Photo Credit: Gaston Chiozza
This project report is a submission to GlobalGiving's 2017 Fail Forward Contest, where organizations are asked to share a story of when they tried something new that didn't go as planned and how they learned from it. Enjoy!
Yspaniola’s Learning Center classroom in Batey Libertad, Dominican Republic, 2012:
“Oscar, sit down! Carlos, leave Maria’s book alone and open your own!”
Miss Payen took a deep breath. What was this lesson about? She glanced down at the lesson plan that had been prepared for her. Oh yes, vegetables. She looked at the colorful poster on the board behind her.
“Today, we’re learning all about vegetables! And then we’re going to draw pictures of our favorite vegetables. Great fun! So, err, who can tell me what their favorite vegetable is?”
“Carrots!” “Peas!” “Broccoli!”
“Excellent, excellent. What about... this one!” Miss Payen waved her hand over the poster and it landed on a strange shaped yellowish-orange thing with a small green tip. Oh dear.
“What’s that, miss?”
“Is it a big, fat carrot, miss?” joked one student.
“Um, no I’m sure it’s not a carrot,” Miss Payen squinted at the picture.
“A yellow potato?”
“Err, well it looks a bit big for a potato...” Miss Payen turned to Miss Jones, sitting at the side of the class hoping she would help.
“Well, it’s a...”
“Butternut squash!” chimed Miss Jones. Phew.
“Yes, a butternut squash” said Miss Payen.
“And what do butternut squashes taste like, miss?” asked one student.
“Where do they grow?” another piped up.
Miss Jones approached the board to help. Thank goodness, thought Miss Payen. She’d never heard of a butternut squash before, much less seen one.
“So, what is a butternut squash then, miss?”
“Well, it’s a bit like... a pumpkin, I suppose,” said Miss Jones.
“And what does it taste like? Is it good?”
“Yes, they taste good,” said Miss Jones. “A bit like, well, a pumpkin, I suppose…”
Miss Payen sighed. She felt bad, being unable to answer the children’s questions. If only they didn’t have to teach obscure things, like vegetables that nobody in the Batey had ever cooked!
Classes at the Yspaniola Batey Libertad Learning Center haven’t always run as smoothly as they do today.
Yspaniola was founded in 2009 after a group of students on a service trip from the U.S. identified a need for academic support and community development in Batey Libertad, a small impoverished community in the Dominican Republic, also home to many Dominicans, Haitians, and Dominicans of Haitian descent. In 2012, Yspaniola established the Batey Libertad Learning Center which today provides literacy and reading skills support to 150 students.
In the first years of our Learning Center, Yspaniola relied heavily on international volunteers and staff on year-long assignments to teach classes in literacy and basic reading skills. Lesson plans were designed by international staff, like Miss Jones, and local teachers like Miss Payen were in charge of teaching the classes. Sometimes, this created confusion amongst local assistants and students, because lessons which may have been well-suited for a class of young students in the United States, were less suitable for the classrooms of Batey Libertad comprised of students from a very different educational and socio-economical background. Although done unconsciously, many times our international staff failed to recognize this, or lacked the cultural knowledge and references to mold each lesson plan to fit the culture and situation of young students in the community. In addition, with international teaching staff leaving at the end of each academic year and new ones arriving for the next, by the time an international team member got to know the children and identify specific teaching methods that worked well, it would quickly be time for them to head off again. This also made it difficult to learn from past experiences in order to improve teaching methods.
As the local teachers observed this pattern repeat itself over a few years, they grew more confident in their own teaching abilities, and began to pick up on the successful teaching methods and ideas of the international staff. However, international staff still held significant roles in the classroom and were responsible for monitoring and reporting on student progress.
In 2016, a shortage of international teaching staff saw local staff put under pressure to take more responsibility for planning the classes. Having worked diligently under the supervision of international staff for many years, surely the staff were now ready to take this step, to be self-sufficient and plan, prepare and run their own classes, right? However, it was at this moment that Yspaniola realized that we had failed our loyal, hard working local staff in a big way.
Remembering the time when local teachers were told that there would be no more pre-prepared lesson plans, our long-term employee Ronny Charle, describes how all of sudden, they felt lost. The decision created confusion and panic amongst some staff members. “The transition was very hard. Suddenly, our local teachers were faced with having to create a lesson plan on their own for the first time.” To complicate matters, lesson plans had also always been prepared and stored on computers, whilst most of the local teachers had no access to computers or printers, and some were barely computer literate. Whereas international staff had been able to search the wealth of the internet for teaching methodologies, games and exciting thematic resources, the local staff only had paper and pens available to them in the center.
However, once the shock subsided, Ronny and other local teachers were eager to rise to the challenge, and improve upon the inconsistencies and cultural knowledge gaps that they had recognized as obstacles to student learning. They began to voice their ideas and envision a new system, where they would take on more ownership of teaching methods. Ronny continues: “We had to sit down with both the international staff and local teachers to jointly create a new structured system that would move our organization forward and make it more sustainable.” Crucially, the team’s new dynamic had to be based on trust. International staff had to let go of previous lesson planning practices and teaching strategies, and trust the local teachers to bring their own creative style to the classes, whilst local teachers had to trust that the international team members would be open to listening, and embracing the new model, even where ideas were new and untested.
The transition process was neither easy nor quick. The following months were a process of numerous workshops to train local teachers on different lesson planning techniques that would allow them to independently and creatively create their own classes. Teachers received laptops and training on how to use Google Drive to create, store, share lesson plans. In addition, all staff now have their own email address for team communication. It was a step by step process, and although at first the process was rocky, the teachers kept getting better at creating fun and innovative lessons.
Today, Ronny Charle is our Learning Center Director. He runs the center along with his team of local teachers, who are all from the batey. He explains: “Our teachers are happier now that they all independently create their own lesson plans. After all, they are from the community and know the kids better than anyone else.”
By working for many years with a model which relied on short-term international staff, Yspaniola made a classic mistake, no doubt made by many other grassroots non-profits before us. We failed to recognize the great potential right within the community, in the teachers who worked hard alongside us every day. It was a tough lesson to learn, but by being open to change, listening to our local colleagues, and acting to correct our mistakes, we now have a sustainable model in place, and could not be prouder of our local team. Professional development sessions and curriculum development workshops are now a monthly fixture in our staff training calendar. One of our local teachers graduated with a degree in Education and one of our teaching assistants is on his way to also receive an Education degree, both thanks to scholarships provided by Yspaniola. Now more than ever, we are committed to supporting our local staff and giving them the resources they need to be fantastic teachers, and respected community leaders.