March 31, 2017

Teaching the teachers: thousands get training to inspire children living in conflict zones and poverty

Female teachers in rural Ghana, learning basic computer skills as part of the Rural IT Training Program

Photo credit: Education Global Access Program

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

Shanyn Ronis - named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education list - tells how her Education Global Access Program aims to train 3000 teachers this year in Africa and Latin America. 

What do teachers do? They teach, obviously! But they also inspire young people, serve as role models and even save lives.

That's even more vital for the millions of children living in the poorest countries or in conflict zones. Young people deprived of education are likely to stay stuck in the cycle of poverty - but they are also at greater risk of child labour, early marriage, exploitation and criminality.

That's why Shanyn Ronis and her Washington-based Education Global Access Program (E-Gap) is focused on one major goal - to train teachers in war zones and areas of extreme poverty to help their students succeed.

"Without dynamic, trained teachers, education doesn’t come alive the way that it should," said Shanyn, whose organisation has touched the lives of 5000 people and aims to train 3000 teachers this year in Africa and Latin America.

Shanyn Ronis is the Founder and Executive Director of the Education Global Access Program (E-Gap)

Photo credit: Education Global Access Program

"We primarily target people who are not professional teachers. People who live in poverty or in a conflict zone, or there is just no one else around to teach and they have stepped up to take this on.

"In a lot of cases, that means refugees who are stepping up as teachers for refugee children.

"We focus on how to make an engaging classroom. They need to understand not just their own style but the learning style of their students."

Shanyn's work in setting up and leading a successful nonprofit at such a young age - she's still only 29 - was recognised earlier this year when she was named in the prestigious Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education list.

"We believe that teachers save lives - especially in conflict zones, refugee camps and areas of extreme poverty," Shanyn told Forbes. 

In 2015, she was also named as a winner of a Gifted Citizen Award for social entrepreneurs. Winning awards is a far cry from her childhood, when her mother struggled financially as a single parent who had dropped out of school.

"We were hitting up food shelters and moving apartment every year when they raised the rent," she said.

"When I was in junior high school, my mom went back to school herself. She got her associate degree and then her bachelor degree and then her JD degree, so she’s now a lawyer.

"Every time she would get more education, you could see the change in our lifestyle. All of a sudden we could go to a two-bedroom apartment and go to a normal grocery store.

"That's the reason I became really passionate about education and about social issues in general."

Her family struggles were set against the backdrop of being in a community abundant with resources and having great schools and neighbours to rely on.

"I thought: what about those areas where those type of resources don’t exist?" said Shanyn. "So I wanted to make sure that we were doing education in areas where there isn't that type of support - where we can really, really make a difference in our own small way."

Students in a displaced persons settlement, Northern Nigeria

Photo credit: Education Global Access Program

With a background in anthropology and her earlier post-college work on low-level political campaigns in the United States, Shanyn made the leap and founded E-gap in 2013.

Its mission is to use programmes and materials to train highly-qualified and dedicated teachers to help vulnerable students fulfil their potential.

Its courses are available for free on mobile phones, with more than 400 hours of content available.

Originally, E-Gap focused on improving access to education. But during a project that took in seven countries, the message kept coming back that there was a need for trained teachers.

Shanyn said: "So we started reading up more about teachers and decided this was the missing piece. You need less resources to train a passionate teacher than you do to build a school. 

"So when we work with teachers our philosophy is that anyone can be a teacher. By definition, a teacher is someone who teaches. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a degree, if you’re teaching a subject or just teaching one child a life skill."

E-gap started focusing on Latin America - but then they started hearing from people in Africa who asked if they could set up programmes there too.

"We had people in Kenya and Cameroon who volunteered to set things up there," she explained. "My response was 'We can’t pay you - we don’t have the funds' and they said 'We don’t care. We just want to get it set up'.

Trainers take a break during the RITTP programme's launch in Yevi, Ghana

Photo credit: Education Global Access Program

"So they started the programmes. It was mind-blowing how much work they put into this."

Keeping the overheads low is vital to E-Gap - with 91% of its income going directly to the programmes.

E-Gap has offices in the United States, Kenya and Cameroon, together with programmes operating through partnerships in Mexico, Colombia, Nigeria and Ghana. It also has students enrolled in its online programmes in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Afghanistan and the USA.

In Kenya, the organisation is now partnering with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR and about 10 other nonprofits to deliver a programme in Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp.

Dadaab has more than 143,000 children of school age. Over 80% of the camp's teachers are untrained refugees and the aim is to train 1000 of them.

Daniel Njuguna, E-Gap's country director for Kenya, said: "I believe in the fact that teachers save lives. That's why E-Gap is here in Dadaab.

"With these courses, the teachers get tutorial lessons, video clips and they can do their own assignments and get instant feedback."

Working with local organisations is key, said Shanyn.

"For our 3000 teachers programme, the model was to get smaller nonprofits who are working in rural communities. 

Shanyn took part in Theirworld's Inspiring Women series - on the theme of girls and women #RewritingTheCode about embedded gender values

Photo credit: Shanyn Ronis

"It is labour-intensive to build these relationships - sometimes you have to take a bus for two days to teach them. But we have also had luck in partnering with organisations in the settlements in northern Nigeria."

For now the focus is on training 3000 teachers - but Shanyn would love to see E-Gap grow.

"We’ve only been doing this for a few years and we are still quite small," she said. 

"One of our major considerations is managing our growth so that we have a stable enough infrastructure so that we can expand our programmes.

"We want them to be worldwide, so we are looking at translating the content into French, Spanish and Arabic. Not just a language translation but a cultural one too to make sure that we’re fitting local expectations and needs.

"I would love to continue opening offices in countries. I would love to have one in Colombia and El Salvador.

"The ultimate goal is to put ourselves out of a job, right? Teacher shortage over. Refugee crisis over. That’s what we’re chipping away towards."

Shanyn took part in Theirworld's Inspiring Women series recently to mark International Women's Day. You can read the full series here.

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