Lessons Learned: ‘Competitors’ Should be Partners
Those of you who have traveled with us in the past might know that for many years we have complained about the failure of libraries in rural Cambodian schools. “There are no librarians. Any training given has to do with maintaining books, not literacy education. Teachers never enter the libraries. Kids can’t read and no one is teaching them. Libraries are locked so that no one steals any books.” These are all complaints we have issued and heard echoed throughout rural Cambodia. So we complained and stamped our feet and vowed to make our library in Chanleas Dai different, but what good does that do for all of the rest of the libraries in Cambodia?
About a year ago I was reading a book called “Forces for Good.” Have you read it? If you are working in development, looking to donate funds responsibly, or are interested in effective ways to effect change, read up. In the book it talks about how “great” NGOs work on the ground and they also work in advocacy for the issues they are working to change. Another common thread among the most successful NGOs was that they often partnered with their “competitors” or sometimes even their “enemies”.
“Competitors?”, you ask? “Isn’t that a funny word to use in the NGO sector? Shouldn’t you all be working together to make this world a better place?” You would think…..
but unfortunately “competition” and “proprietary information” and other barriers to successful information sharing are common terms even in development. One of our heroes who was trying to break that down and bring light to these issues was Mickey Sampson who we have featured in a previous post and we have learned from him that, only once we all work together can we reach our common goals.
So, one year ago, we decided to try to change things on a broader scale. We learned a lesson: that complaining isn’t going to change things, but partnering and working through problems with long term goals in mind, rather than quick fixes, might. We approached Room to Read, an organization with over a million dollar per year budget in Cambodia alone, and said “Let’s do this better.” And they agreed. Their new Cambodian Country Director at the time had also gone out to do surveys of libraries in Cambodia and came to the same conclusions as us: libraries sit locked or unused, the training that does happen usually gets to the principal of the school who attends the training simply for the high per-diem he receives and does not pass on the information, and teachers never enter the libraries. Together we decided that we would work to find a way to do this better.
Our first step was to create a concept paper around “Classroom Libraries” with the idea of bringing the books into the classroom. At PEPY, our belief is that the key to change in libraries is bringing training to the teachers, not just to the librarian. If the TEACHERS know about the books and have ideas for how those books could be used in the classroom, then perhaps the library will get more use and will actually serve as a tool to further education as it can be integrated into their classes. A side product is that the teachers will be better trained for all of their classes and, with many teachers listing training as a top need after increased pay, we know there is a demand for this. In Cambodia, we are working with a generation of teachers who never had books in THEIR classrooms, so there is little understanding as to how to use books as learning tools.
With the support or Room to Read and additional outside funding from PEPY supporters such as the Hunter Advisors, we are installing classroom libraries in 10 schools in Siem Reap this month. We designed the classroom library unit to include shelving where students have access to books targeted at their grade level as well as levels below and above in order to challenge all students. These books should be available to students between classes and any time they are in the classroom without their teacher. The bottom portion of the shelf has a locked storage area which holds 20 copies each of a variety of titles chosen for each grade level. These books will all come with two lesson plan ideas per book and detailed instructions for the teacher as to how to integrate the lesson into their classroom. The PEPY team has reached out to educators all over Siem Reap to help create these lesson plans and ideas with the goal of creating templates which could be repeated with any number of books as the teacher gets used to the system.
The training, as I said, is what we believe will be the key to the success of this program. This is still the area we are working on and hope to complete the initial training phase for all schools by the third week of May. The final week of May we will have a training with the head of Room to Read’s programs throughout Asia to discuss this concept and the methods we have used to structure this program. Our hope is that, if this model proves successful, it will be copied in areas across Cambodia and adapted to fit the needs of neighboring countries as well.
By getting the books into the classrooms and bringing much needed training to teachers who self-describe themselves as ill-prepared to teach reading, we will make a dent in what should be our real metrics of success: increasing literacy rates not number of libraries.