Sharing knowledge to empower students

By Conor Sanchez

Last week was the Fourth Annual English Teachers Conference of the Nicaraguan Caribbean Coast. The conference, a two day event that brings together English teachers from across the region for TEFL workshops, was started four years ago by a Peace Corps Volunteer couple as a way to give teachers sessions about improved English teaching methodologies.

Overall the conference was a success. Over 120 teachers attended, most of whom are based here in Nueva Guinea, but with some who came from San Carlos, Rama, Muelle de Los Bueyes, and El Almendro as well. Eleven experienced facilitators from CCNN (a U.S. Embassy funded organization that promotes English language learning throughout Nicaragua), UNAN-Leon University, and Peace Corps Volunteers from Matagalpa, Chontales, and Esteli led the sessions.

The Peace Corps team. Some traveled as far as Matagalpa and Esteli to give sessions.

The Peace Corps team. Some traveled as far as Matagalpa and Esteli to give sessions.

My role in all this was to co-coordinate everything with a professor who has been running it since its inception in 2011. I also applied for a grant to cover lunches and snacks for teachers on both days of the conference. The toughest part was deciding how much of a role I should play. If Peace Corps aims for sustainability, it seems fair that after four years of doing this conference, the university should have it down by now.

Michaela and I have faced this dilemma a lot throughout our service seeing as we inherited two volunteer-spearheaded projects (the English Community Center and this conference). There’ve been many times when we’ve had to ask ourselves at what point should be backing off and letting the local institution or individual take the wheel. If we’re the training wheels, when do they come off?

This is probably one of the bigger, if not the biggest, questions all sustainable development professionals face at one point or another. The goal is to empower those who are going to be around long after the resource being provided, be it monetary or human, dries up or leaves the country. After the initial injection of support, the community needs to find self-sufficiency, not dependency. If I do all the work in organizing the event, nobody will have the experience and confidence to implement things after I leave in a year.

A session given by two PCVs on classroom management.

A session given by two PCVs on classroom management.

In the end, I think I struck the right balance between offering support where it was needed and making sure the university remained in the driver’s seat. And they did a fantastic job. It was a great turn-out. Teachers were super enthusiastic since opportunities like this are pretty rare in this region. Of course, they could not have done it without the amazing support they received from ANPI, CCNN, and the U.S. Embassy in the form of materials, funds to reimburse teachers for travel costs, and presenters.

One of the new things I suggested they do this year is have an evaluation form at the end to help next year’s organizers pin-point where they could make improvements. There were definitely areas where they can work to improve for next year’s conference and this was reflected in the evaluation forms.

I think one of the most inspirational things was seeing how hard the lead coordinator worked to make the conference a success. On top of all the other enormous responsibilities he has as a professor, he managed to get it done. He’s already worked with three other volunteers, so he’s not officially my counterpart, but he may as well have been during the last month and a half while we prepared.

The question is how long he will be in this position. Which, again, brings up the issue of sustainability and tells me he needs to work alongside someone else next year so as to prepare them for the day the torch inevitably gets passed.

On the last day, Michaela and I gave a session to all 120 attendees about creating a community of practice via Facebook, which we’ve got up and running. It’s meant to be a space where teachers can share opportunities and best practices or even solicit help with a work issue and network with one another.

It fit in nicely with the conference’s slogan, “Sharing knowledge to empower students,” which is meant to remind teachers why they do what they do in the first place.

The more prepared we are, the more prepared they will be.

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