Experiencing collegiality and inspiration teaching abroad

Striped imagery containing photos of teaching abroad experience.

Project Overseas as an experience to grow personal practice

Project Overseas (PO) is an initiative created by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF/FCE). Since 1962, members of CTF/FCE’s provincial and territorial member organizations (including OSSTF/FEESO) have collaborated with colleagues in developing nations to improve teaching and learning, and to promote equitable, high-quality, publicly funded education for all. In 2023, the first trip since the pandemic put
Project Overseas on hold, 60 educators from across Canada formed 15 teams that travelled to 12 different countries around the world, including countries in the Caribbean, Africa, and Central America.

As part of PO, OSSTF/FEESO members Danielle Slack and Jenna Brescacin traveled to Kotido, Uganda, and Roseau, Dominica, respectively, and worked with local unions to co-plan and co-deliver professional development workshops for local teachers.

“When I saw that there were only two Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF/FEESO) sponsored positions available, I genuinely didn’t think I had a shot at being accepted, but I decided to go for it anyways. There are a million better teachers than me. But I grew up getting involved in humanitarian work and it has been something that I’ve continued since I graduated. I thought that PO was a great opportunity to combine my passion for equity and inclusion with my strengths in education,” Brescacin, an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher from District 9—Greater Essex in Windsor, Ontario, commented when asked why she applied for Project Overseas. “I knew that it would be a great opportunity to share what I do, but also to bring back what I learned into my classroom and practices, since I receive students from literally all over the world. I felt it would help me to understand many of my students and their backgrounds better.”

Social Sciences and Humanities teacher, Slack from District 14—Kawartha Pine Ridge said, “I really wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone. I recognized that I was experiencing serious teacher burnout, with the combination of the pandemic and being in my seventh year of teaching. I wanted to find a way to get excited about teaching again, because I didn’t want to get to a place where I was frustrated or tired and therefore not delivering or teaching the way I wanted to.” Slack continued, “I saw it as a great way to challenge myself to return to my classroom and be excited about teaching again. I wanted to experience education and different cultures, and the equity aspect was very exciting to me. I’m involved in different equity groups at my school, and applying for PO gave me an opportunity to ‘walk the walk’ so to speak, and practice what I preach in my groups.”

Both Brescacin and Slack put equity, inclusion, and collaboration at the forefront of their teaching practices; Project Overseas gave them both an opportunity to promote those same ideologies in developing communities.

While the two OSSTF/FEESO members were chosen for different countries (Slack in Uganda, and Brescacin in Dominica) and had different experiences, many commonalities emerged from each of their trips, including a passion for international collaboration, a refreshed appreciation for Canadian resources, and a new perspective on unionism.

Collaboration without borders

The work that Project Overseas set out to do was collaborative in nature. From start to finish, Canadian teachers were paired with a local teacher to co-create and co-deliver professional development for participants in-country. From their very conception, these workshops were informed by and designed for the lived experiences of local teachers. It was a meeting of minds that facilitated a mutual exchange of experiences, strategies, and ideas in which teachers of neither country presumed to know better than the other. Tasked with topics like instructional strategies, it initially felt impossible, culturally insensitive, and even colonial to advise participants on what to do in their classrooms. It is only through conversations with co-tutors and participants that professional similarities were identified and facilitating meaningful sessions became possible. Finding commonalities that transcended culture and education systems would be the only way to garner participants’ respect and attention. It was likely that participants doubted the ability of these Canadians to understand what they had and what they needed. That alone was the first entry point. The newcomers may not have known the local languages (of which there are many) or have taught in their schools, but Canadian teachers have all experienced a staff meeting, professional development (PD) session, or email that left one feeling like those removed from the classroom were giving theoretical directives about how to practically do the job. It is that commonality in the forefront of Brescacin’s and Slack’s minds that would guide their work in-country and allow international collaboration to be both effective and meaningful for all.

Brescacin describes her early time in the project, saying, “On the first day of the workshop, I actually didn’t say very much at all to my participants past introducing myself. And I told them very clearly, ‘I actually have a lot to say and add and suggest, but right now I am just listening and learning from you and your concerns and how the education system is here, so that I don’t sound like I’m telling you what to do.’ They were really appreciative of that, because the last thing I wanted to do was just start talking about Ontario education if nothing was applicable. We had our participants fill out a survey on the first day with their biggest classroom concerns so that we could tailor our workshop to what THEY wanted and needed the most. We also had them submit anonymous specific scenarios that have actually happened to them and we problem solved them together each day. My co-tutor, Rosamund Rolle, and I both felt that this was the best way to navigate their concerns, since it is THEIR classrooms, and they knew what they needed the most. It was very well received and much more relevant to them than us just standing up there and talking at them for two weeks.”

It would be easy to assume that an experience like Project Overseas would leave Canadian participants feeling grateful for the abundance of privilege they have back home, for teaching in “superior” circumstances. However, it is more accurate to say that Jenna and Danielle experienced a reality check that had them re-evaluating the role they played in their own enjoyment of the profession. While educators may be accustomed to greater access to resources here in Ontario, the teachers of Dominica and Uganda had positivity in spades. Whether it is being new to the profession, near the end of a school year, or drained from pandemic pivoting, Ontario teachers are familiar with burnout. Aside from the obvious fatigue, teacher burnout plagues all educators with an irritability and frustration inevitably directed at learners in front of us, co-workers alongside us, and administration above us. It becomes effortless for us to both find and focus on the negatives, whether we are conscious of our attitude’s descent or not. Collaborating with the teachers in their respective countries and observing their lived experience allowed Brescacin and Slack to be students of the way the host teachers gracefully navigated their shared profession. Danielle recalls one of her favourite moments watching a local teacher react to a union speaker from her seat. There may have been a language barrier, but the facial expressions that reflect feeling misunderstood or that a meeting could have been an email are apparently universal. The value of international work lies not in helping others from a place of superiority, but in recognizing that across borders, cultures, time zones, and climates, teachers are teachers through and through and no one better understands us, or our struggle, than each other.

Canadian resources

“Since coming out of the pandemic, I think many of us have been pretty burnt out and feeling a bit defeated in our roles in the classroom. But when you go to some of these developing countries and see what they’re working with, you can’t help but feel grateful for what we have back at home,” said Brescacin, who co-facilitated the classroom management workshop in Roseau, Dominica. “Dominica experienced devastation with Hurricane Maria in 2017, and parts of the island have still not recovered. Despite this, education has continued, and many teachers are working in schools that have been destroyed, which shows the resilience of the Dominicans and their prioritization of education.”

Similarly, Slack visited several elementary schools in the village during her time in Kotido, Uganda, and witnessed buildings missing roofs, walls, and windows. When a storm rolled through, resources went out the window, literally. With class sizes ranging from 50 to 200 students in some cases, many teachers did not have the resources to provide basic notebooks for their students, with students using their fin­g­ers and rocks to write math problems on the sandy floor.

“It just really makes you take a step back and appreciate what we have. I have always known how fortunate we are, being teachers in Canada, but my experience in Uganda highlighted and renewed my appreciation for our Canadian and Ontario education systems, and the resources we have been provided,” Slack commented. “I taught the instructional strategies workshop, which look very different in our capped class of 27 students versus their 150.”

Furthermore, teachers’ education is not mandatory or necessarily available in many parts of the world, a detail that many people overlook when comparing systems. “I was working with several 19 and 20-year-old teachers who were in charge of their own primary level classrooms. Being in the classroom management workshop, I quickly realized that even the most basic practices were new to them. Things like introductory personal profile worksheets, daily mental health check-ins, and the importance of building relationships; some of the participants were making notes on literally everything we said. It was incredibly rewarding but also sad. They are expected to lead young children without having been led themselves, in many cases,” Brescacin lamented.

“Just the fact that we’re able to get a good education that helps to prepare us for our classrooms is something I definitely took for granted. My teachers’ education prepared me more than I realized, and you don’t necessarily realize that until you see what other people’s and other countries’ situations are like,” echoed Slack.

A new appreciation for our union

Ontarians know that becoming a teacher means simultaneously becoming part of a union. Our belonging to an organization that advo­­cates for our rights as employees and humans is automatic. This is not the case for tea­­chers in either country that Jenna and Danielle traveled to. In both Dominica and Uganda, joining the country’s teachers’ union is an individual choice. Participants of the professional development workshops were a combination of union members and non-union members. In the remote village of Kotido, local teachers listened to a presentation from the head of the
Uganda National Teachers’ Union (UNATU) in which the goal was to emphasize the benefit of being unionized when it comes to having a voice. This is echoed in UNATU’s motto: “because we are, the nation is. The nation is, because we are;” a refrain heard loudly and often throughout Danielle’s sessions in Kotido. In a developing country where trust in government is not necessarily a widely felt sentiment, being part of a union is either an appealing way to feel seen and heard or yet another system of which to be skeptical.

Conversations with local teachers and UNATU staff revealed that teacher to student ratios range anywhere from 1:50 to 1:200—numbers that make our Canadian complaints of class sizes over 30 seem laughable in comparison. In Ontario, class size caps are based on funding, but we can say with certainty that being part of our union protects us from ever having ratios that high. Danielle saw the reality of those alarming numbers when her team visited two local schools in Kotido. Classrooms were filled to the brim with students of multiple ages and in different grades. Those without seats or desks sat giggling on the floor with their peers. Children without workbooks or writing utensils used stones to answer math problems on the classroom floor. Children without a place to sit or learning material to use did not lack a smile. Teachers may not have had everything they wanted at their disposal, but they did not lack the respect of their students. As we briefly toured the schools, each teacher commanded more attention than the last. There was a levity to the way these teachers carried themselves and led their students—so much so that it was often done in song. The ease with which learning was facilitated in circumstances that any OSSTF/FEESO member would deem less than ideal was awe-inspiring. Local unions have their hands full; working to create more equitable learning environments for teachers and students, but in the meantime, these organizations seem to be lifting up their members through solidarity.

Jenna Brescacin and Danielle Slack look back on their experiences with Project Overseas and agree that it was incredibly challenging but also extremely rewarding. While living and teaching conditions varied between the different Project Overseas locations, both teachers returned home with a renewed energy for the classroom and further passion for equity, inclusion, and collaboration. If given the opportunity to get involved in humanitarian work again in the future, both Slack and Brescacin give a resounding yes, and encourage others to do the same.

About Jenna Brescacin and Danielle Slack
Jenna Brescacin (she/her) Teacher, District 9, Greater Essex; Danielle Slack (she/her) Teacher, District 14, Kawartha Pine Ridge

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