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British Council and UN cooperate in Gaza

Melanie Butler asks Andrew Foster, English projects manager at BC in Occupied Palestinian Territories, and BC trainer Julietta Schoenmann about a course run for local teachers in Gaza

Traditionally Palestinians have been among the best English speakers in the region. So why opt for a training programme like English for Teaching, with its mixed focus of language and methodology?

AF: As you say, the level of English among Palestinian teachers is better than that in numerous other countries. Most teachers of English are graduates of English language and literature courses from the Gaza Strip’s four university English departments, where they also receive some lectures on methodology.

As for choosing the course, the partnership is with the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), a major education provider in Gaza. I discussed the teachers’ needs with their English specialists, and suggested English for Teachers, which focuses on methodology and language use and analysis, and they thought it would be useful.

Then I asked UNRWA to send a random sample of thirty teachers from across the Gaza Strip for testing, using Aptis online, and the results were predominantly around B1 on the CEFR, so we based our course for UNRWA trainers on initial modules of English for Teachers 2, which aims to help raise teachers from B1 to B2.

In Gaza English is taught through all school grades, and UNRWA teaches approximately half of students from grades 1 to 9. UNRWA trainers have already run the course, which lasts thirty to forty hours, for 200 afternoon shift teachers and will be running it again in March for 200 from the morning shift. Some of the teachers have done previous methodology courses, but some have not, and supporting teacher development under a blockade worsened by regional instability is challenging.

For example, when it came to running the trainer training course for English for Teaching, getting a trainer into Gaza was not possible, and UNRWA’s request to send teachers to the West Bank was denied. Previously we trained Gazans in Cairo, but the Sinai route is currently closed. So the initial group of 22 trainee trainers completed around thirty hours of training via video conference from the British Council office in Ramallah to the UNRWA training room in Gaza. Using two-way video conferencing for training presents monitoring issues, but as trainer and trainees become familiar with the technology and develop the necessary approaches to training room management, responsive training is possible.

How far is methodology included in the course implicitly? Are you are already presuming a kind of methodological approach?

AF: We do presume a methodological approach to some extent from that of the Palestinian syllabus, in part contained in the English for Palestine coursebook, which includes instructions on group work and pair work. Most teachers with two or more years’ experience will have had some training in communicative methodologies, though more recent recruits may not.

JS: The methodology is both implicit – in that the training course is delivered in a participant-centred way with a task-based approach – and explicit in that each module has a methodology section that focuses specifically on things like how to teach skills, grammar, giving instructions and so on.

Participants are encouraged to share their own experiences of how they manage their classrooms and listen to experienced teachers talking about what they do. These accounts serve as springboards for group discussion and analysis of what might be called an appropriate methodology for their classes.

They also get more expo sure to methodology though demonstrations of activities and techniques and again have the opportunity to comment on them. In terms of ‘presuming a methodological approach’ I found that the materials assumed teachers were starting from scratch (i.e. knew next to nothing about implementing a child-centred approach in the classroom), which wasn’t necessarily the case with the Gaza trainer group, though this should help their less experienced trainees.

How will you measure success?

AF: The children in schools would be the best measure. Giving their teachers training keeps them more interested in their work and aims to improve their effectiveness as teachers and model English users to students and peers. What I’d love to do is visit schools to see what an average (not specially prepared) lesson looks like, but infrequent visits to Gaza make this difficult.

As for the success with teachers, our two Gaza staff, Suheil and Moham mad, visited four of the training groups from this course. To get an impression of the training I asked them to use the ‘What’s happening every five minutes in the training room?’ method – noting down who is speaking and listening, any movement, materials being used and so on.

One question we asked participants for feedback on is if they thought training that helps improve English level was useful. Most teachers said yes, citing reasons such as ‘refreshing’ their language. Afaf Assad said, ‘It motivates me to work on and use my own English.’

UNRWA school teacher Islam Samir Al Hattab said it had been ‘very useful because having our type of job kills all the language we’ve studied and makes it more limited to a seventh grade book’. As another UNRWA teacher Iman Balousha said, ‘This course is more enjoyable than others since we feel that we live the situation and we are not only a student in a course, we are real teachers.’