Guyana and Canada: Teachers learning from and advocating for each other

published 12 January 2024 updated 17 January 2024

“I feel strongly that, anytime teachers can join and learn from each other, we become stronger as a union.” That is how Hylin MacLaren, a Canadian primary teacher, summarised her experience participating in workshops in Guyana in the framework of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF) Project Overseas.

Julian Cambridge, Vice-President at the Guyana Teachers’ Union (GTU) in charge of training/professional development sessions, confirmed the success of the partnership with CTF in the framework of Project Overseas.

In July 2023, Canadian teachers and Guyanese colleagues from the GTU worked together for two weeks to provide local teachers attending workshops with ready-to-use activities, ideas and strategies, as well as the means to work with material locally available or with no material at all. “The fact that teachers can leave the workshops and implement those activities, those ideas in their classrooms the next day makes this cooperation development experience a sustainable one”, MacLaren underlined.

Since 1962, Canadian teachers have collaborated with colleagues in developing countries through the CTF’s Project Overseas to improve teaching and learning, and to promote equitable, high quality, publicly funded education for all. In 2023, CTF sent 15 teams of four Canadian teachers to 12 different countries, for a total of 60 cooperating teachers. MacLaren was one of them. For her third project – her first one happened in 2017 –, she went to the Rupununi region, in the south-west of Guyana, bordering the Brazilian Amazon.

A professional development project for teachers

MacLaren also insisted that it was a ‘teacher development project’, not a ‘mission’: “Mission has the connotation of colonisation. It is a collaboration with them.”

From the moment of their selection, participants undergo a thorough preparation process before heading to their destination.

Recalling that she heard about the CTF Project Overseas through a colleague back in 2015, Maclaren explained that her first project was in 2017. Her motivation? “I appreciate being able to share my experience with post-secondary education with teachers who are not in that same position.”

She also recounted that, of the 151 participants of the workshops, none of them had post-secondary education, 63 of them had less than five years of teaching experience, 33 of those were in their first year of teaching. “They all went from being a high school student to being a teacher suddenly, without any training, and that blows my mind, because I cannot imagine being thrown into a classroom and just not really knowing what to do. At that point, you just teach the way you have been taught. You just recall how your teachers do it and you try to mimic that.”

Every time we go abroad in the Project Overseas framework, we know what to expect and try to bring different, general strategies, she explained. Then we collaborate with the local teachers. We must be flexible and change our plan to adapt to what will work with them, because sometimes they have larger class sizes, or multigrade classes. “It must be strategies that they can use with their classes, with very little or no resources. I think that the very hardest thing that I learned in a previous project was how to teach with no resources. They often do not have the materials that we use in Canada to teach.”

Three key results of the workshops

As Canadian teachers collected and looked at course evaluation questionnaires after the workshops in Guyana, MacLaren highlighted that three main points stood out.

The first one was that Guyanese teachers learned how to make their classrooms, their school environments safer, welcoming, more engaging and interactive. “We talked a lot about positive discipline, and how to use hands-on materials and engaging active learning activities and cooperative learning.”

The second thing that stood out was ensuring equal opportunities for learning in their classes. For MacLaren, “our colleague who presented the sessions on gender equality included a lot of role-play in his activities and really made the topic come to life for the teachers, who learned a lot about how to include both male and female students in their classes.”

The third point that really stood out for teachers was that they were highly motivated to share what they learned, apply it, and share it back in their schools with their colleagues.

She added that, “as teachers participating in professional development, you look at the strategies you learn with your own lens and adjust them to the context of your own class and situation. I am confident that we have made a difference there in Guyana.”

A union-strengthening project

MacLaren also believes the programme strengthened the union there in two ways.

The first through the session on unionism during the workshops. Maclaren said that the Guyana government recently interfered with the teachers’ ability to join the union. For that reason, many teachers do not know about the union and their rights as teachers or about the benefits they can get by joining the union. “They really learned a lot about what they could expect if they did join. Of the 150 participants there, there were only 57 that belonged to the union when we started our sessions. At the end of the two weeks, all but two were planning on joining the union. That is something that we are proud of.”

The second way that it benefited the union is through teacher collaboration. “Anytime we, as teachers, can come together, we understand that we all have the same basic concerns and needs and issues in our classrooms, we become stronger, because we encourage one another, and our passion for teaching grows. I know that it is something that I took away from this project as well,” MacLaren recognised.

A help to change classroom practices

Asked if she changed something in her practice in her own classroom or if there were something she would like to experiment with her own classroom, MacLaren answered: “I am grateful for the opportunity for professional development that I have, and for the abundance of resources that I have, and that I have learned to not expect. Through the workshops, I have learned to teach more simply. That is what I have really taken away from them. They really do teach with nothing or very little sometimes, and I have brought that into my class: Less is more.”

Julian Cambridge, GTU Vice-President at the Guyana Teachers’ Union in charge of training/professional development sessions, explained more from his perspective. "I have been being part of this ongoing CTF in-service training summer programme from 2011 to present," he said, mentioning that GTU worked with CTF to ensure that during the COVID-19 pandemic Guyanese teachers got trained online.

“In late 2022, GTU received an e-mail from CTF indicating that they wanted to relaunch the programme and asking whether GTU were interested. We said that we were and, from the 11 education districts in Guyana, we chose to go where indigenous teachers work. In the application, we explained that prior to the pandemic, we only did one year in Lathem and we wanted to go back there to ensure that we give the teachers the opportunity to have a two-year cycle it was even though there had been a break in between. We decided with CTF that we would have 150 participants from our organisation.”

He added: “As vice-president of my union with responsibility for trade unionism, professional development, I do whatever will make our teachers comfortable and what the organization can benefit from and be proud of.”

On the selection of participants, he said that, after a discussion with the regional education officer, he selected the participants based on the needs of the region and the schools.

Commenting on the mutual impact and benefit of the Project Overseas, he agreed: “What we found happened, even though our colleagues from Canada came with their methodology, is that they also took back the methodology that we use here, that they have learned from our colleagues here. It is like a two-way cycle.”

Workshop topics

Developing on the workshop topics, he confirmed that, prior to the pandemic, Project Overseas Project sessions focused on subjects like math, English or sciences. “But not all teachers in the room could benefit from that. Let's say we taught strategies for math. It does not necessarily apply equally to teachers from different education levels. That is why we switched to general topics that can benefit all teachers, like leadership and education, classroom management, working with special needs students, or gender equality. It applies to all. No matter if you are a secondary or primary teacher, you can gain from those strategies.”

In July 2023, Canadian teachers covered four different topics: classroom management, inclusive education, leadership and differentiated instruction. Their Guyana’s colleagues covered two other topics: unionism and gender equality.

Why did GTU choose to focus especially on trade unionism and gender stereotypes during the workshops? Cambridge observed that teachers often do not have the opportunity to meet to discuss trade union matters. “We felt that the opportunity would be ideal, that it would benefit these new teachers to discuss the importance of the union, how it can benefit them. On gender stereotypes, we felt that this is pertinent all around the world, and wanted to get to know a different methodology, to learn how it is being tackled in a different country, Canada.”

Following up on the implementation of project activities

He went on to describe the follow-up on the workshops, saying that recently the Guyana’s Education Minister made it clear that his ministry is trying to ensure that every school has trained teachers and is going to be graduating over 33,000 teachers from the Teacher Training College.

However, because of the location of some of the schools, it is difficult to have people leaving school to train, he said, welcoming the fact that as there is now an ongoing training programme for teachers. Two workshop participants asked him for guidance after they joined the teacher training college, he added.

Cambridge further noted that four of the Guyanese co-tutors who worked along the Canadian teams are school supervisors, and he ensures that they give him feedback from time to time, indicating which of the activities that they learned they implement.

“Lecturers at university were surprised by some of the teachers’ activities, because for some of them they had never seen before. GTU teachers in the teacher training college help colleagues, using activities learned during the workshops. In every GTU branch we have executive members, and they also follow up with their colleagues that activities they have learned are implemented,” he also reported.

Cambridge also informed that GTU has radio and television programmes highlighting planned union activities. GTU also uses Facebook pages focusing on education, as well as its official union Facebook page, to share ideas and the content of the workshops.