• Anita Demitroff

C is for Collaboration. The Secret, Shared World of Teachers

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

Nestled between the great land masses of Algeria and Libya and what looks like a stone’s throw away from Italy is the country called Tunisia. Perhaps we have friends who have holidayed there or we have heard that it is home to the Carthage ruins. For my You First Education colleague, Anabel Reis, and me, Tunisia would provide us with incredible memories.

In the summer of 2019, Anabel and I worked on a short course for Tunisian Primary teachers who were about to introduce English as a Foreign Language to a younger cohort and needed to change their approach. The program was organised by TransformELT and ELT Consultants, under the auspices of the British Council's Teaching for Success programme.

Of course, Anabel and I were grateful for the opportunity provided to us by the organisers and we built strong ties with our fellow trainers, an international team of incredible professionals. But today we are focusing on the Tunisians who received the training: Houda, Marwa, Dhouha, Ynes, two Fatmas and now Saber, there are so many names to highlight (and Anabel has her own long list of the participants in her classroom)!

All these people made the experience all the more memorable. And then there were countless others: the local trainers (in my case, Olfa and Noureddine) and those in the government who ensured we were comfortable and had everything we needed. In Nabul, that was Neji and his team in a huge, bustling state training college.

Here is what my Tunisian colleagues have driven home to me.

1. Diversity isn't just about our learners, good teachers come in many different forms.

Because of its geographical situation, Tunisia is a country that has received a variety of cultural influences and this mixture can be perceived in the people themselves and their life choices. The course reached all kinds of teachers, mostly women, though there were a few men. All age groups were represented. There were enthusiastic newbies and those who had been in the classroom for decades. The more traditional participants were bemused, but eventually turned around; many of the participants were open to the opportunity to learn from the start.

2. As fellow teachers, we always have more in common than meets the eye, despite our very distinct contexts.

We are all concerned for the wellbeing of our learners. We have to balance our working and private lives. We are anxious to improve professionally and keep learning. I saw these points of nexus when I was working alongside the teachers and still see it now through our intermittent contact through Facebook.

Over a year later, we faced a pandemic, each in our own corners of the world; so many of us across the globe were desperate to reach out to our learners. We had to overcome the challenge of hooking up with students in the countryside or in tech-poor households, while worrying about the impact on our own families. It now seems so long ago.

3. Educational technology will continue to be important after the pandemic.

Before going to their country, I could only imagine what the classrooms of my Tunisian colleagues were like, but I now actually get a chance to glimpse inside through their uploaded videos and photos. Moreover, it is really impressive to see what has been done in Tunisia since the time I was there, thanks to the second wave of online training from the British Council.

YouTube channels have sprung up in an effort to build community and bring teachers and learners together. One of the most prolific and enthusiastic contributors on Social Media is Teacher Saber. He has worked through hundreds of songs, dialogues and stories with his Primary learners. You can see Saber in action with his Arabic version of our clapping rhyme.

4. The role of music is crucial.

From the digital to the basic and human: we trainers were mesmerised as the Tunisian teachers transformed chants, drills and phonics awareness songs so that they had the rhythmical framework of Tunisian music. It shows how educational trends come and go, but music, how our grandparents memorised key information, stays, even in its purest, tech-free form. Nothing can take away from the power of listening to a teacher sing or chant and when learners join in, they are participating in a magical, communal experience.

One young teacher, Fatma, sent me a haunting song through Messenger to show that she was thinking of me during confinement. It was a small gesture with great impact. This was someone I had only met recently over a course that lasted five days, but she was concerned for my welfare and let me know this through music.

5. Another essential resource: simple stories always work, especially when they are relevant to the learners.

To activate their pupils' vocabulary, grammar, and phonics, teams of teachers had to produce stories. Indeed these narratives were the backbone of the first course and dealt with universal themes about childhood and family life. On the Friday, jubilant for having finished their presentations, the teachers made their way into the canteen to display their poster stories, carefully handwritten in Roman Script.

6. Human resources: the power of teams was made apparent again and again.

The Tunisian sense of community is strong and the bonds the teachers we trained on the course formed were reinforced by the fact that, for some women, it was, at first, difficult being away from their families, given that they travelled to city centres to join the residential week-long course.

I was involved in two of these courses and saw the same thing. These ladies were blurry-eyed and anxious when they came to class on Monday, but by Friday, they were sad to go back!

They laughed and joked as they prepared their end of course teaching practice presentations and hugged each other as they finished this task, a reminder that, as colleagues, we have to support each other.

To teach is to learn.

Thank you, Tunisia! You will be in our lives forever.

By Ana Demitroff

Bio: Ana has been in the classroom longer than she cares to admit, but she still gets a kick from the experience and continues to learn from her colleagues and students at the You First Language Centre.