Achieving against the odds

hw sp 14 6.2 ‘Closing the gap in education
is the cornerstone for progress
in any society’

Pierre Pirard, Teach for Belgium

Educational inequality is the same no matter what the country. It is a phenomenon touching poor countries and rich countries alike. In practice it translates into a fatalism that links someone´s chances to their socio-economic background.

And this has consequences beyond the injustice most disadvantaged children face by not benefiting from the extra support and high expectations they need to beat the odds. Educational inequality contributes to higher unemployment and weaker economies, it sustains crime and violence, it fuels prejudice that starts in the classroom and perpetuates injustice…In short, educational inequality perpetuates poverty. Here HEADWAY features an ambitious global initiative set to address this with an important European reach.

More than 20 years ago, Wendy Kopp piloted a different approach to fighting educational inequity in the US. She believed equipping poor schools with the latest technology, while important is not what those schools were missing, but great teachers. Teachers who act as leaders in the class and outside the class to transform a child’s´ predefined trajectory. She founded Teach For America which enrolls talented graduates and young professionals to teach in the most disadvantaged schools of the country for two years. They employ their leadership skills and do whatever it takes to help students rise above the challenges they face and succeed against the odds. The network of alumni continue to drive the change by embracing positions as teachers, schools pricipals, policymakers, social entrepreneurs and business leaders who fight for a more equitable educational system.

Fast forward to 2014, when the model has expanded to 32 countries.

In Belgium, Pierre Pirard former business leader turned teacher in a deprived area of Brussels started Teach For Belgium in 2013 after 20+ years in the corporate sector. He teamed-up with three other social entrepreneurs (and business leaders in their day-to-day life) who refuse to believe that the socio-economic background can dictate one´s life.

“With an annual investment of 6,500 EUR per student in the French speaking community (one of the highest investment in the OECD countries), you might think our education system is on the right track”, explains Pierre Pirard, CEO of Teach For Belgium. ‘But it turns out that with a gap of 3 acadamic years between the 25% most privileged students and 25% most deprived students, the French speaking community is one of the most inequitable education systems among the OECD countries. Add to that a dualised system (with children segregated in poor and rich schools according to their wealth), a lack of teachers for key subjects like math and sciences in the poor schools and an increase in the population especially in the poor communities and you get the picture of all challenges our educational system faces.’

It is in this context that Teach For Belgium introduced the approach employed across all 32 countries in the Teach For All network. In September 2013, the NGO (a small team of 6) started promoting the initiative on campuses and job fairs to attract motivated graduates and young professionals to join the project. The graduates and young professionals will teach in the deprived schools in Brussels, Charleroi and Liège with the ambition to expand the initiative to the Flemish speaking area in 2015.

“By December 2013, 187 students and young professionals applied with Teach For Belgium. Imagine an intense assessment center with candidates giving a course on a chosen topic of their own, engaging in role plays and group discussion, passing a numerical test and ending with an individual interview. As a result, 16 candidates were retained to join the first cohort of teachers formed by Teach For Belgium. Our objective is to have 30 teachers for September 2014, an additional 50 for 2015 and 90 for 2016.”, adds Pierre Pirard.

But it is the training of the teachers which is spread over 2 years that makes the programme so much more efficient. Preparing teachers for the challenging task ahead starts with observing classes and volunteering for NGOs in the needy areas of Brussels. This is an essential element in order to get familiar with the field in which they will be working. Afterwards, comes the most intensive component of the training: the Summer Institute. During 5 weeks of residential training participants cover theory and practice: lesson planning, mastering the curriculum, observations and feedback, reflection. By the end of the Institute phase, participants have developed a foundation of knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to be effective beginner teachers, make an immediate impact on students, and built relationships that will support them throughout their teaching experience and beyond. And training does not end here. During their two years of teaching, the participants are accompanied by tutors (experienced teachers) who facilitate the learning process and make sure the young teachers help their students succeed.

‘The question we are frequently asked is: why bother, why do you do this?, ‘ Because closing the gap in education is the cornerstone for progress in any society and Belgium is no different,’ concludes Pierre Pirard. ‘We have already gathered a great number of supporters, besides the Ministry of Education and the head of the different educational networks. A number of foundations, companies and individuals support our project financially and beyond (for example- mentoring teachers or offering summer internships for them). Support is always welcome. We believe it takes the involvement of everyone to fight educational inequity... because eventually it is everyone´s problem.’

Like the founding members, partners of Teach For Belgium strongly believe in fighting this cause...because even if it might seem against the odds, one day all children should be able to choose their path regardless of their background.


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