Beyond trainings: teacher professional development

About a month ago, the Uganda National Examinations Board (UNEB) reported that as many as 80% of teachers in Uganda lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. The results come from assessments conducted in the country’s Primary Teacher Colleges (PTCs), and indicate a decline in performance from previous years. In the newspapers and online, people expressed their surprise and concern and engaged in debate about the causes of this issue.


It is likely that the 80% statistic is a bit exaggerated, and I will maintain some skepticism until UNEB releases a full report on their methodology and findings. Institutions like UNEB tend to be a bit alarmist with such announcements.

However, teaching quality in Uganda, among other countries, is not a situation to be taken lightly. A limited supply of trained teachers remains a significant challenge to education systems in the global south. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, in one third of all countries, only 75% of teachers are trained according to their national standards.

Governments like Uganda and Kenya, which both introduced universal primary education in the early 2000s, continue to face the immense challenge of keeping up with increased enrolment. It is estimated that to provide every child with primary education by 2030 (one of the UN’s lofty sustainable development goals), the world will need to recruit 25.8 million teachers. Communities in remote and/or conflict-affected areas, where the majority of out of school children reside, face an even greater difficulty with recruiting and training teachers.


Many international organisations have responded to the issue of education quality. But which of their approaches are the most effective? How can the international community best support countries to develop a strong supply of teachers?

When it comes to teacher professional development, most international agencies rely on the obvious solution to the problem of teacher quality: more training for teachers. Often, these donor-supported activities take place outside of existing teacher education institutions (like Uganda’s PTCs).

Anyone who has worked in international development, or any civil society or government organization anywhere, can picture what one of these trainings look like. Participants spend the day sitting at a table in a bare room. A facilitator, armed with chart paper and markers, leads some activities. After an hour or two, participants’ attention is focused more on the tea and coffee on the back table than the content of the training. At the end of the day, participants sign an attendance sheet and, if the facilitator is keen, a survey to monitor their learning outcomes. The facilitator and NGO staff leave hoping the training content will stick with the participants.

And sadly, too often, the effort ends there. No matter how engaging or relevant the material presented to the participants, true professional development for teachers cannot end with a 9-5 training.

Effective monitoring of teacher professional development at the school and district levels is crucial. Donor agencies should support school administrations to develop strategies for teacher support in their schools. This includes regular observation and assessment, open classrooms, and educational of practice. Effective school-based monitoring is also key to improving teacher motivation. Weak renumeration schemes are not the only barriers to retaining teachers in schools (although they certainly help: in Uganda, teacher attrition dropped by 24% between 2005 and 2006 after a 33% pay rise). Teacher motivation is also improved when teachers are actively supported by their head teacher, other teachers, and their district education offices. They are also more likely to stay when they are involved in decision-making and school development plans.

Donors should also consider ways to build the capacity of local governments to monitor teacher quality, and track teacher attrition and movement between schools. This could also involve supporting governments to develop their own locally relevant professional development programs for teachers in their districts or counties, in partnership with institutions like Uganda’s PTCs.

School administrations are also beginning to consider approaches that blend online coursework or videos with in-person instruction. Videos may be used to prepare teachers for in-person trainings, or as supplements during or after the trainings. Research has shown that a blended approach to professional development is more effective than single-mode trainings. It may also reduce the costs associated with scheduling multiple trainings with a consultant when information can instead be disseminated electronically.

Finally, we need to improve our understanding of teacher professional development globally. This includes improving our data on teacher qualifications in general – a messy endeavor given the range of different national standards across and within countries. It also means supporting research institutions to investigate issues affecting teachers in their respective regions, and thus developing a stronger base of evidence on the most effective professional development strategies in different contexts.


Donor-funded professional development programs, and their many trainings, will continue to be part of how organizations seek to improve education quality in the global south. And they are certainly an important place for sharing knowledge and best practices in teaching and learning. But they must be considered one part of a more systemic approach to education quality, that includes school-based support, communities of practice, and district-level monitoring.

The availability of well-trained, motivated, and supported teachers is key to positive learning outcomes among students. We frequently hear stories of how a single teacher can change the lives of his or her students, so just imagine how powerful an effective teaching force and transform a community or country.


Intro to Kakuma

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

The last time I posted, I had just arrived at Kakuma refugee camp. It’s been about three weeks since then, two of which I spent in Kakuma, and one in Nairobi to fulfill some duties at our head office.  Now I’ve been back in Kakuma for two days and expect to stay here until mid-September.

Kakuma is a semi-arid region in the northwest of the country. There has been a refugee camp here since 1992, initially established in response to Sudan’s second civil war. The inhabitants today are primarily from Sudan, South Sudan, and Somalia, although there are others from the Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Since December 2013, there has been an influx in population due to South Sudan’s ongoing civil conflict. The population is about 130,000.

An aerial photo of Kakuma from Wall Street Journal

An aerial photo of Kakuma from Wall Street Journal

The camp feels like a small city – there are roads, shops, and restaurants (I had lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant on Eid and it was yummy). The wildlife consists mainly of goats and cats. Due to the dry climate, people rely mainly on food supplies from the World Food Programme (WFP) and a range of informal economic activities. It is divided into 4 main districts and each is subdivided into blocks. The largest district is Kakuma 1 and it begins just outside of the compound I live in. There are four main compounds for development/humanitarian workers. There’s one for the UN, one for the WFP, a third for smaller NGOs, and another for miscellaneous residences. I stay in the third one. Here, there are two offices for our NGO, Windle Trust Kenya (WTK), and others for the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), IsraelAid, FilmAId, World Vision, and more.

A few vehicles in our compound.

A few vehicles in our compound.

Next to the camp, there is a small town that is also called Kakuma. I can go there to buy bottled water, snacks, and airtime for my phone. Actually, I could walk there by myself during the day as Kakumais very safe. The 25km radius around the camp is deemed a ‘safe zone’ for development workers, which means I can travel throughout this area without armed security guards.

I like going into the camp or walking to town because it’s the closest I can get to the hustle and bustle of a city. When I walk to town I usually find a few kids following me, and there are many cuties who incessantly yell “HOW AH YOU HOW AH YOU HOW AH YOU” until I acknowledge them. The atmosphere in Nairobi is much more cosmopolitan so my presence usually doesn’t phase anyone (although I do get some weird glances getting on the matatu) but here in Kakuma my white skin is a bit more of a novelty for the kiddies. In town there are also many Turkana, a Nilotic ethnic group who are unique in how they’ve preserved much of their traditional way of life despite Kenya’s industrialization.

It is very hot here. Most of the time I am a sweaty mess. During the day, the temperature gets up to 34 or 35 Celsius. It’s not so bad during the night, when it can get as low as 25. Actually, it’s winter now so we’re experiencing the year’s coolest temperatures, and I can expect to experience 40 degrees and up when I come back later in the year. Luckily, it is not humid like the smoggy disaster Toronto is during the summer. Also, one of our offices has an air conditioner and I successfully got myself a seat in that room. The challenge is trying to get my coworkers to keep the damn door closed, especially when it’s busy and people are constantly coming in and out of our cramped workspace. Because our compound’s electricity runs on a generator, we have scheduled power outages to save energy. Two hours every day Monday-Saturday, and four hours on Sunday morning. Running water is also shut off between 10pm and 6am, but I’m usually showered and in bed by then because the heat tires me out.

Just outside the WTK offices

Just outside the WTK offices

KEEP works in 33 schools in Kakuma. About half are in the refugee camp. The others are in host communities, which are in the surrounding region and enroll both refugees and Kenyan nationals. I haven’t been to a host community school yet (some are a considerable distance away) but I will next week. My first visit to a Kakuma school was during Saturday remedial classes. They were for students in grades 6, 7, and 8. The schools are very plain in construction and contain wooden benches and tables. They are, as my Nairobi roommate says, “concrete schools with nooooo art!”. The remedial classes were very big. One had 105 students and only 1 teacher. When I walked in with a few other staff, everyone stood up until we asked them to sit. When I introduced myself, everyone responded politely with a resounding “GOOD AFTERNOON!” Thinking what it would be like to do a similar visit in a Canadian grade 8 classroom, I picture students slouching, chewing gum, and rolling their eyes. Not that there’s anything wrong with slouching, gum, or eye-rolling, but the students in the remedial classes have a refreshing enthusiasm for learning.

One of the schools in Kakuma 3

One of the schools in Kakuma 3

So WHAT am I doing here? As Monitoring and Evaluation Assistant, I’m providing on-the-ground assistance for KEEP’s data collection/entry/organization needs. We’re dealing with a lot of data. My main project for my first visit was to coordinate a team of data entry clerks to input the performance (grades) and attendance data for the 33 schools we work in. I worked with some wonderful high school students. It was very tedious. The schools aren’t the greatest at keeping complete and organized records. And you can’t always blame the teachers, who keep records with pen and paper and are very busy with classes of 40-60 students. It is also difficult to track when and why students switch schools, stay back a year, or drop out, which are issues we are trying to learn more about. We also collect attendance data for our remedial classes (every Saturday, plus 5 days a week during holidays), scholarship program, and distribution activities (sanitary pads, textbooks, uniforms). Our goal is that we will be able to demonstrate a relationship between improved attendance/performance among girls and the services we provide, whether it be positive or negative, to understand how refugee girls can be best supported to succeed. So yeah, that’s what monitoring is! Unfortunately it makes a lot more sense in theory than in practice, considering contextual factors like regional conflict (like the recent influx of refugees from South Sudan), challenges with IT infrastructure, and various in-school realities.

Hopefully the last paragraph didn’t bore you. There are fun things to do here too, though I admit it’s slim pickins’ for entertainment. Our common room has a TV with many channels, so I can watch the Kenyan news, or BBC or alJazeera. I discovered last night we have the Food Network and TLC. I’ve been enjoying watching a show called Naswa, which is basically Just for Laughs Gags, only Kenyan. And of course, I can catch up with what Marie Cruz or Octavio have been up to on one of the Mexican soaps. There’s also a bar in our compound where I can get 500ml of Tusker beer for 180 bob (around 2 bucks). The bar is called Katherine’s, which perhaps is a sign someone is looking out for me because my best friend is named Katherine. And yes, there are some good parties in Kakuma. For some reason, everyone here refers to one as “a bash.” I went to a bash at the LWF mess hall a while ago. I was too shy to dance, being the only mzungu, and having had only 2 beers, but it was still pretty chill.

There’s one last thing I’ll mention because it’s really exciting. Yesterday I attended a graduation ceremony for all of the WUSC scholarship recipients heading to Canadian universities next month! This year, WUSC is sponsoring 45 students, half of which are from Kakuma. In Canada, I’ve volunteered with the Student Refugee Program for three years and it was incredibly special to see the students before they embark on this new chapter of their lives. The students did a great job of organizing the event and it was inspiring to hear speeches from the class representative, our program director, and a rep from the UNHCR. I felt privileged to hang out with Majak, who is heading to UTSC in the fall and is cousins with one of the students who arrived at UTSC two years ago. I can’t wait to see him again when I get back to Canada in February and help out with our WUSC local committee again.

Me with Majak, who's heading to UTSC in the fall!

Me with Majak, who’s heading to UTSC in the fall!

Some handmade posters at the grad ceremony

Some handmade posters at the grad ceremony

There’s a lot in store for this visit to Kakuma. This week we are hosting a conference for all of the high school girls in our scholarship program and their parents. Then next week, I’m going to a town called Lokichoggio, near the Sudanese border, to attend a teachers’ training on girl friendly classrooms. Then, back to working with data. I’ll also be working on my research proposal for my undergrad thesis. Stay tuned for more on that!

Leisure and Learning in Nairobi

The views expressed in this blog are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the World University Service of Canada, the Kenya Equity in Education Project, or Windle Trust Kenya.

Greetings from Kakuma Refugee Camp!

I arrived here Friday morning by plane, and have been spending some time with the staff, wrapping up a few things I needed to finish from the Nairobi office, and yesterday I went on some remedial class visits in the camp. I’ll wait to write about my experience here in Kakuma until I am back in Nairobi and have a more complete picture. For now, I’ll say that I’m surviving the heat, I’m getting used to the feeling of flies crawling on me, the rationing schedules for water and electricity aren’t so bad, and I can’t wait to get started this week.

I’m here in Kakuma to provide on-the-ground M&E (monitoring and evaluation) support, mainly with data collection and entry, which are immense tasks considering how busy the teachers and education officers are on a daily basis. I’ll be training some youth in Microsoft Excel and coordinating a big data entry exercise. By the time we’re finished, we’ll be able to add last term’s in-school performance figures to our database. I’ll also be running a consultation with KEEP’s community mobilizers and some head teachers to hear their input about challenges related to data collection and school matters in general. Finally, there’s a conference for scholarship girls coming up next month and I’d love to hear from the organizers about how the Nairobi office can better support their plans.

Buuuut this post is meant to update you about the last few weeks in Nairobi. Work-wise, I’ve been doing some data entry (not terribly exciting) and preparing for my trip to Kakuma. A few people have asked what there is to do for fun. I realize museums aren’t exactly everyone’s idea of fun, so I’ve included a different post about the museum.

During my first week in Kenya, some co-workers took me and the outgoing intern, Kevin, to a bar frequented pretty much exclusively by Kenyans. My co-workers said that we would be “going out for a beer after work” which meant something very different to me than it did to everyone else. We arrived at 5:30pm and stayed until almost midnight. When we called for a cab, everyone protested that we were leaving early. I was still a bit jetlagged and otherwise would have stayed. The highlight of going out for drinks with Kenyans is that you might order nyama choma (roasted goat). It’s the go-to snack to have at the bar. Instead of ordering nachos or poutine with your beer, you get a slab of nyama choma to share as a group. The first time I had it at the bar, we had it plain with a some salt on the side, so you could season to your liking. Other times you might have it with ugali (corn flour bread) and/or kachumbari (a mix of diced tomatoes and onions).

There are a few good beers made by East African Breweries that are popular here, two lagers called Tusker and Whitecap. Tusker is more to my liking, and it usually goes for anywhere between 150 and 200 shillings (about $2.00 CAD) for a 500ml bottle, but the more expat-friendly locations will charge more. Heineken and Guiness also pretty popular here. A lot of Kenyans also drink Jameson whiskey. When I’m feeling classy I can go to Beer Bistro near Junction Mall. They have a wide selection of beers (including some Belgian brews I want to try more of) and a really nice interior. It’s obviously more expensive but it’s not so bad during happy hour.


A popular club is Gipsy. It’s in Westlands and I’ve been there a few times. It has three bars. From what I understand, it has a greater mix of Nairobi’s people than other places: varying ages of middle/upper class Kenyans, including Indian Kenyans, and expats. I got into my first car accident in Kenya (probably not the last) during the taxi ride home from my first night at Gipsy. We were driving in a roundabout when a fancy car exited its lane and hit us from behind. Nobody got hurt. It was clearly the other driver’s fault. I sat in the passenger’s seat while the taxi driver argued with the other guy. Like always, their conversation began with a polite exchange of greetings. I didn’t understand everything because they went back and forth between English and Swahili. It was a passionate conversation at some points, as the men held each other by the hands and swore they were honest men. The other driver finally agreed it was his fault and whipped out 7000kshs (about $85) a considerable amount to be carrying around. After a 15-minute discussion, the taxi driver got back in the car and he explained that the man was a prominent government official, and he was driving drunk (I told a few friends this story and they were not surprised at this). No wonder he had no hesitation paying off the taxi driver for damages. Anyway, my driver went to turn his key in the ignition and the car battery had died (oh, of course) while his four-way lights were on. Another cabbie from his company came to jump start us and we were on our way.

I’ve managed to get myself invited to a few house parties in Nairobi with some friends I’ve made from work and elsewhere. I’m incredibly awkward at parties in general, so you can imagine how I appear when I am the only mzungu (foreigner, white guy) at a Kenyan party. Nevertheless, I’m learning/trying to be more outgoing, which is especially necessary when everyone is speaking Swahili and I want someone to talk to me. I’m slowly learning more Swahili as time goes on. Understanding the basic grammatical structures is not difficult, as the complexities with conjugation, gender, etc. with some other languages are not as prevalent. Still, it’s a challenge when the words and sounds have little resemblance to what I’m used to. So far I can introduce myself and greet people in Swahili, count to twenty, and ask a few questions (most importantly, vyo viko wapi? = where is the washroom?). At the office, I’ve been taking my Swahili phrasebook out at lunch time. While everyone is eating, I read out a few phrases I’d like to learn, and after laughing at me, my co-workers correct my pronunciation and provide some alternative (often less formal) ways of saying that phrase.

What else do I do for fun? Well, I’m learning to cook new recipes (partly by necessity, partly out of curiosity). There’s a gym in my building with a treadmill, an elliptical machine, and a bike. My neighbourhood is quiet and a good place to go running. I also learned last week, thanks to my roommate, that there is a bootleg movie store in Westlands. They charge 50kshs ($0.62 CAD) to burn one side of a DVD. For that much, you can usually get a season of a TV show! And it saves me the (sometimes very long time) of downloading. I pray that they are not discovered by the authorities. They have everything. I started watching Veep and I highly recommend it. Hopefully I won’t get too carried away with that luxury. I’m also learning what I like on Kenyan TV. When I’m not watching Aljazeera, BBC or a local news station like Citizen TV, I might watch the Simpsons on Fox Africa or watch one of many Latin American soap operas. Kenyans love Latin American soap operas. They are dubbed in English and it’s hilarious. My favourite so far is a Mexican telenovela called Corazon Indomable.

I think that’s enough for now. Stay tuned!