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How this Volunteer Teamed Up with Teachers to Transform Refugee Education

In light of World Refugee Day, we’re highlighting Solver Katie Zaniboni of Team Up 2 Teach, an initiative that facilitates collaboration between frontline volunteers and professional teachers to improve refugee education around the world.  

In 2015, when Katie Zaniboni first started teaching at a refugee camp in Sofia, Bulgaria, she was overwhelmed. “I felt this immense responsibility, like I was all these children had,” she recounted in a recent interview. “But, I didn’t feel prepared to give them what they needed or deserved. I just didn’t have the resources, knowledge, or expertise.”

Her displaced students were in crisis — difficult for even the most experienced teacher. But like many volunteers at European refugee camps, Zaniboni had no formal education training. An engineer by trade, she had zero teaching experience and was given limited resources for her moldy, dilapidated classroom.

To plan lessons, volunteers would often Google ideas or pull from their own memories as students years before. Though prepared with the best of intentions, these lesson plans were difficult to adapt to a crisis setting, and their impact was limited.

While Zaniboni didn’t have teaching experience, she did have a personal network filled with teachers. From friends to family members, she sought advice from nearly every teacher she knew. If only she could “borrow their brain,” she recalled, she could adapt their lessons for her crisis-mode students. To fill this need, Zaniboni launched her initiative Team Up 2 Teach, leveraging the expertise of professional teachers to empower frontline volunteers.

Understanding the Crisis of Refugee Zones

Globally, more than 65 million people have been forced from their homes. Whether due to war, persecution, or violence, innocent people are torn from their communities and moved to strange countries, facing scary, uncertain futures. In 2015 alone, over one million displaced peoples crossed into Europe. Unable to process these huge waves, governments held migrants in camps where they were trapped in limbo.

Across Europe, governments repurpose whatever land is available. Camps vary greatly: an abandoned hotel, tarmac space at an unused airport, an old military camp. Some hold as few as 150 displaced persons. Others are large enough to be their own city. In certain camps, the conditions are far from humane.

Despite their differences, the people in these camps are united by a sad reality. No matter what country they come from, what language they speak, or where they’re detained, they’ve lost their social safety net—a community nurtured over family generations. Though they’re now part of a new displaced community, the decades-old knowledge, trust, and resources they would have had in their home countries have been stripped away.

Instead, they must rebuild their lives and reinvent themselves. “That’s hard for anyone to do,” Zaniboni added, “but it’s exponentially more difficult when you’re suffering from a major loss.”

Adapting Education to Fill a Critical Need

Around the world, kids are very much the same. Just as a child might struggle in school when coping with a death in the family or a divorce, this uncertain life prevents displaced students from being their best selves. It’s harder for them to learn, making it all the more important to tailor teaching to these students. Frontline volunteer educators understand this context — they just need help with teaching methods.

Teach Up 2 Teach bridges the gap by facilitating mentorship and idea sharing. The initiative started with peer-to-peer co-creation workshops, where teachers and volunteers shared best practices and discussed their students’ needs. Together, they brainstormed relevant plans and funneled ideas into content that’s practical and effective.

All this content is stored on a collaborative online platform where users can share, comment, and give feedback. Teach Up 2 Teach provides contributors with lesson templates that volunteer teachers co-designed. These templates outline a specific format so lessons are built from the ground up — unlike some of the “top-down” theoretical approaches you might find in a formal teaching textbook.

The platform is currently in beta version, but for volunteers and teachers alike, Teach Up 2 Teach will be game-changing. The initiative has the potential to help volunteers teach more effectively and enable professional teachers to get involved and make an impact.

How do we define a “teacher?”

In an informal setting like a refugee camp, volunteer educators are not held accountable the way professional teachers are. There are no curricula, no standardized tests, no professional associations to connect volunteers. These educators are not teachers in a “traditional” sense, yet they facilitate learning that helps displaced persons rebuild healthy, productive lives.

At the same time, the refugee community teaches educators just as much. “From Kurdish words, to new traditions, to understanding what it’s like to be displaced, these people open the eyes of teachers, volunteers, and NGOs alike,” Zaniboni concluded. “Through them, we learn to better understand our shared world.”

Feeling inspired? Become a Solver like Teach Up 2 Teach. Submit your solution to our four Global Challenges: Coastal Communities, Frontlines of HealthTeachers & Educators, and Work of the Future — the deadline to apply is July 1.

Photo: Katie Zaniboni pitches Team Up 2 Teach before becoming a Solver during Solve at HUBweek, September 28, 2016.

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