Mentoring project inspires teachers at vast school in Kenya

Unity Primary is one of the largest schools in Kakuma refugee camp, where classes of 200 are not unusual and staying motivated as a teacher can a be tough job.

Yel Luka is one of many teachers who found a mentor through the Teachers for Teachers project.
© UNHCR/Anthony Karumba

With more than 3,400 students, Unity Primary School would be a big job for any head teacher, but it was soon clear Yel Luka was more than equal to the task when he arrived a few weeks ago.

“Things have really changed here since Mr Luka joined us,” says Dario, a maths teacher at Unity. “The students come to school on time and they pay more attention during assembly and in class.”

Unity is one of the largest schools in Kakuma refugee camp, in northern Kenya, and the scale of the challenge facing its teachers is difficult to comprehend. Classes of 90 or 100 are common and classes of 200 are not unusual. In such circumstances, engaging and inspiring the students is a daunting task. Staying motivated as a teacher can also be tough.

At Kakuma, help has arrived from a long way off. More than 70 percent of the teachers there have participated in a project called Teachers for Teachers – a training, coaching and mentoring system devised by Columbia University in the United States.

“Coaching has really helped me become a better leader.”

Training begins face-to-face with international and local instructors. Groups of 25 to 30 teachers learn techniques and methods appropriate to working in challenging environments such as those in Kakuma’s classrooms. After that, the programme continues with more coaching, plus support from “global mentors” – volunteer teachers from around the world who provide regular, real-time support via mobile apps such as the WhatsApp messaging system.

Participants follow two “tracks” concurrently – a shorter programme and an extended, more in-depth course. Both contain modules on the role of the teacher, child protection and inclusion, teaching methods, and curriculum and planning. Those who complete the programmes can choose to become coaches themselves.

For Luka, this has been the most inspiring part of the Teachers for Teachers system. As a peer coach, he has become a reliable source of support for 50 of his colleagues throughout the refugee camp. “Coaching has really helped me become a better leader,” he says.

Across the road from Unity is Mogadishu Primary, another school given a shot in the arm by Teachers for Teachers. Salome Perpetua, 32, a science teacher, is also a peer coach and mentors 40 colleagues in five schools. “This training has really changed my life,” she says. “It has empowered me to share my skills with my colleagues, because not all of them were able to be trained.

“I can discuss challenges online with the mentors and get a solution very quickly.”

“The training has changed how things work around here.”

Mary Mendenhall, an assistant professor of practice at Columbia’s Teachers College, started Teachers for Teachers with funding from Open IDEO, an innovation platform. UNHCR supported her and her team to pilot it at Kakuma in 2015. Since then, 130 teachers have gone through the programme.

“These teachers are really on the front line every day and they can speak to the issues and help one another think through how they can overcome some of the challenges,” says Mendenhall.

Luka’s experience with the programme has inspired him to enroll for a degree in education, but he believes the impacts have gone beyond teachers’ professional development. “The training has changed how things work around here,” he says.

“Our students are more determined to succeed because they can see that their teachers are so motivated to support them achieve their goals.”

See UNHCR's 2017 report on refugee education, Left Behind: Refugee Education in Crisis.