Putting Teachers First: Professional Development in Latin America and the Caribbean

By: Farai Samhungu Posted: 25 October 2021

This blog depicts the first hand account of a female primary school teacher, from a rural context in Honduras. The story of Silvia comes from a case study produced by an IDRC funded project on Teacher Professional Development - Supporting Teacher Professional Development at Scale - that explores professional learning experiences during the pandemic. It also takes insights from research from two other KIX funded projects: Adapting and Scaling Teacher Professional Development Approaches in Ghana, Honduras and Uzbekistan and the Regional KIX HUB of Latin America and the Caribbean.

Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch

Silvia is a young female primary school teacher at a remote rural school in Honduras.  Silvia has a university degree and a teaching  qualification. Over the years, Silvia has acquired additional professional qualifications in ICT, English and Human Resources Management.

Together with another female teacher, Silvia teaches and manages a school of 30 students from grades 1 to 9. The school is extremely under-resourced leaving Silvia with only her mobile phone and home computer for personal and business communication.

When COVID-19 struck, Silvia’s life was thrown into turmoil. Teaching became a nightmare. She had never trained to deliver teaching online and lacked access to relevant teaching resources. Her students couldn’t attend online classes because the majority of parents either didn’t have smartphones or skills to operate online learning platforms. In the worst cases, they completely lacked the means to support their kids.

Silvia’s story is a tale of the challenges of Teacher Professional Development  (TPD) in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), especially for teachers who are based in remote rural areas, with limited or no technological access.

But even for those teachers in urban areas, there are significant technological, electricity and internet connectivity challenges too. For many like Silvia who needed to access materials online and new digital skills to continue teaching using online platforms, the challenges of the pandemic have been unprecedented. 

The legacy of a good teacher can be found in every successful adult. “A teacher is an important variable in quality of education at classroom level” says Rafer Gordon, Education Expert at the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). He was speaking at a KIX Conversation webinar  - a series of meetings held exclusively by the KIX LAC hub.

Gordon says that in Latin America and the Caribbean ”good teachers benefit students for at least two years after they have stopped teaching them. Teacher quality may close the achievement gap in primary and secondary schools. But research has shown that the majority of teachers in the LAC region are not trained in pedagogy; assessment and growth is not systematically carried out; and there is a lack of networking, coaching and standards”, Gordon adds.

Speaking at the same webinar, Denise Vaillant, Academic Director at the Institute of Education, University of Uruguay, agreed with Gordon’s assessment. “Teachers need to constantly develop in their profession and to adapt and embrace new ways of teaching. COVID-19 is making visible what was invisible, the inequality gap is widening, and teachers need continued training to adapt to their new contexts.”

Yet teachers like Silvia who need TPD the most are forced to forego training opportunities when they arise.  “They take us out of school and because most rural schools have fewer teachers, students are left on their own”, says Silvia. “That is the part that I never agreed with: I cannot leave the school and children unattended."

Many teachers are kept out of TPD because of conflicts between training and work schedules, lack of training opportunities and resources. “TPD should be valued as an indispensable dimension of teachers’ work lives,” says Gordon. “It should not be seen as an add-on, but integral to the work being done.”

Part of the problem is that TPD is often not aligned to teachers’ needs, leaving teachers like Silvia to take TPD into their own hands. “TPD in the LAC region has failed because the models currently in place are not the most strategic ones”, says Vaillant. “Teachers follow teaching models they see in schools beyond what they have learned in training colleges”.  She believes TPD should be aligned to teachers’ needs at different stages of their lives “from when they enter teaching, through to retirement”. Vaillant recommends “Rethinking TPD for the LAC region (in a way that) recognizes the changing contexts within which teachers are operating, their resource limitations, and introduces innovations.”

The Global Partnership for Education Knowledge and Innovation Exchange (KIX) is supporting solutions in the region through funding to a project called Adapting and Scaling Teacher Professional Development Approaches in Ghana, Honduras and Uzbekistan. The project, also known as TPD@Scale in shorthand, is introducing new ways of working in teacher professional development and “aims to produce and share knowledge to influence policy making and support capacity building”, says Dante Castillo, who leads KIX research in Honduras.

Like all KIX activities, the research starts with the needs of the users. In Honduras, a contextual analysis has helped to identify the ICT needs of teachers in rural, semi-urban and urban areas as well as government institutions responsible for TPD. The research looks at current TPD models, how teachers are accessing content (and with what devices), what peer and expert support is available to them and how school leaders play a role in supporting TPD initiatives.

“TPD@Scale is designing at scale, testing what works in the different country contexts and improving the design for local application” says Victoria Tinio, Project Leader for the TPD@Scale project.

Honduras is finalising the design of different models and will begin the first phase of field testing in October 2021 with 40 teachers. Phase Two begins in February 2022 and will reach a total of 750 teachers.

Through this project, “KIX aims to expose teachers to TPD models that best suit them, that are evidence based and most importantly that put the teacher at the centre of TPD”, says Castillo. “We are designing models that are responsive to teachers’ needs and are interactive instead of ‘talking at’ teachers.” Teachers must own the process, the innovations must make sense and teachers need to be convinced the innovation will make a difference to their practice.

Improved technologies hold the key to scaling up - to reach and  train greater numbers of teachers annually. Additionally, developing information and communication technologies is key. “ICTs facilitate sharing of expertise and knowledge and help to overcome the isolation brought about by the pandemic” says Dr Didacus Jules, Director of the Organisation OECS.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Education at a Glance 2020 notes that TPD helps teachers to improve their skills and become more professional at different levels in their careers. The report recommends government and school leaders to bolster support to TPD initiatives for better learning outcomes for students.

The world is constantly changing and teachers need to adapt and acquire new skills to deal with the  learning challenges brought about by these changes. While the value of TPD is indisputable, stakeholders at the KIX LAC Conversation webinar on Teacher Professional Development called for evaluation of the impact of TPD programmes, whether indeed they are leading to desired outcomes in teaching and learning. 

KIX is contributing to generating evidence and deepening the sharing of knowledge on innovations. According to Jules, “Knowledge that sits securely on a foundation of data is the most important currency in the international arena that increases exponentially as it is freely shared, unlike other forms of wealth that decrease as you share it.”