What I’ve Learnt From International Collaboration

Sairah Rees, Teach First Alumna
The staff of Lusenke Primary School participate in TEP's pilot training course on learner centered teaching methods

Francis Bizoza Bigirimana and I first met in 2015 at the Oxford Forum for International Development at Oxford University. Francis was presenting his project, Teachers Empowerment Platform (TEP), and I met with him  in my capacity as Charities Representative for my college. It was instantly clear that he and I shared a passion for education. TEP, whose aim at the time was to empower teachers to integrate IT into their classrooms, was little more than an idea at this point, but I really connected with Francis’s positive attitude and, later that year, I travelled to Uganda and consulted on the project for three weeks. Shortly after my return to the UK, I agreed to be a trustee for TEP.

Both Francis and I believed  that TEP would take off from there. However, as is so often the case, life got in the way. A year abroad, final exams, graduations, and job searches left TEP gathering dust for some time.

Until, in 2017, Francis and I were both accepted to Teach For All network partner programs. I moved to Hull, UK as a Teach First participant, and Francis moved to Luwero, Uganda as a Teach For Uganda fellow. You may think this was planned, but the truth is that it was a complete coincidence—neither of us even knew the other was applying!

A few months into our placements, Francis and I  got back in touch. Our experiences teaching had only made us more inspired and driven to take action. Personally, my training with Teach First and my experience teaching in my school had really made me aware of educational inequality and the limiting effect this had on children. Given that I found the levels of deprivation shocking in the UK, a "developed" country, I could only imagine how difficult it was for children in Francis's school. Francis and I got to work on refining the aim and method of TEP. We arranged meetings and collaborated through Google Drive, Skype, and WhatsApp to organize members into roles and responsibilities, create promotional material that communicated our new vision, built a website, developed a new logo and increased our social media presence, including building a new group where teachers could collaborate.

And so it was that in 2018 TEP was reborn with a new, shared, vision to end educational inequality. The core value of TEP, empowering teachers, remained unchanged. But we were no longer simply training them to use a computer, we were now supporting them to tackle educational inequality. Francis realised that so many teachers in rural Uganda did not have access to the training, resources or support they needed, and it became our mission to change this.

Now, TEP has a following of nearly 1000 teachers. We have built a network where teachers in all contexts can connect and collaborate. We’ve reached out to other organisations so that we can work together. And we’re on the brink of launching a ground-breaking training course on Learner Centred Methods.

So what have I learnt?

Take a leap of faith - I took one on Francis. I saw his passion and decided to follow it, wherever it might lead—and look where we are now! Sometimes it can seem daunting connecting with something so far away from your own world. But I say just go for it! You never know where you might end up.

Never give up - Even when life gets in the way, and it seems like things are going nowhere, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board and try again. It took a few iterations of TEP to make it to where we are today, but we persevered and it paid off. Having said that, you also have to look at your project critically. Flogging a dead horse is not going to get you far, a lesson that TEP learned the hard way.

Keep an open mind - There are always going to be cultural differences when working with international colleagues. I’ve learnt so much by staying open to these. Uganda now feels like a second home, even though I’ve only visited once.

The world is only as big as you make it - I had a choice when I first met Francis: I could go back to my own little bubble, and stay there, as comfortable as ever—or I could decide to look outside, and see what is truly happening in the world. I chose the latter, and I do not regret it. This decision opened up a whole new perspective for me, one which I now can’t imagine living without.

Collaboration, when done properly, is a blessing in any context. But collaborating across borders creates ties and opportunities that last a lifetime. I’m now looking forward to the future with TEP and  even contemplating a move across the globe. Most significantly, I’m helping people that I never would have otherwise. Ask yourself: What could you do? Where could you go? There’s a world outside your bubble, and it’s waiting for you.

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