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Teachers Helping Teachers: Origins of a concept

Writer(s): 
Pat Dougherty, Coordinator, Teachers Helping Teachers SIG

 

On 28 Jun 2008, Teachers Helping Teachers was approved as a JALT Special Interest Group. It was a new start to an organization that had established itself as something of a swashbuckling group of volunteers three years before, in late March of 2005, when a six-member delegation arrived in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to conduct a six-day teacher training workshop with BELTA (the Bangladesh English Language Teachers Association). At that time, we did not have a name. We were simply FOBBs, Friends ofthe late Bill Balsamo, the founder of the organization, and the then President of Himeji JALT. That early team was made up of Steve Cornwell, Ann Irish, Cecy Wales, Aya and Pat Dougherty, and Bill himself. We had expertise in teaching English to young learners, high school EFL, and university-level EFL. We thought, at the time, that we would be joining a one-off program. We did not realize that we would become the first delegation of a vibrant and thriving organization.

The origin of this program was a conversation between Bill and Arifa Rahman, the president of BELTA. They had met at the 2003 AsiaTEFL conference in Seoul, Korea.  Bill had been active in philanthropic work in Bangladesh for several years. He had sponsored the building of dormitories at several orphanages and schools. In their conversations during the conference, Bill asked Rahman about the needs that she saw for Bangladesh and especially for Bangladeshi education. Rahman explained that there was a paucity of opportunities for teachers in Dhaka and rural areas to get teacher training. BELTA was actively trying to organize programs, but it was very much an uphill battle in everything from funding to locations to transportation of teachers to program venues. Bill, on the spur of the moment, offered to bring a team of educators from Japan to Bangladesh to put on a conference. Through the course of 2004, discussions with Rahman continued, and the volunteer presenters were assembled. When I use the term, “assembled,” I mean that Bill contacted each of us, informally, about joining a program in Bangladesh. Of the team of volunteers, only two, including Bill, had been in Bangladesh previously. A theme was selected, “Teaching Strategies for the ESL Classroom,” and the dates of 25-30 Mar 2005 were settled on. This would be a new experience for all involved: As volunteer Ann Irish said, “This was the first time such a conference had been held in Bangladesh.”

We had anticipated a small crowd of English teachers to attend the workshops, perhaps about forty. We were greeted by more than 180 attendees who crowded into the main hall of Presidency University in Dhaka, and spilled out into other sessions that crowded the handful of classrooms in that brand new school, in its single building, in the middle of the bustle of the Bangladeshi capital. The turnout stunned even BELTA. We presented on using student heritage in the language classroom, presentation techniques, the four skills, and activities that could be done, as Bill Balsamo liked to put it, in a PC way, using only Pencil and Chalk. “The overwhelming response to the conference was very gratifying,” said Aya Dougherty, one of the Himeji JALT members who attended. “That the participants came from every corner of the country and from little village schools to the large public universities made it a special experience for all involved,” she explained.

It wasn’t until just before we arrived in Dhaka to hold our inaugural program that Teachers Helping Teachers was christened. Asked by our Bengali hosts how our delegation should be introduced, Bill brought the question to a Himeji JALT meeting. Knocking around ideas, we stopped to really focus on what we were, and that was a group of practicing teachers, or retired teachers, who had spent and were spending their lives and energies in the vibrant arena of the classroom. We were not ivory tower dwellers, but people who prided themselves on being in the trenches, working with students, whatever the age or level. We were teachers, and we wanted to help other teachers. Teachers Helping Teachers was born.

Since our founding, THT has sponsored teacher training in the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, and Bangladesh. We have a full complement of programs in all four of these countries scheduled for 2009. 

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