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Teacher Learning Circles: Space for teachers to improve learning for at-risk students in El Salvador

June 29, 2016

A vicious cycle of poverty and violence currently plagues El Salvador, which has the third highest homicide rate in the world. The violence has infiltrated the education system, contributing to two of three students dropping out of school by ninth grade (International Youth Foundation forum, 2011). After leaving school, youth have difficulty accessing the labor market, because of a lack of basic competencies in math, reading and other social and life skills.

Through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Education for Children and Youth Program (ECYP), FHI 360, working in partnership with the Foundation for the Comprehensive Education of El Salvador, empowers lower secondary school teachers (grades 7–9) to transform their classrooms into engaging spaces that keep students in school through ninth grade. The ECYP program uses the Active Schools model, a comprehensive teaching approach that personalizes instruction and creates strong bonds with the community to ensure that children learn the skills they need for life outside of school. 

Salvadoran teachers engage in a teacher learning circle.FHI 360’s programming is structured around three components of this model: student learning guides, professional development for educators and Teacher Learning Circles (TLCs). Each component utilizes collaborative learning techniques to build group capacity — a method that has contributed to transforming the way teachers teach in the classroom. More than 1,300 education professionals — including mathematics, science and language teachers; Ministry of Education (MINED) staff; and administrators from schools and municipalities throughout El Salvador — have participated in trainings on the three components. Overall, FHI 360 has provided technical assistance to 430 schools and benefited nearly 75,000 students across the country. 

Teacher motivation and peer support through regular interactions is at the heart of the Active Schools model. Through the TLC component, teachers meet with peers from the same subject area to reflect on their teaching practice beyond training workshops. TLCs allow teachers to employ methods learned in the workshops and share them with other teachers to promote sustainable implementation of active learning methodologies. TLCs build on the existing MINED teacher networks, repurposing this existing structure by placing renewed emphasis on student-centered instruction and pedagogy. Interviews with TLC participants show that they believe TLCs have positively impacted their teaching. As one teacher explained, TLCs have “given life to teacher reflection rather than being spaces for complaints and lamentations.”

“In the Teacher Learning Circle, we all feel like eternal learners, open to expand our knowledge to the extent that we enrich the experiences and even the mistakes we make in the classroom. It is a very profound experience that changes our way of teaching in the classroom because first we live what we will implement in the classroom.” 
— Professor Josué Martinez

During TLC meetings, teachers develop student learning guides that complement the curriculum and textbooks to improve learning in the classroom, share the successes and challenges of transitioning from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms using the Active Schools learn-practice-apply methodology, and learn how to make learning more relevant to students’ daily lives. These peer interactions have become the basis for the transformation of Salvadoran secondary classrooms as students become more actively engaged in their own learning, classes become more relevant to students’ daily lives and teachers become more skillful at facilitating learning. 

In the small municipality of Nejapa, for example, lead math teachers Carlos Leiva, Ana Vilma Alvarado and Josué Martinez help to strengthen the teaching skills of 22 other colleagues from nearby schools through an FHI 360-led Teacher Learning Circle. In the circle, teachers share ideas about how to teach math using active learning, as well as strategies to prevent students from leaving school or successfully completing lower secondary school.

“In this experience of learning circles, we all write, validate and apply the student learning guides with the learn-practice-apply methodology, which allows us to tackle the disciplinary rigor of the material … and especially emphasize a [classroom] experience of respect, coexistence and dialogue while students increase their learning,” Professor Carlos Leiva says.

The Teacher Learning Circle in Nejapa, like other circles across the country, fosters a strategy for sustainable and continuous reflection that feeds on daily experiences about what students find difficult or easy to learn, on their needs and interests, and on their relationship with the environment and others. To this end, teachers help each other develop professionally by collaboratively building tools and new strategies. 

“One of the greatest achievements is that together we plan and write the [student learning] guides always thinking of students. Certainly we sometimes take longer to prepare [class], but it is worth it because we know that we are reaching the diversity of children who live in situations of poverty and violence. This also helps us to humanize our teaching practice.” 
— Professor Ana Vilma Alvarado

FHI 360 has worked to develop and apply the Active Schools methodology in countries including El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru. We have applied the model to primary and secondary education since 1992 and are now extending it in preschool settings. 

Learn more about FHI 360’s Active Schools work.

Photo caption: Salvadoran teachers engage in a teacher learning circle.

Photo credit: María José Valencia Merlos/FHI 360