A Systems-focused Change that Made a Difference: Learning Coaches in Sierra Leone
In the years following the 2014 Ebola outbreak, Sierra Leone emerged as one of the most challenging educational contexts on Earth.
The students and teachers returning to school once that pandemic ended had experienced horrific trauma and prolonged disruption to their educations. These challenges would now be layered upon a society still grappling with the scarring of the country’s decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002. Further complicating matters was that the education system struggled with chronic under-investment and was staffed by educators and administrators who stood to benefit greatly from added professional development and capacity.
The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) response to these challenges reflects the approaches we take to overcome these barriers and safeguard the right of every child to quality education. Most of what we faced in Sierra Leone was not unique. Much of what we learned can be applied elsewhere. At the heart of our response was a commitment to building a more effective, cohesive, and nurturing educational system.
Through direct consultation and observation, it became clear that teachers working in this education system needed ongoing support. In collaboration with New York University Global TIES for Children (NYU/TIES) researchers, we sought the perspectives and insight of key stakeholders in Sierra Leone, observed how schools were functioning throughout this context, and rigorously collected evidence to gauge how aspects of our program functioned.
A core component of the program that the IRC built in partnership with key players in Sierra Leone was the introduction of Learning Coaches (LCs). These LCs were often former teachers themselves and were hired by the IRC and came into their positions with the credentials and experience needed to provide professional development support and guidance to primary school teachers in Sierra Leone and stood in as a crucial bridge between teachers and administrators. Many of these teachers working in schools in rural Sierra Leone had little to no professional development and were volunteers whose main line of work was something other than teaching. There was a desperate need to build a more professional operation with greater capacity at every level of the education system.
LCs functioned as observers, mentors, and liaisons. By sitting in on classes, LCs applied firsthand insights toward strengthening classroom instruction. By collaborating with teachers, LCs pivoted away from the superior and subordinate dynamic that might otherwise loom and instead built a rapport like that between a coach and their star players. And functioning as a go-between, they helped shore up the ties between teachers and school leaders.
IRC and NYU interviewed six LCs working at 20 primary schools and with about 200 teachers and 5000 students across regions in Sierra Leone that had been particularly hard-hit by the Ebola outbreak. A Follow-up review of the interviews by the IRC suggested how key it was for LCs to establish a relationship early on with teachers that focused more on shared objectives and collaboration and explicitly de-emphasized a supervisory tone. These interviews revealed LCs who reported that the group of teachers they supported felt more prepared and confident to manage their classrooms and deliver on a more impactful- child-centered pedagogy.
“Sometimes it may be cordial and sometimes it may be a little sour, depending on the way you approach them,” one LC said. “If you go there as an LC and then you think you are a supervisor, you will not work well with them… But you always go there with the hope that you learn from the teachers and the teachers learn from you.”
“We give them professional development by one-on-one coaching,” said another LC. “I sit with you, I ask you questions, now you taught the class for yourself, what really do you think went well while teaching? Honestly, the teacher will say ‘oh!’ When I was teaching these are some of the things that went well, the things that did not go on well at all the teacher will tell you. That is why we have this feedback form, yes, so that we discuss matters that are related to that teaching. So, I think the whole thing is to capacitate teachers to be able to handle school matters correctly, including through classroom teaching.”
In every humanitarian context, there is no one single solution that will make everything better. The most effective responders must account for entire system failures and meet each crisis eager to understand where the system at hand can be shored-up, strengthened, with evidence of what approaches can make that strengthening happen. In Sierra Leone, the IRC and its partners sought to create a model of systemic change that centered the experiences and needs of teachers. By empowering teachers and bolstering their skill sets, this approach found that helping to provide professional guidance and administrative cohesion helped create a more confident and motivated group of teaching personnel across the system. In so doing, this partnership proved that it is possible to recruit and benefit from the skills and strengths of community teachers who have the local trust, linguistic ability, and cultural understanding to serve students even in highly challenging contexts.
In Sierra Leone, the IRC encountered an education system struggling with resource, morale, and capacity breakdowns. By endeavoring to respond to these in a thoughtful manner that put support for teachers at the core, the IRC and its partners ended up participating in the development of the LC approach for Sierra Leone’s schools. This approach did not change Sierra Leone overnight, but key stakeholders did report it contributed to positive changes in the education system. In our partnership with NYU, we were able to collect a wealth of such evidence -- including on how to best support students' attendance -- and we plan to share these research findings in Spring 2021.