Education Opinion

A Field Trip To Kenya: Observing Instructional Coaching in Nairobi

By Elena Aguilar — July 12, 2016 5 min read
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There are a handful of Kenyan coaches, working in the informal settlements in Nairobi, “the slums,” as they call them, who share more in common with North American coaches than you might expect. At least, it was more than I expected. In June, I went to Nairobi to work with these Kenyan coaches. Over the next three days I’ll share my stories and reflections on this experience.

Nairobi’s Informal Settlements

Nairobi is a relatively developed and wealthy city, and also has Africa’s largest urban slums. It’s hard to get an accurate population count, but it’s possible that millions of people live in informal settlements where there is no electricity, no running water, no sewers, no hospitals or health clinics. There are also very few schools. While education is compulsory in Kenya up until the 8th grade, in one of these slums, there are only three public primary schools for 150,000 children.

As an alternative to these overcrowded public schools, low cost private primary schools are the preferred choice for many parents. The “community schools,” as they are called, are much closer to home for families in the slums, and tend to have smaller class sizes. But these schools struggle with having limited space, minimal resources, and high teacher turnover and varying levels of teacher quality. It is with these community schools that Dignitas, the organization that I worked with, partners.

The Dignitas Project

In 2008, Tiffany Cheng Nyaggah, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, founded the Dignitas Project, a non-profit that focuses on transforming communities through education and opportunity. Dignitas aims to empower communities by offering training and resources to Kenyan educators. They offer professional development, on site coaching, and technical assistance to teachers and school directors. Dignitas is grounded in a capacity building model. They work to develop leaders who can join forces with other community members and organizations to expand support and create sustainable change in the slums.

Dignitas currently employs three coaches--Shete, Samantha, and Hellen, and a manager of coaches--Carol, who previously was a coach with Dignitas. These four coaches may be the only instructional coaches in the African continent (with the possible exception of some South African coaches--but even that’s not definitive). The coaches, who each work with some 20-30 teachers, do much of what we do in the U.S. as instructional coaches: they observe and debrief lessons with teachers, deliver professional development, and address classroom management, instructional planning, engagement strategies, differentiation, classroom culture and climate, and much more.

The foundation for Dignitas’ coaching model is my book, The Art of Coaching. I met Tiffany two years ago, when she came to Oakland to attend my coaching workshops. Her coaches had already read my book and were using it in their practice. After learning about the work she was leading in Nairobi, and the work that coaches were doing, I became determined to travel to Kenya. I wanted to see the work that Dignitas was doing, I wanted to see how The Art of Coaching works in a Kenyan context, and I wanted to help. I also love to travel and I’d never been to Africa.

Visiting Schools and Observing the Coaches

On my first day working with Dignitas, still in a jet-lagged daze, I set off to observe the coaches in action in their schools. I’d advocated for this knowing that after I observed them, I’d be able to tailor my two days of professional development. I also felt that I needed to see their context--to see the slums in which they work. And so on that first day we visited two schools in the informal settlement called Kawangware.

Impressions on the journey to the classroom:

  • Red-brown soil, mud, corrugated iron, planks of wood, clusters of scrappy grazing goats, heaps of charcoal in tin cans. Stalls built of patchwork wood and iron lining the narrow, muddy, bumpy streets. The structures--homes, shops--are the height of the people and they stretch on and on. As we drive farther into the slum, I can’t see the end of these structures.
  • Nairobi at the end of June is cold and drizzly, covered by a low flat gray sky, and the smell of burning wood permeates the air. People are bundled in sweaters, wrapped in blankets, huddled around fires.
  • Perhaps only 10% of people in these settlements have stable employment. Most live on a dollar a day. People are out and busy and moving--carrying wood, selling used clothes and shoes, tea, roasted corn--doing things that might ensure their survival.
  • Although there aren’t many cars in this neighborhood, packed mini-buses provide transport. One comes down the road we’re traveling up, a very narrow road that can only fit one vehicle at a time. I wonder how our station wagon will squeeze by and then five men surround the car, self-appointed traffic directors, and they shout and point and a crowd gathers to watch, and I can’t understand what they’re saying because they’re speaking in Kiswahili, and we inch forward and one side of our car drops into a ditch and somehow we pass by.
  • The school’s budget is posted on the wall of the head teacher’s office and for the second term includes, “3 lorries of tank water” which cost about $23.
  • I sit in the head teacher’s office, a closet-size space, in front of a large poster titled, “What to do if you are raped.” I know that violence is rampant in these settlements.
  • Carol tells me, “When I taught in the Kibera slum, parents come to you and say please make sure my child takes his ARVs--anti-retroviral drugs.” I look at the children recalling that one out of three people in these slums is HIV positive.

Then we were in Teacher Margaret’s first grade classroom at Zeal Covenant Centre, observing an English Language Arts lesson for 35 children who were very conscious of the fact that there were three visitors in their room. The lesson opened with song and movement, the teacher exuded warmth and care, children copied words written on a blackboard, the teacher circulated and checked for understanding, and a bird outside, perched on the water tank, made shrieking cries I’ve never heard. There was no electricity in the school, the floors were dirt, but the corrugated tin walls were covered in posters and anchor charts.

During the 35 minute lesson, Carol took notes, glanced at the student notebooks, and chatted with some children. This is what I do, I thought, when I’m observing a teacher. Class ended and we moved into a small office for the debrief. Carol reviewed her notes and collected her thoughts as the teacher transitioned her students. From where we sat waiting for the teacher, I could see the children lining up to use the bathroom. Carol said, “This is a fancy school. They have bathrooms.”

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I’ll share my the Coach-Teacher debrief, and my impressions of what we have in common with Kenyan coaches.

The video below is of the song and movement opening to the lesson.

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.