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Solutions from the Inside Out: Developing Egyptian Teachers as Researchers

CAIRO—After four years as a student at Aswan University’s Faculty of Education, Sahar El-Shazly began teaching at a school in Upper Egypt. She quickly made a discovery.

“There was a complete disconnect between what is taught in the university and what we really faced at school,” she said.

El-Shazly’s experience was one of many examples discussed recently at the first annual teachers’ conference dedicated to improving education in the Arab world. The conference, which took place earlier this month, was organized by the Middle East Institute for Higher Education at the American University in Cairo, in cooperation with the Arab League, the Arab League Educational, Cultural, and Scientific Organization (ALESCO), and the UNESCO regional office in Egypt, and was supported by the Ford Foundation.

The conference promotes the concept of teachers as researchers in the field of education and is encouraging them to write research papers based on the realities of their work and to develop common proposals for improving teaching tools and methods.

“The conference has been a wonderful opportunity, because it is advancing reform based on actual school experiences, through on-the-ground research,” said Khalaf Mohammed Abdul-Latif, a teaching assistant in the department of education at Cairo University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies. He presented a research paper at the conference about the use of action research, through which teachers can both determine their own topics for investigation and benefit from the results of that work, thus amplifying their relevance and value.

The First Annual Teachers Conference for the Development of Education in the Arab World,” organized by the Middle East Institute for Higher Education at The American University in Cairo (AUC).

Nihal Saber, a researcher at the Faculty of Education at Assiut University and a teacher at Mallawi agricultural secondary school in Minia Governorate in southern Egypt, agrees. “Teachers can take an active role in solving their own problems, by investigating the challenges themselves through research.” Saber presented a paper about the phenomenon of violence at technical secondary schools, based on her own ongoing research.

The conference included presentations by both teachers and education researchers.

“I am proud to participate in this conference for developing teachers’ capabilities,” said El-Shazly, who teaches history. “This is the first opportunity for Egyptian teachers to share their personal experiences as researchers and discuss ways to reform education.” At the same time, she said, “schoolteachers already carry a heavy load of teaching, examinations, and daily follow-up with students, without a fair salary. Adding research to this will not be an easy thing to achieve.”

Egypt has more than a million teachers and 20 million students, according to a study published by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics. According to the study, the average class size in primary education is 42.8 pupils. That number rises to almost 48 pupils per classroom in the provinces of Qalyubia, Giza, and Kafr El-Sheikh, and is lower—19.7 students per classroom—in the governorate of South Sinai.

High class size has led many schools to use two teaching shifts per day. Some students attend school in the morning and others in the afternoon. This reduces the time teachers have to cover their subjects, with each class lasting an average of 35 minutes. It has also forced schools to end school activities and trips. To add to these challenges, teachers receive very low pay, on average no more than $150 a month.

“We are fully aware of the magnitude of the burdens facing teachers, and their need for support,” said Malak Zaalouk, director of the Middle East Institute for Higher Education at the university. A key first step, she says, is to involve teachers in the development of faculties of education in Egypt, so that those programs meet needs on the ground and reflect global educational trends. Teachers should be seen as partners in the search for solutions to educational challenges, and they should be encouraged to conduct research as part of their own professional development, just as university professors do.

Zaalouk said conference organizers agreed to hold the meeting annually to maintain the momentum of their work with teachers, and to coordinate with the Egyptian Ministry of Education to follow up on the establishment of action research departments in government offices. An annual award for the best research by a teacher is also planned.

For Mahmoud Hassan, a professor in the department of curriculum and teaching methodology at Assiut University, the most important goal is to expand the culture of research among teachers. “We need to strengthen the partnership between education faculties and schools, as the former are responsible for preparing teachers, and the latter is where we use what we have learned.”


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