At the corner of a busy intersection on the southern edge of Beirut, behind mirrored glass and a towering razor-wire fence, a group of researchers gathered inside Unesco’s Beirut office last month for a two-day conference that focused on the challenges faced by teacher-education reformers across the Arab world.
One of the first hurdles reformers must clear is just getting teachers to buy into their efforts.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here” is a complaint often heard from teachers attending professional-development workshops, said one of the presenters at the conference, Bassem Kandil.
But Kandil, who is director of the Centre of Professional Development at Lebanon’s Makassed Association, a nonprofit group that provides a number of social services, including career-oriented education, said he had learned from workshop surveys that some participating teachers were simply happy to be away from work. “At least I’m not at school,” they would say.
Indeed, low morale among teachers seemed to be a central theme at the conference, which was titled “Quality and Innovation in Teacher Professional Development” and was organized by the Centre for Lebanese Studies, an independent research and policy center in Beirut.
International donors, national governments, and many others often seek to improve education by offering professional development for teachers. University departments of education also regularly get involved in these efforts. But the efficacy and impact of professional development for teachers are still very much an open question globally.
And for some countries, the added burden that a flood of refugees from the conflict in Syria has placed on school systems is a complicating factor.
The Beirut meeting drew education researchers from universities and research centers across the region and examined the effectiveness of teacher-training programs throughout the Middle East.
Kandil said most teacher workshops were “one-time events” with no follow-up from organizers or participating schools. Teachers who attended were randomly selected and had little input into the design of training programs. “Teachers felt absent from the decision-making of workshops; they were just participants,” Kandil said.
Mohsen Shirazizadeh, a professor of English-language teaching at Alzahra University in Tehran, found in a survey of Iranian teachers of English that many suffered from “emotional exhaustion” and “uncaring attitudes.” Some joined the profession simply because they had “nothing better to do after graduation.”
“Reflective practice,” in which teachers collect and analyze information about what goes on in their classrooms, is often recommended as a way of improving teaching, Shirazizadeh said. But he said he found that teachers often reject this process because it means “doing more work for less pay.”
“Reflection helps teachers overcome many problems, but there are a number of challenges to be tackled before we can ask teachers to reflect,” Shirazizadeh said.
Defining the Teacher’s Role
What’s needed is a focus on a teacher’s role and professional identity, said Rima Karami Akkary, professor of education leadership at the American University of Beirut. “How do I define myself? Am I an educator, a researcher, an agent of social change?”
Akkary co-directs the TAMAM Project, which works with schools across the Arab region on developing leadership capacities to improve student learning. She often finds a lack of agency among teachers and students treated as “dependent learners.”
“Leadership is not just a few people in key positions,” she said. “These skills should be built into the system everywhere, starting with the classroom.”
But Akkary cautioned against blaming only teachers, saying the conditions they work under may not be conducive. “We can’t think of learning as if it is centralized: Did the student learn? Did the teacher learn? We need to see what the organization learned, what’s happening in community.”
“We cannot just beef up individuals, we need to make groups of teachers good,” she said. “It’s about the collective, not just the individual.”
Maha Shuayb, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies, said schools are also plagued by administrative issues, such as inflexible curriculum and patchy certification for teachers, with a teaching diploma not mandated by many schools.
Little trust is placed in teachers to adapt curriculum, and dialogue or sharing of feedback among teachers is rare. Instead teachers are asked to stick to textbooks, which “reduces the role of teacher to delivering content,” Shuayb said.
“It gets deadly boring. Some schools treat teachers as robots – they are expected to take a lesson plan out of the drawer. … We don’t trust teachers, we control them.”
The focus should be on building teachers’ capacity as independent learners, keen on developing their discipline, Shuayb said. Teachers are often fascinated by their subjects, she said, but subject-specific professional associations where they can share strategies and nourish their passions are largely absent in the region.
There are similar gaps among those who study teacher education, with little cooperation among researchers at different institutions, Shuayb said. “We don’t work across universities. Everyone is researching in a silo.”
In addition, “there is very little dialogue between research practitioners and policy makers,” she said, adding that many researchers don’t see their role as influencing policy.
Shuayb is a founder of a network called the Teacher Education Research Group that is looking to combat the isolation of education researchers and already includes several universities in Lebanon. “We want to gather to do research on teacher education, highlight the gaps, apply for funding and a develop strategy around teacher education.”
Several speakers noted that many of the problems of teacher education and burnout are not limited to the Middle East. Around half of new teachers in the United States drop out of the profession within five years, said Hanadi Mirza, a consultant and teacher trainer at the Lebanese University.
And Sandra Stotsky, a professor emerita of education at the University of Arkansas, threw cold water on the effectiveness of teacher-education programs in the United States. “Very little seems to have worked,” she said. “We are barely able to find studies that show teachers learned something useful from professional development, never mind that it had an effect on students taught.”
Shuayb countered this view, saying there was “enough evidence” that teacher development can work. She added, though, that evaluations of success are complicated by factors like socioeconomic background, inequality and the state of social mobility at the workplace.
Shuayb also noted the negative impact of gender bias and stereotyping of the field. Good students are sometimes discouraged from entering the teaching profession by statements like “you are too smart to be a teacher,” she said. On the other hand, young women are often pushed into the profession as a way to care for their own children and help pay for their tuition.
Surveys of teachers in Lebanon reveal that many suffer from exhaustion, physical aches, nightmares and depression, she said.
While most of the presentations touched on training systems already in place, some participants felt a number of topics were left out, such as overall curriculum reform and the high-stakes high-school exit exams, largely based on memorization, that some countries use to determine which students can go on to college and which universities they can attend. (See related articles: “Jordan’s Decision to Shake Up University Admissions Stirs Controversy” and “Egypt Plans Radical Change in Measuring High-School Success.”)
“There is this stumbling block suddenly in the ninth grade when we have to revert back to old methods of memorization,” said a participant from the University of Balamand, in Lebanon. “We are not given a chance to try different methods, the doors are blocked. As much as we train teachers, we still have this block.”
Other topics that were not raised at the conference include teacher pay, the role of unions, state education budgets and, in some countries, classrooms crowded by an influx of refugees.
“No one has addressed the situation we are in,” said a participant from Jordan, where class sizes have sometimes more than doubled to help accommodate refugees from Syria. “What if we have 50 or 60 students in a class? What kind of training is going to help us deal with that?”
That and many other questions at the conference did not have immediate answers. The discussion will continue at future workshops held by the Teacher Education Research Group, which also hopes to repeat the larger conference once every two years in a different Arab capital city.