Jasper principal shaping education in Africa

When Jasper Elementary School’s vice-principal Shawn Arseneault returned home from a Me-to-We trip to Kenya in 2015, he hoped that someday he’d be able to return to Africa during his teaching career.

So when just two years later he had the opportunity to help develop a program to sharpen the skills of school principals in Uganda, he jumped at it.

“Principals in Uganda are very much managers, where they lead and do the budget, but they don’t do a lot of the education,” said Arseneault. “We wanted to make the role of principal about being instructional leaders, where they’re trying to lead teachers in being good teachers as well.”

Along with 50 other teachers from Canada, Arseneault was accepted into the Canadian Teachers’ Federation’s Project Overseas to work with teachers and administrators in various countries. Once in their assigned region, participants teamed up with a local professional (their “co-tutor”) and devised development programs to give teachers tools to bring to the classroom and transform their education system.

Arseneault and his co-tutor developed a program for Ugandan principals. Much of the focus of their sessions was on shifting the role of principal from being purely administrative to playing a role in the education of the students.

“We wanted to reiterate to these principals that they became principal because they were, at some point, an excellent teacher. We want them to continue with that instead of becoming a person that spends all of their time in an office.”

A key theme in their sessions was the connection between building positive relationships with students and reducing the need for punishment in the classroom.

“Unfortunately, in Uganda, there is still quite a bit of violence towards children. They still practice corporal punishment in the classes and the principals are often tasked with this when children are not behaving,” said Arseneault. “Our message was that we wanted principals to realize that everything starts with relationships. If you have a good relationship with a student, or with your staff, then things move in the right direction and a consequence-build system isn’t necessary.”

Most public school classes in Uganda have approximately 150 students. This is not the case with private schools, which is part of the reason why they are becoming more popular in that country. Due to class size, public school lessons are more lecture-style than interactive. This has pushed classroom management to the top of the priority list, even in teachers’ college.

“You would imagine it to be a lot of chaos, but it’s very structured,” said Arseneault. “The students learn from a young age that school is a safe place to be and that it is an opportunity, and that they are lucky to be there.”

Before classes commenced last week, Arseneault was expecting a bit of culture shock upon returning to Jasper Elementary for the school year.

“I’ve been gone from Uganda for over a month but I’m still daily thinking of the things that I lived while I was over there,” he said. “The last time I was around a lot of students was with those classrooms of 150. It’ll be a bit strange to be in front of my class of 20 students at the most.”

Two years ago, Arseneault’s Me-to-We trip had been about building a school, which will benefit students for years to come. This trip, though, could benefit generations.

“These places were chosen for a reason, often because their education system needs a systemic transformation,” said Arseneault. “With the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, it’s about leaving teachers with sustainable tools to bring to the classroom and to transform their education system.”

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