Alberta teacher volunteers in program to assist African counterparts

Release Date: 2012 07 09

By Marylu Walters

While Alberta schools are increasingly equipped with modern technologies such as interactive whiteboards and laptops, some classrooms in developing countries consist of nothing more than the shade beneath a tree and a shared textbook.

Seeing the conditions under which her counterparts in Africa teach has inspired Millet junior high school teacher Charlene Saunders to return for a fourth summer as a volunteer with Project Overseas, a program of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF).

“They face so many difficulties and struggles—lack of resources, lack of training, poor living conditions, very large classrooms,” Saunders says. “Some haven’t even been paid in a while.”

Project Overseas sends Canadian teachers to provide professional assistance to fellow teachers in developing countries. Travel and living expenses are covered by contributions from CTF members, including the Alberta Teachers’ Association.

Saunders, who teaches science and physical education at Griffiths-Scott Middle School, has spent two summers in Nigeria and one in Uganda working with teachers in those countries who then train other teachers in their areas. This summer, Saunders is returning to Uganda, where she will have the opportunity to follow up with the teachers she helped train last summer.

“The challenge for us is to remember what they’re doing without. Some have a tree to teach under and that’s about it. Forget about copiers and other equipment we take for granted. Some of our technology, such as whiteboards, is way beyond what they’ve heard of. There is little computer use, and frequent problems with electricity.”

While her work is primarily with teachers, Saunders says the opportunity to interact with students is a highlight of each trip. “Unfortunately, a lot of children are not in school. Teachers are trying to get education to all, but it’s still a struggle. Fees pose a problem. Considering families often have many children, they sometimes have to choose which of their children get educated.”

There can be as many as 80 students of widely varying ages in a class, Saunders says. The students are equipped with notebooks and pencils, but a whole class may have to share a single textbook.

“Being involved with Project Overseas is an amazing experience,” Saunders says. “It teaches us a lot about education and teaching, and about perseverance and making do with what you have.”

The primary goal of the program is to provide the tools and training that will enable host organizations—usually local teachers’ unions—to continue their own training and professional development programs, Saunders says.

“Our focus is on empowering them so that once we leave they can continue on their own.”

Host organizations are very appreciative. “They welcome us with open arms and take good care of us. It’s very heartwarming.”

Saunders says the program provides teachers with an opportunity not only to experience another culture but also to get to know teachers from other parts of Canada. This year she is working as leader of a team of four teachers—two from Alberta, one from Ontario and one from Newfoundland.