The Hidden Value to SDG#4 in Volunteer Housing

In 2015, over 1 million people moved swiftly across the Mediterranean, through Greece, along the ‘Balkan Route’ and into Western Europe. When the borders closed in March 2016 after the EU-Turkey deal, the movement stopped and time stood still. NGOs offering non-formal and informal learning opportunities scrambled to meet the growing needs of their students, young and old, who were now stranded and confused. As the reality set in, strategies shifted from crisis to recovery and the long, slow process of healing, building and starting over in a land that was never in the plan — began.

My partners and I traveled the region on a mission to crack the secret to supporting teachers in this, particularly unique context. We asked the teachers which resources they used, how they planned their lessons and what struggles they faced. We found that across Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, and Serbia the facilitation of learning opportunities for forcibly displaced students, was diverse, yet many teachers tended to struggle with similar issues regarding time management, coordination, and communication of relevant content.

After stepping back and looking at all the data points from our interviews, we started to notice that at some NGOs, teachers seemed less stressed overall, better balanced, and in the communication flow. Everyone appeared to know what to do, when to do it and how to do it (or at least try). Did they all use the same training methodology? Did they all read the same magic Handbook? How did these organizations prepare and support their teachers so well for such a difficult teaching environment? What was the secret?

Informal conversations over coffee, beer, and communal chore charts.

Image: Courtesy of WE ARE HERE in Nea Kavala

We suddenly realized that the one thing these volunteer organizations had in common was a shared volunteer house, where all the teachers lived together. One of these uber impressive non-formal schools had their six teachers, plus the education field coordinator living in a 3-bedroom apartment furnished with bunk beds! They were the closest group of teachers we met, by far.

I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in one of these volunteer houses. I was able to see up close the endless opportunities these teachers had to reflect and process what happened in class, to develop and co-design lesson ideas together, and to work through strategies to meet the wide range of challenges they faced in any given class. They didn’t have all the answers, but they had the time to hash out some probable solutions, test them, and hash them out again. These volunteer houses offer the invaluable opportunities of continuous peer-to-peer support to reflect and celebrate the joys of teaching, something many teachers in this context are missing.

One volunteer teacher who had very little teaching experience seemed oddly at ease with his job of planning and giving math and English lessons to a rambunctious group of 6 to 10-year-olds. I asked what resources did he use for this and his answer was, “Oh, I just talk it out with Jenny and write up my lessons that way. She’s amazing. She has the best ideas” Jenny was an experienced teacher from the UK who lived in the house with him. They drove back and forth together in the shared volunteer car. A shared volunteer CAR = bonus points!

When one director of an NGO was considering closing the volunteer house to save on costs, the volunteers protested and explained why keeping the house was so important for the work they do. It wasn’t until the threat of closing the house, did the organization realize its true benefit to achieving the NGO’s mission and vision.

After all of my travels and visits with teachers in the field, I came to realize how crucial it is for teachers, no matter the situation, to have a supportive community to tap into. However, in our context where we are not bound to one curriculum, methodology, or shared ideology, or connected under the umbrella of a teachers’ union, school district, or administering body, we struggle with creating supportive communities that can help drive improvement in our practice and outcomes at the individual program level. We’ve seen that this sense of community can easily be created through shared accommodations. But, how can we create the same support network without having to live together?

Localize, structured Communities of Practice (CoP) across the NGO network where teachers can plan regular face to face meetups, host capacity building workshops, and training, facilitate online resource sharing, and share insights directly from the classrooms through mobile chat and safe social media channels can help create the same sense of community where the teachers feel supported and not alone. Having a community that is structured, organized, and mobilized not only can help with the individual practice of its members, but it can also help garner local resources, partnerships, and funding opportunities that can benefit the community as a whole. There are many opportunities we miss simply by not being organized and positioned to access them.

Therefore, Team up 2 Teach is working towards setting up these Communities of Practice for teachers and NGOs in the region. If you are a teacher or an education coordinator in Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia or Croatia working in a camp or urban settings providing non-formal and informal learning opportunities with forcibly displaced newcomers, reach out and join a community today! (

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