Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Promising Practices for Strengthening Teacher Professional Development in Crisis Contexts

6 December 2016

This blog post is part of an online discussion series about the implementation of the Teachers in Crisis Contexts Training Pack

by Mary Mendenhall, Teachers College, Columbia University

Since May 2016, my team at Teachers College, Columbia University, including several graduate students and alumni, have been implementing an initiative called Teachers for Teachers in Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya, a project that Charlotte Bergin wrote about in detail in a previous blog post and that uses the Training Pack for Primary School Teachers in Crisis Contexts as a key element of our approach. When we recently asked a teacher participating in this project about how education affects children and families in Kakuma and his role as a teacher, he stated:

“…I am excited to be part of this important and constructive effort to help educate the refugee children. These children in Kakuma Refugee Camp lost their right to education to wars and ethnic conflicts in their home countries but now that they are getting that right being offered to them here in the camp, becoming part of that makes me feel humbled for having the chance to offer this humane and wonderful service to the children of my fellow refugees. I will also feel grateful to be part of history in [the] future, especially when some of the children we are teaching here in the camp become great people and do some great and wonderful things for their countries and humanity.”
-- Primary schoolteacher in Kakuma refugee camp, originally from South Sudan

© Mary Mendenhall
2016 Kakuma refugee camp, Teachers for Teachers training organized by Teachers College, Columbia University
It is both humbling and inspiring to hear teachers reflect on the importance of education and their role as teachers despite the immense challenges they face in places like Kakuma refugee camp. The individuals and organizations that first came together to develop the training pack over the past couple of years aspired to both improve the quality of available tools to support teacher professional development and to ensure that teachers would become more adequately supported in their own efforts to provide quality education to their learners. As I read the posts to the current blog series on the uses of the training pack, it is encouraging to see how new and different organizations are adapting it to fit the needs of the local contexts in which they are working. There are also several emerging themes and shared goals that cut across these stories.

First, as we reframe our conversations from “teacher training” to “teacher professional development,” there is a clear recognition that we must move away from one-off, short-term, and stand-alone workshops to provide more robust and continuous support to teachers. We see multiple examples in this blog post series of the various ways in which different organizations are providing layers and/or stages of support to teachers. Also, while some organizations increasingly explore how best to leverage ICT to support teachers, Paul Moclair from Aflatoun reminds us that we cannot forget the importance and value of face-to-face time with teachers and the value of hybrid online and in-person work as we continue to experiment with different approaches.

Second, more and more actors are noting the virtuous circle of conducting training and research in tandem -- to the betterment of both. By authentically involving teachers in the design, development, implementation and evaluation efforts related to teacher support, we are able to better respond to their needs. Through observations and discussions during training sessions, we are able to ask better research questions. Through the reflections and perspectives gleaned during research, we can make adaptations to the training materials. The blog posts by IRC and JRS both spoke of the needs assessments they conducted with teachers and other stakeholders to ensure that they were prioritizing the needs of the teachers and differentiating the approach from other providers in an effort to avoid duplication in content and skills. I know that our own work in Kakuma has been significantly improved through this parallel and integrated research and training process.

© Mary Mendenhall
2016 Kakuma refugee camp, Teachers for Teachers training organized by Teachers College, Columbia University

Third, the developers of the training pack also advocated strongly for taking time to adapt and contextualize the materials to the needs on the ground and the blog posts in this series beautifully capture how different actors are carrying out this process. It requires time, energy and resources to do this well, but the advantages definitively outweigh the disadvantages. While the contextualization process does need to be localized, I couldn’t help but think that the reason that JRS found the session on corporal punishment and positive discipline so useful for the Malawi context, might have had something to do with the fact that the teachers in Kakuma refugee camp who both facilitated the pilot training as well as participated in it, had helped us completely re-think that particular session so that it would better align with current practices and the challenges that teachers face in their classrooms every day. While teachers in Kakuma are still using corporal punishment, many of the teachers we spoke with just last week stated that they use it far less than they did before the training and that they have observed notable improvements in their relationships with their students, their students’ well-being as well as their academic performance. Behavior change for teachers (and everybody else) takes time, which further reinforces the need for continuous support for teachers.

I’d like to thank the blog post contributors for their honest reflections about the challenges and opportunities to improve the support they are striving to provide to teachers around the world in low-income, refugee and crisis contexts. It’s exciting to see the training pack being used in different ways (full modules vs. select activities, as Bente from Plan International mentions in her post) across a variety of contexts, with different profiles of teachers, teacher trainers and organizational staff, as well as with both formal and non-formal education programs. If you haven’t already read the previous blog posts, I strongly encourage you to do so!

I’d also like to thank the numerous teachers who are participating in training and other support activities that draw on the pack for their generosity in time and ideas as we collectively work to strengthen these materials. The French and Arabic translations of the pack will be made available soon through an inter-agency effort and we welcome the continued support and partnership from INEE members around the work in recognizing the critical importance of the role that teachers play amidst incredibly difficult circumstances.


Mary Mendenhall is an Assistant Professor of Practice in the International and Comparative Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York, USA. She is also the current Chair of the Teachers in Crisis Contexts Working Group. Her research and project-based interests look at the policies and practices of refugee education across camp, urban and resettlement settings. She is leading the Teachers for Teachers initiative in Kakuma refugee camp and enjoys working closely with her graduate students and other partners to provide training, coaching and mobile mentoring support to the amazing teachers involved in this project.