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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

TPD in Crisis Series, Week 13: TPD in DR Congo

Teacher learning circles: A teacher professional development approach to improving early-grade reading in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

Paul St. John Frisoli, Doctoral Candidate, University of Massachusetts-Amherst (US)

Over the last 2.5 years, I have been working for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) on an early-grade reading project in eastern DRC which uses Teacher Learning Circles (TLCs) as part of a professional development model.  TLCs are school-based study groups where teachers regularly meet to provide support to one another in order to create a collaborative action research environment.  The action research process involves four steps where teachers:

  1. Reflect on successes / challenges in the classroom as well as troubleshoot potential solutions;
  2. Learn new content as well as reinforce previously learned concepts;
  3. Plan and practice how to use the new / reinforced content and techniques; and
  4. Take action in the classroom.

What are Congolese teachers’ experiences participating in these TLCs?

Recently, we conducted 30 interviews with teachers and head teachers, 26 classroom observation, 5 TLC observations, and 5 teacher focus groups in Katanga province. Our preliminary findings are explained here:

The “school environment” and “teachers’ motivation” have a major impact on teacher’s experiences of the TLCs;

Teachers’ motivation is influenced by their

  • Working conditions (salary, class size, instability, etc.);
  • Intrinsic desire to teach (love of the teaching profession, feeling like they are making a difference, etc); and
  • Their drive to reinforce their skills.

The school environment had a huge impact on teachers and on their motivation.  This includes:

  • Head teacher’s leadership and engagement at school and in the TPD program
  • Community involvement with teachers, and
  • Outside organizations’ participation at the school (such as NGOs coaching or the number of NGOs intervening at the school)

It is not necessary for all components of the higher level themes of teacher motivation and school environment to be fulfilled in order for the TLCs to function.  For example: In one school teachers indicated that motivation is complex that even though they work in difficult working conditions, they also felt an intrinsic motivation to participate in the TLCs in order to make a change in their communities.  Additionally, in the same school, teachers spoke of a conflicted school environment, where they felt that parents did not support them, but that the head teacher filled part of that gap by providing leadership that encouraged teachers to participate in the TLCs.  Therefore, this means that it only certain elements of teachers’ school environment AND motivation need be met in order for TLCs to function and for teachers to feel that they benefit.

Strengthening communities of professionals

TLCs all function differently.  When TLCs function more regularly:

  • Teachers share more about their teaching practices, their materials, and tackle challenges together. 
  • There is a collegial atmosphere where teachers seem to support one another and help each other in the TLCs. 
  • Teachers talk about each other as “friends” and try out new teaching techniques and felt a sense the they were building competencies;

In schools where TLC functioning was irregular:

  • Teachers’ relationships appear strained.  If teachers were not getting along or if 1 qualified teacher imposed ideas to under-qualified teachers
  • There are lower rates of participation as well as less sharing. 
  • Teachers are less able to tell us what types of instructional innovations they tried out;

Teacher participation, sharing, and attempting techniques has an impact on teachers’ motivation and school environment.  In schools where TLCs function regularly, teachers talk about being intrinsically “satisfied” and feel a sense of pride in their school (positive school environment) because other schools view them as a model to follow. 

In times of (post)crisis, these initial findings are preliminary insights into understanding how teacher professional development can help teachers not only in their mastery of planning and instruction, but building a sense of teacher community.

Paul Frisoli, Doctoral Candidate at the Center for International Education at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Technical Director of Collaborative Learning Resources, LLC has over 11 years technical experience in teaching, materials creation, and education technology for teacher professional development programs, primarily in Africa, Haiti, Pakistan and Palestine.  An Education, Policy, & Research Administration Fellow at the University of Massachusetts, he is currently collecting data for his doctoral dissertation, “Teachers’ Experiences of Professional Development in Crisis and Post-Crisis Democratic Republic of Congo:  A Case Study of ‘Teacher Learning Circles.’"


Click to read more about the Teacher Professional Development in Crisis series.