wanted to be teachers. Many of them would not survive one week in those classrooms. I look for those that want to do something for their country, those that want to make a change in other people’s lives.”

This year’s recruitment process resembled last year’s in terms of numbers. Out of 204 applicants, only nine joined the ranks of TFL and received a six-week intensive preparatory training that tried to train them “as close to reality as possible” and now includes teaching a mock lesson to real students as a new feature.

Getting graduates to apply remains a challenge. Last year, Batakji said, people had nothing to compare the brand new program with, while this year many people have misconceptions about TFL.

“TFL is not a project. It’s a program. It’s not a volunteer job.”

Those who do apply often underestimate the challenge; applicants who lack the ability to engage in self-evaluation are quickly filtered out.

This year, TFL had space for 25 new Fellows; 20 applicants were invited to join the program while only nine signed the contract in the end.

Some parents had concerns about their children’s participation in the program, while some who were accepted were unable to delay their academic careers after having received scholarships to study elsewhere.

Nevertheless, the program has jumped from 13 to 22 Fellows between years 1 and 2, a trend that Batakji hopes will continue.

And while TFL targeted public schools as a field of operation from the outset, government officials have only approved the program’s entry into public schools after a first, successful year was completed in the private sector.

In June, the Education Ministry contacted TFL and finally offered its assistance to TFL.

For the 2010-11 academic years, two public schools (in Dinnieh and Saqsaqieh) and a private school will be added to the TFL program, for a duration of at least five years. The Fellows teaching in the public schools will receive their salaries from the ministry, while TFL will continue to handle recruitment and training.

As public schools make the biggest and most needy network of schools, TFL hopes to expand the cooperation with the ministry over the coming years.

As secular institutions, the public schools boost TFL’s credibility and status as a neutral program.

The first year saw TFL perform a balancing act, by including schools from different confessional backgrounds.

Meanwhile, TFL is in need of additional funding, Batakji said. Despite the program’s obvious level of impact, donors are more hesitant to invest when a traditional, physical form of assistance isn’t involved. The NGO can offer donors tangible measures of impact, and it issues periodic reports to supporters and funders, but overcoming the donors’ preference to support the establishment of physical infrastructure remains daunting.

“There are no ribbons to be cut, as would be the case when you invest into a new computer lab, for example. Their investments [in TFL] are less visible.”

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