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‘Our classes have moved from being a group to being a team’ – Professional Development for school leaders in Zambia, Rwanda and Ghana.

By Catherine O’Shea and Elisabeth Altschuler

Affordable non-state schools are established by entrepreneurs with a variety of education backgrounds, ranging from business management to former classroom teachers. Similar to many business owners, local school owners often self-identify as lacking certain skills that are beneficial for operating a school. As part of the EduQuality program of Opportunity EduFinance, senior school leaders are offered professional development training with a focus on instructional leadership and management best practices.

These workshops are offered throughout the year covering topics that are most relevant to school leaders, including business and financial management, budgeting, school marketing, teacher retention, and child protection. This training helps school leaders improve their schools, both as sustainable community businesses and places of learning. 

Most importantly, all these topics directly contribute to children receiving a quality education. For example, creating an annual budget is important because once a school leader has full visibility over their financial position, they can better plan when they need to hire more teachers and teaching aids, see opportunities to invest in school improvements like upgrading washrooms or their canteen and allocate funding to new teaching and learning materials. All of these investments contribute to an improved learning environment for the students at the school.

We recently spoke with Education Specialists from Zambia, Rwanda, and Ghana about the progress of the current cohort of school partners in EduQuality. All three country programs are currently in the second year of the School Leadership Professional Development (SLPD) 3-year training schedule.

In this interview, you will hear from Education Specialists Shadrack Niyonzima (Rwanda), Araba Quainoa Empeh (Ghana) and Namate Silishebo (Zambia)

Thank you for giving us your time to reflect on the last 1.5 years of School Leadership Professional Development workshops. Thinking about all the workshop topics covered to date, can you briefly share a few of the ways those topics directly relate to children receiving a quality education

Schadrack: There is a direct connection to quality education and learner’s performance. In the module Parents and Community Engagement, we were able to look at all different angles of how parents can be engaged and can contribute to the learning of their children. I believe that this module is really bringing a lot of resources and impact in quality education. We reflected a lot on how best we can engage parents to play a role in the education of their children.

Namate: The module Leading, Teaching and Learning includes looking at policies: coming up with homework policies, marking [grading] policies for the teachers and setting standards in the school. That was really good and interesting for the school leaders because it gave them a platform and roadmap on how to guide their teachers.

Araba: Some of the topics have direct impact on the learners but some have to go through something before it gets to the learner. If they are budgeting to put up a building, we ask: ‘Why are you putting up the building? It is because of the learners.’ If they say: ‘We have to buy teaching and learning materials or resources.’ We ask: ‘Why are we getting it? It is because of the learners.’ One way or the other, whatever topic that we cover has an impact.

For instance, looking at Staff Engagement and Retention, we actually took them through the recruitment strategy where they had to calculate the cost per hire and cost per application. If you are employing someone because of the learners that you have, you have to do a lot of background checks because it is not only about the teaching and learning but it is also about the effects that they would have on the learners as well.

How are school leaders responding to the workshop format, using hands-on activities, case studies, and group work?

Schadrack: When we are training, we will normally use different approaches. Some activities are done in groups and there are presentations, we use gallery work, we also use quizzes as pre-work before doing a module. All those are the way of making them interactive and making them actively participate.

Araba: I would say very positive. Especially looking at how we have blended the various ways to get them involved in the whole discussion. There are times when we do a whole group discussion, there are times when they go into groups, and there are times where they have to write some things and paste it on the wall. It helps them to come out with practical examples so I prefer they say things based on what is happening in their schools. That way, it is more of a realistic example that they are given so they are able to get the right solutions based on recommendations from other colleagues, which I think really helps with the discussion. It doesn't become just theory; it becomes a practical thing.

Namate: I would say it's very similar in Zambia and they really gained from all the modules that we shared with them. I'll go back to the very first one Budgeting for a School Year, as a lot of the school leaders had challenges with the budgeting process because of the way that they receive their school fees. Some of them have challenges collecting school fees from parents, so that definitely affects the cash flow and their revenue. Many of them, prior to the training, would budget monthly or termly.

Following the training on budgeting for school year, we've been making follow-ups with the school leaders, and we found that a lot of them actually really appreciated it and they have incorporated budgeting for the full academic year.

During the sessions we share a lot of handouts with them just to make the sessions more practical and interactive and some of them have even used them as templates in different areas of their school operations. This puts a lot of what they do into perspective and creates a much clearer picture and allows them to strategize better.

What are you learning from leaders through their questions or sharing in workshops?

Schadrack: We are learning a lot from school leaders. There are some actually who are mastering some of the domains and it is an opportunity for us and for other school leaders to learn.

I like the way, when we put people together [in a workshop] that platform itself gives us and school leaders a way to learn from each other.

Namate: I think that the biggest challenge that we always talk about is funding. So school fees collection and their revenue. One thing I appreciate is that they have been so willing to learn it despite the challenges that they are experiencing.

When we are discussing different topics during the modules, they also have a lot of experiences to share, and a lot of ideas on what they are doing. There is also a lot of learning from them on their experiences, and it also gives us ideas that we go back with to discuss how we can improve, especially usually after first sessions. 

Araba: I would say we have also learnt a lot from them, especially when it comes to the practical aspect because they're the ones running their schools and they see things clearly. The challenge that I sometimes see from the side of the school leaders is that when we start the sessions and we share with them the objectives that we have, some think that this is not applicable in their schools. But the good thing is that at the end of the session it always helps that we get solutions to problems.

What feedback do you get after workshops from leaders?

Araba: They are really happy about what we have taught them because it has put them back on track and they are making good use of the resources. An example would be the budgets for school year resources. They were taking fees, but they were not keeping proper records, so they were not really seeing their profits and loss that they are making. This module gave them a chance to put things right and know what to put on their sheet. Some actually took pictures of the budgets that they have made and shared it with us, for us to see the progress that they are making.

Schadrack: We do receive feedback from school leaders about how the modules are helping them and also from members of the schools. When we go there, we are able to interact with different school members so they can openly tell you that they see the impact of Opportunity EduFinance. I remember seeing one office of the school leader where they had a school organigram to help communication and responsibility sharing. This is something we had taught them in Module 2 so I directly saw an impact. We hear feedback from school leaders: ‘This module is really helpful; I have seen some change. I am going to change when I go back to my school.’

Namate: You can see evidence of what they are learning. I visited a school not too long ago and the school leader was very proud to show off the branding on the school wall, which they didn't have before the marketing module, and how that has actually attracted people to their school. One school also added a playground for their children, which was really nice to see and also raised the profile of the school because now parents saw that the school looks very colorful.

Have you observed any changes in participant engagement in these workshops over time? 

Araba: I think now they have become close to each other, and they open up to each other more. During the sessions when they are asked to share their problems and they now tend to move to each other during break times or when it's lunchtime to actually have a one-on-one discussion with them. Sometimes when they are not able to finish that at the meeting center, they continue on the [WhatsApp] platforms, and we see ‘please send me a private message if you have this’. I would say they have bonded more, they are learning more, and now they feel comfortable talking to each other and working together more.

Schadrack: At first, we had printed books that we gave them that we could use during the training, but when the digital system came, where the school leaders got tablets to access the content using their digital gadgets, this really increased their engagement. I want to appreciate the idea of going digital, as it has motivated the school leaders. Some of them can easily read the contents even before attending the session because they have it in their hands.

I want also to say that our classes have moved from being a group to a team. The more time they spend together and the more experiences they have shared it has allowed them to create more connection and they became friends.

The schools are cooperating. They are preparing tests together as a cluster, for example, one is preparing Mathematics, another school is preparing English, another one preparing science. This is something that shows that there is more engagement of our school leaders compared to how it was before.

Namate: Over the last year and a half, they definitely have been some positive changes and growth within the groups. There are some groups that have actually started mobilizing themselves. Some of them are going above and beyond to even create collaborations with other schools to share common problems and to overcome those challenges they are experiencing. And within the groups also, whenever we meet, we can see a lot more interaction between school leaders. They talk to each other more, they share ideas, they are no longer competitors.

Want to learn more about other EduQuality programs? Read about our Teacher Mentor Professional Development model in this interview with Education Specialists here. 

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