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Wherever you are, teachers are key to learning

By David Coleman

Teachers are pretty incredible people. They take responsibility for shaping the minds of future generations, a job that so many do with enthusiasm and dedication day after day.

One of the most inspirational teachers I've ever met was in rural Cambodia, near the border with Lao PDR. Srey* had overcome adversity in an incredibly remote region, first in accessing education herself, and then in passing on her knowledge and skills to the children of her village.

To get to Srey's village it took me five hours by sealed road from the capital, Phnom Penh, a further four hours on bumpy forest trails only accessible by four-wheel drive, a river crossing by bamboo raft, and three hours riding a motorbike along water buffalo tracks.

Arriving in the village, I was moved to see the one room school, constructed entirely from local materials, taking pride of place at its centre. Srey greeted us with such pride for the school she ran on her own. With the community surrounding her, it was clear she was highly respected, the only person to have achieved a primary education for miles around. Through her leadership, commitment and guidance, the school offered Grades 1 to 3.

Over time, Srey had shown the village leadership the benefits of foundational learning for their children – crucially without having to travel long distances from home – and convinced them to set a ten-year goal of providing the full cycle of primary education in the community built and run school. As can be seen in the photo, the majority of students were substantially overage. Some re-enrol in Grade 3 year after year, eking out whatever learning is possible from the limited materials.

Srey also persuaded the provincial education authorities to travel out to the village every couple of months, to provide in-service training to her and a clutch of community volunteers (hitching onto one of these professional development visits is how I got there myself).

Creating education opportunities close to home is particularly beneficial for girls, as it reduces many of the additional barriers girls face, including their vulnerability during long walks to and from school. Beyond being a teacher, Srey serves as a much-needed female role model, something which is often critical for increasing community engagement and sustaining any gains made in girls' education.

The developing world is full of such unsung female champions of education. In developing countries, 54.6 million teachers are employed in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools (see the Global Education Monitoring Report 2016 if you're interested in learning more). And yet this is nowhere near enough – at the primary level alone, it is estimated that the world will need to recruit 25.8 million school teachers to provide every child with a primary education by 2030.

These are staggering numbers. To improve our own practice, DFAT's independent Office of Development Effectiveness recently evaluated 27 teacher development investments that the Department had made in 17 country contexts. Captured in the report 'Investing in Teachers', DFAT committed to: (1) pursue system-level improvements to teacher management; (2) match our education partnerships to the real challenges found in real contexts; and (3) strengthen the evidence base, through well-targeted monitoring and evaluation.

The role of development partners like Australia is to help countries in our region to enable front-line teachers through: good quality pre- and in-service teacher training; the use of student-centred learning assessments; safe and supportive learning environments; and stimulating learning materials.

At the most fundamental level, the (not-so) secret to educational success is to have motivated teachers regularly turning up to class and actively teaching. As the World Bank and many others have found, teacher effectiveness is the most important school-based predictor of student learning. All of this starts with the commitment made every single day by the women and men who teach the girls and boys sitting before them the fundamentals of literacy, numeracy and critical thinking skills.

Through the enthusiasm and dedication of teachers like Srey, we are one step closer to helping all children receive the education they deserve.

*not her real name

David Coleman

David Coleman is Senior Education Advisor at the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He has extensive education for development experience in Asia and the Pacific. David has previously served as UNICEF Chief of Education in Cambodia, Education Adviser with the New Zealand Aid Program, and Education Specialist with the AusAID Education Resource Facility. He holds a doctorate in international education policy and program evaluation, and is co-author of the book The United Nations and Education: Multilateralism, Development and Globalisation.

Last Updated: 4 October 2016
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