Designing For and With Refugee Teachers in Tanzania

In partnership with the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, the IRC selects master’s and doctoral scholars across The New School for Social Research to participate in our fellowship program. Fellows have the opportunity to imagine, test, and help implement new innovations as part of the IRC’s global research and innovation efforts. Learn more about the fellowship here.


This past February, I had the opportunity to go on my first field visit, accompanying the IRC’s Research, Evaluation, and Learning (REL) and Airbel Center teams to the Mtendeli refugee camp outside Kibondo, Tanzania, where 45,000 Burundian refugees currently reside.

We flew first into Dar es Salaam, then across the country to Kigoma, and then drove north to Kibondo. The pin marks the location of Mtendeli.

Week 1: Supporting Teachers in Refugee Camps with the Airbel Center & Praekelt.org

During the first week, I was embedded with a team from the Airbel Center and their partners from Praekelt.org, working on prototypes for a new education program that leverages social-emotional learning (SEL) to encourage the success and wellbeing of primary school children in refugee and humanitarian settings. SEL — sometimes called soft skills or emotional intelligence — refers to skills that cultivate resilience and a person’s ability to understand and regulate their emotions, develop working memory, solve problems, set and achieve positive goals, show empathy for others, and establish positive relationships. We focused on a new type of training program for teachers to help educators learn and facilitate SEL activities in their classrooms. To develop grounding for our work, it was important to spend time with the clients who would actually be taking part in the training: the teachers.

For the majority of our first day in Mtendeli, the team held conversational interviews with teachers from across the camp’s four schools. Being the first time the team had worked in this specific camp, we sought to understand the environment, from the structure of the school day to what motivates the teachers. With the help of translators — many of whom spoke 3–4 languages including Kirundi, Swahili, English, and French — we learned about the teachers’ routines, their victories and challenges in the classroom, and their hopes for their students. I was inspired by their commitment to their pupils and desire to be both effective teachers and responsible role models.

“I keep teaching, even now, because this is how we take care of our little brothers and sisters.” –Burundian Teacher

One teacher shared that he always seeks to convey joy, even when he is having a hard day, so that his classroom can be a safe place for his students and they can forget about their circumstances for a little while. Another shared that even though her days are very full with planning and teaching, she uses her spare time to support other teachers, meeting up with them in the evenings to exchange ideas. By engaging with the teachers at this stage, we were able to incorporate their input as we shaped the project going forward.

Outside one of the school buildings in Mtendeli. Left to right: Emanuel (translator), Sylvia (Airbel), Paul (IRC researcher), me, and Estee (Praekelt).

Our conversations significantly informed the work for the rest of the week, ranging from classroom observations to participatory design workshops. We collected numerous insights, some sparking new ideas, others inviting further inquiry, but all inspiring the iterative development of a program designed both for and alongside the teachers.

One of my favorite workshops to facilitate was the concept for material aids for teachers. The workshop participants engaged with our ideas by handling actual simple prototypes representing our ideas. After interacting with physical materials, teachers provided perspective on the feasibility of using the tools in their classrooms.

A few of the different prototyped materials we evaluated with a group of teachers in the camp.

The session was cheerful and collaborative, bringing to the surface vital insights about what would and wouldn’t work in the teachers’ routines and settings. For example, one of our proposed materials was an oversized dice that would introduce some fun into the process of selecting an SEL activity to perform with the class. While the teachers loved the infusion of playfulness, one pointed out that choosing a child from a room of nearly 100 to roll it would be impractical and could incite jealousy. Another weighed in that, even though he personally enjoyed rolling the dice, he would not be comfortable using it with his students because he could quickly lose physical control of the material and regaining his students’ attention could prove challenging.

Another material concept we proposed were ring-bounded flashcards with pictures of the activity on one side and instructions on the other. The teachers in the workshop noted that, unlike the dice, the cards would be easier to maintain control over in the midst of a busy classroom. They also valued that cards could be used for both activity selection and their own in-class reference. One teacher even suggested that he could add cards to the ring as he learned new activities over time.

“I like the idea of having my own individual card deck so I can reference them always.” –Burundian Teacher

These insights were invaluable to the project development, and helped us understand the context-specific complexities the teachers had to consider.

One of the teachers interacting with a sample prototype during our materials workshop. The ring-bound flashcards were a popular choice among the workshop participants and inspired the materials that will be used in the pilot.

Week 2: Preventing Violence Against Children with REL & Behavioral Insights Team

For the second week of the trip, I joined the REL unit and our partners from The Behavioral Insights Team to work on a project called Preventing Violence Against Children (PVAC) in Schools, aimed at reducing and deterring corporal punishment in schools. The program invites teachers to learn alongside their peers using a curriculum of evidence-based techniques for improving well-being, self-regulation, and classroom management through positive discipline strategies. Unlike Airbel’s project I had worked on during the previous week, PVAC was past the stage of creative prototyping and in refinement and iteration.

Prior to the trip, I had worked on the curriculum’s visual design and was excited to see how it would be received with actual clients. Each day, we held multiple group discussions with teachers across Mtendeli’s school system to better understand what was and was not working. We gave each group a session from the curriculum and asked them to work through it together while we observed, interjecting periodically with follow-up questions to see if the content resonated, if the teachers understood the lessons, and to discuss their reactions.

One of the groups working through the curriculum at a school in Mtendeli.

Through these group discussions we learned about how the teachers interacted with the content, what concepts did and did not translate well across cultural contexts, and where the learnings were not as salient as we had hoped. For instance, we learned that “meditation” does not mean the same thing to our team as it does to the Burundian teachers, and we were able to have a rich discussion about how to frame the exercise more effectively. We also solidified a hypothesis that storytelling was a particularly effective tactic; teachers could envision the classroom strategies and understood the purposes when presented in a relatable narrative.

We also had the opportunity to hear about the teachers’ various experiences and difficulties in their classrooms. At one point, we directly experienced one of these challenges: when a rain storm rolled in and then turned to hail, the tin roofs became cacophonous and we had to all squeeze together to continue our session over the din above. It was easy to imagine how disruptive these rainstorms could be with in a room packed with children and how that might affect teaching strategy.

The teachers’ firsthand input gave us an idea of what the classroom management techniques would look like in practice, and we were able to adjust the content presentation accordingly. I also paid close attention to the ways teachers reacted to the visual elements and how they interpreted the diagrams, equipping me to make informed changes to improve the content’s design. By the week’s close, we had spent over 20 hours with teachers refining the sessions and absorbing their insights.


Back to HQ & Reflections

Upon return, each team consolidated learnings and made plans to improve the programs. I came away from the field visit with a heightened appreciation for in-person time spent learning from and with our clients, creating curriculum and experiences that would fit into their context and truly offer value to their lives.

I also appreciated the chance to get to work with in-country staff who were wonderfully helpful in coordinating our time in the camp and giving us on-the-ground observational insights that guided our work together. I told one of our country team members, Paul, that it was my first time in Tanzania and asked what his favorite thing about the country was. He told me that he was proud of their hospitality and peace, both of which I am grateful to have now experienced personally.

The Airbel and REL teams are busy working on developing refined concepts based on what we learned from our time in Mtendeli last month. These programs will be improved, revised, and then delivered to the clients who will put to use the curriculums their insights helped to shape.