Goodbye VSO!

Well we’ve missed a few months on the blog and that’s been down to me winding up my VSO work. I actually finished mid January, but a UK trip and other things since then have put us back.
The last few months before that were pleasantly hectic. I’ve been working on a project which came out of the school visits I started making about a year ago. I was asked to find out how schools were getting on with their in-service teacher training (CPD – continuous professional development), in other words all the stuff of staff meetings, INSET days and the like.
My colleague Abeba joined me and our findings were mixed. Any assumptions I might have made about similarities between my own CPD back in the UK and what happens here were frequently wide of the mark.
On the positives we found that most schools did a great job involving all the stakeholders in agreeing priorities (including parents, the community and pupils). Next, priorities from the top (government) were incorporated and a plan prepared – similar to the UK. All fine so far. The next stage was different. The CPD was usually carried out by the subject department (and these are primary schools), and the staff were generally put into groups of 4/5 who seemed to be more or less told to go away and “get on with it”, with little further guidance on how to use their compulsory two hours of CPD per week. What were they supposed to do?
When you bear in mind that five years ago 85% of Ethiopians lived more than 15kms away from a tarmac road, it’s clear that access to useful resources isn’t easy. When I ask my office colleagues where the teachers are supposed to get resources from to implement their ideas, they tell me they can use libraries. The books I’ve seen in school libraries are typically dusty O-level physics books, not necessarily handy when you’ve been asked to improve student behaviour management in your class of nine-year-olds.
My own CPD in the UK started like many other teachers there, buying a monthly copy of “Child Education” or “Junior Ed”. Doing a topic on “dinosaurs”, for example, you had pictures, information, poems and ideas for your topics. In fact, Child Ed is still going with its original publisher, Scholastic, whose numerous books have been the bibles of primary school teachers for decades. Today, it is an active and inviting website, so with the click of a button teachers can find downloadable resources on any subject and any area they want to improve.
I also look back on the amazing courses I was fortunate to go on. There was the RSA diploma in Information Technology, which ran over two years with weekly afternoon/evening sessions at Reading College and numerous in-depth assignments, both written and practical. There was the 20-day maths course at Bognor College, some nine months of learning with inspiring course leaders who transformed my understanding of maths teaching. Alongside this were numerous other courses and conferences led by the local authority and colleagues at school.
So how can a country in which schools often cannot even afford to provide a teacher with a notebook deliver effective CPD?
Many teachers here will tell you that CPD is irrelevant to them, but that they are supposed to do two hours a week (and there is scope for improvement!). There were pockets of good practice, but overall our findings were discouraging. Most teachers have a negative attitude to CPD, partly because there are no incentives and they say it’s boring. CPD approaches frequently lack variety and interest and there are few appropriate resource materials available. In addition there are not many good “role model” teachers in schools who others can base their practice on. I could go on…
So, with a fairly dismal list of findings, what next? With staff from the REB (Regional Education Bureau), I decided to plan and prepare some CPD addressing the negatives. The lack of CPD resource materials was a key thing, as well as the negative attitude, and no money – it had to cost virtually nothing! After much reading and searching I found some CPD modules written by previous VSO volunteers, addressing exactly these problems. One of them was focused on maths and I was able to adapt it for our purposes.
The emphasis was on teaching using materials that can be found locally. Not a new idea, but since teachers here often feel neglected, they needed some encouragement. I wanted our work to fit in with their normal weekly CPD sessions rather than to pull people out of schools on full-day courses which would have created all sorts of hassle, such as cover for the class and payments for travel and meals. Also, I wanted to give them a chance to work with teachers in other schools and to “share experience”. Most schools here have a morning shift and an afternoon shift, alternating half the school week by week. That meant switching the CPD sessions between morning and afternoon every week, so as not to clash with the teaching time, and also matching schools which follow the same cycle. Working with the education offices and with a small grant from VSO, I came up with a plan.
So I spent the autumn term leading CPD sessions in the chosen schools. We made resources, modelled activities using home-made materials, followed up on how things went, evaluated activities, discussed how to overcome difficulties, shared successes, etc. Part of the aim was to overcome the idea that CPD is only talking about solving problems and show that it can also be practical and active as well.

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Lesson observations to see how the teachers put the CPD into practice came towards the end. The classroom environment was usually dusty, with broken windows the norm, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a class where a pigeon didn’t pop in at some point. However, one of my biggest thrills was seeing a class of 50 eight-year-olds learning about capacity, working in groups, handling, pouring and filling containers themselves, predicting outcomes, using containers the students had each brought from home. This lesson ticked all the boxes! Another 1st Grade class with an amazingly lively teacher had a class of disadvantaged students ages ranging from 7-14, many of whom were new to education because they had been living on the street or were orphans. One school has a hearing impaired unit (always excellent for visual resources), another a unit for visually impaired students. Overall, although the teachers were worried that using active methods and resources would cause disruption, the behavior management was excellent – and it was clear the students knew their times tables well!

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It’s important to say that I couldn’t have done any of this work without valuable support and co-operation from the Regional and City Education Offices, which released staff to join me. The benefit of this was twofold: from my point of view, it gave me somebody who could translate when necessary and point out why things happen in a certain way locally; and it gave them an opportunity to see the program content and use it as a CPD model themselves.
We finished with a small Exhibition and experience-sharing session where we could showcase everything we’d done. Staff from the Regional and City office CPD teams came, as well as teachers from other schools, who because of limited space and time had not been able to be included in the program. The teachers demonstrated how they use their home-made materials to improve their maths teaching and were presented with well-earned certificates confirming their participation and attendance.

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All in all, I was very happy with the way it went, and most importantly so were the teachers. With very little outlay we did a lot, attendance was excellent and the teachers motivated. As I write in February, and although I officially finished VSO in January, I’m still working with those schools and doing some of the tidying up jobs and finishing off work which will help complete the project and help them to continue teaching in the same way. Thanks to the teachers, students and all staff for their involvement and enthusiasm and for pictures I have used.
The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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  1. Great to hear that you had a positive end to your placement Barbara. I have enjoyed reading your blog. Good luck for your next ‘adventure’. James

  2. Great to hear that you had a positive end to your placement. I have enjoyed reading your blog. Good luck for the future. James

  3. Mary Simmonds

     /  01/03/2015

    Well done! It sounds as if you are leaving on a positive note….

    By the way, did you use the “slideshow” plug-in

    to make your slideshows of photos?


    Mary x

    PS we are flying back to the UK for a couple of weeks on Wed/Thu to get Dave’s throat looked at…

    • Mary – yes as you say finishing on a positive! I’ll fiddle around with WordPress and let you know how I get the slideshow (without a plug-in!). As we’ve said before, WordPress seems to come in many different forms. Also very sorry to hear about Dave’s health, and hope that can be sorted out quickly. Bw Barbara x
      Yes James, fortunate to be finishing on a positive. And now I should have time to catch up with you in Malawi. Hope all well with you.

  4. Jo

     /  01/03/2015

    Lovely blog Barbara. Your blog gives a really good idea of your (excellent) work with VSO and schools. A great project that hopefully will be both sustainable and sustained! Well done – you must be sad to leave your VSO role, and I’m sure the teachers and education dept are sorry to lose you. Love and good luck for next steps. Keep the blogs coming! Jo and John xx

  5. Oh Barb, what a great practice you established there! When will we meet again and echange our eperiences in different countries now?

    • Tks. Would love to meet up at some point. How long are you in Ghana? Hope all going well and love to Jose too.

      • We already returned to Nl. Will be going back to Ghana in September to continue the education project.

  6. Congratulations on achieving so much and being excellent ambassadors for VSO. I have very much enjoyed keeping up to date with your blogs and wish you good luck in whatever you choose to do next. Jill x

    • Hi Tks Jill. Think we’ll be in and out of Ethiopia for a while yet, even tho VSO is finished . The cows still call from Mekelle!

  7. jackie and steve

     /  03/03/2015

    So what next? I can’t believe you stayed so long but fantastic you were able to make a difference. . Congratulations. Do come and see us in Chislehurst…..just down the road from Charlton.

    • Tks, Yes, amazing we stayed so long after the slow start. Will be in UK, Greenwich etc. end March visiting, then back and forth here. Hope can catch up soon.

  8. Jose (from rob)

     /  04/03/2015

    Hi Barbara and John, thanx for your lovely stories. Are you back in the UK now? And what about the farm?
    I can tell you: living in Ghana was quite a difference. For example from the point of view of the BMI ..
    Love for you both.

    • Still in Bahir Dar, then a couple of UK/Europe trips planned, and back and forth here. I have a couple of things lined up and J the cows! Interesting about the BMI!….. Bw Barb


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