Interview: Mary Mendenhall, Ed.D. (Associate Professor of Practice, International and Comparative Education Teachers College, Columbia University)

Chetna Thukral
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure
  • SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Biography: Dr. Mary Mendenhall is a Professor and Director at Columbia University’s Teachers College. Her expertise and research work include International and comparative education; education in emergencies; policies and practices of refugee education across camp, urban and resettlement contexts; teacher support and professional development in crisis settings, including the use of mobile technologies; relevance and sustainability of education in emergencies interventions post-crisis; Latin America; Middle East; Sub-Saharan Africa; qualitative and participatory methodologies. Her most recent project work and research entail teacher professional development for refugee and national teachers providing education to refugees in Kenya.


Q) What are the key issues that your research work focuses on? 

My work focuses on refugee education policies and practices across camp, urban, and resettlement contexts. Recently, I have focused my research on the critical role of teachers in primarily refugee settings, looking across various profiles of teachers – refugee, IDP, and national teachers – in East Africa (Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan). The specific research issues focus on teacher identity, teacher professional development (TPD), teacher well-being, and teacher management.


 Q) Are you aware of how this area of work is being carried out by UNICEF? If so, what are your thoughts about how UNICEF is doing this work? 

I am aware of UNICEF’s work in this area, because they funded the second year of our project – Teachers for Teachers – in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. UNICEF’s support helped us scale up and expand the initiative to the Kalobeyei area (a local settlement established outside of the refugee camp). The project entailed an implementation project and research study that we designed, which included face-to-face training, peer coaching, and mobile mentoring. We also conducted research in parallel with the project activities to better understand the challenges and needs of refugee teachers working in the camp, how to better support them, and how to leverage their experiences and insights to improve teacher professional development support in both locations. We also collected teachers’ stories through videos, essays, and most significant change reflections so that teachers could tell their own stories about their experiences.


Q) How do you think UNICEF can improve the work they are doing – whether that be on the ground in programme implementation or at headquarters with regard to policy and guidance?  

I think UNICEF could do more to elevate the critical role of teachers and to support their continuous development. We know that one-off trainings and short-term, limited support are insufficient for bolstering the quality of education in emergency and protracted crisis settings. We also know that teachers are rarely included or consulted in the design of TPD. UNICEF has a key role to play as they work across the humanitarian-development spectrum and interface with Ministries of Education, and national and international actors working in these spaces. They can play a strong advocacy role to help improve working conditions (compensation), professional development that leads toward certification that will be recognized by national governments and through regional agreements, as well as advocate for the inclusion of teachers in the design and implementation of TPD and related activities. They can work in closer collaboration with UNHCR in refugee contexts to highlight the work and contributions of different profiles of teachers. They can advocate much more strongly than other actors to help move donors toward longer-term funding support, that includes recurrent costs for supporting teachers. Finally, particularly in emergency settings where UNICEF co-leads the Education Cluster, they can advocate for more involvement of teachers themselves in discussions and decision-making around implementation of education projects.


Q) How do you think UNICEF and universities could work together to create a better world for children, globally?  

I think the Global Development Commons initiative is great step in the right direction. There has been a movement toward more evidence-based programming and policymaking, but there is still a disconnect and a lot of evidence and learning doesn’t always get into the right hands. By working together, UNICEF can help distill and disseminate findings from research studies to its colleagues and counterparts around the world. Academics and researchers in higher education also have to do a better job of generating findings from research studies they are involved in more quickly, and academia writ large needs to place more value on sharing the research conducted by professors and students with those actors who are better positioned to utilize this information in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and research. While there have been some promising efforts, we all have to continue to partner with national universities who are better placed to lead and/or collaborate on research conducted in-country. These partnerships require adequate funding to sustain long-term engagement over several years as we work together to improve research capacity, awareness about education in emergencies as a field of study, and how to support local scholars in contributing to the evidence base. They know the context and the national education systems better than any institution outside of the country. Faculty and students in these countries will have the language skills and access to field sites that should be further leveraged. These partnerships cannot be 1, 2 or 3 years in duration. They require sustained collaboration and support over a much longer period of time to ensure program effectiveness and long-term sustainability.


Q) Moving forward, is there a dream project you would like to do with UNICEF?  Where do you see the arising needs for better programming for children?

For a “dream project”, it would be wonderful to work on a collaborative education-child protection project and study that includes teachers as lead partners. In all of the contexts that I have worked in, there have been relatively weak or non-existent child protection systems or referral pathways. Teachers are frequently asked to play this role, but often times the children’s needs for support are beyond the teachers’ capacities, whose jobs are challenging enough already. Additionally, in many instances, teachers may be putting themselves at risk when reporting and responding to child protection concerns if the formal reporting system is not functioning well. I would like to see the child protection and education sectors work together more effectively, in close collaboration with national agencies, to improve systems for children, youth, and their families. Likewise, we could take a more inclusive approach of working collaboratively with refugee teachers and national teachers who are teaching in displacement and camp contexts who need additional support to adapt to the needs of refugee learners.


Q) In your view, where do you think UNICEF’s strengths and weaknesses are and how would you like to help UNICEF reach that potential?  

UNICEF is a powerful advocate for children and youth, and the organization has incredible reach into institutions and communities. I think they could do a better job recognizing and celebrating the hard work and meaningful contributions of the multiple partners they work with in different settings and use their leadership and convening role to elevate the effective approaches and programming models of others as well. UNICEF is well-positioned to help bridge the knowledge gap between I/NGOs, CBOs and government. There is a missed opportunity to share learning, generated by these partners, back with national governments. UNICEF can play a bigger role in advocating with the government to help provide a pathway and communication channels to recognize those programs and the lessons learned that they generate. It is also critical that UNICEF focuses even more strongly on the teaching and learning processes taking place in schools and classrooms. UNICEF Headquarters issues extensive guidance and promotes new initiatives regularly, but without always keeping in mind how teachers, in particular, will be able to implement different strategies. The push for educational technologies, previously and now accelerated by the health pandemic, is an example of some concerning trends where the impact and burdens placed on teachers have not been sufficiently accounted for. UNICEF’s focus on children’s rights is important, but equal attention must be given to the teachers and educators who work with children and young people every day.


Q)What thinkers, research and “big ideas” have influenced you and your work the most? 

There are a number of people and ideas that have been influential. I have enjoyed the work and thinking of people like Jeff Crisp (formerly at UNHCR and now at Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre) and Hugo Slim (previously at Oxford and now at the International Committee of the Red Cross). They both take a direct approach to pointing out the challenges and opportunities for improving support to refugees and hold those best placed to act accountable for their actions. There are a growing number of scholars working on refugee education, which is great to see, but Sarah Dryden-Peterson’s work at Harvard University, is always stellar and thoughtful in its approach, making efforts to bring refugee voices into scholarly work when possible. I also applaud Michelle Bellino’s work at the University of Michigan to engage in participatory action research projects with youth. Michelle and I have crossed paths in Kakuma refugee camp over the years, and I greatly appreciate and respect the commitment and energy she spent working with secondary school students in the camp. I am also a long-standing member and contributor to the Inter-agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE) and continue to be impressed by what the Network, its dedicated Director and Secretariat staff, and overall membership have been able to do over the years. While we need to continue to push ourselves to become increasingly diverse and more representative of all the actors working in this space (especially national and local actors), I am always inspired by the willingness and commitment of INEE’s members to take off their agency hats and to think about the greater good for the field. They successfully prove again and again the power of inter-agency collaborative approaches.


Q) What has your work with INEE involved and what has your experience been like?

My start in the field of education in emergencies was actually as the Network Coordinator for INEE back in 2005 when I made a major career change in my own life. My foray into the field was working for the INEE Secretariat when it was still a fledgling network. There were two of us who worked together in the Secretariat. My wonderful colleague Allison Anderson and I helped to build out the membership, engage in advocacy work about the critical role education plays in humanitarian response, while also supporting the key initiative at that time—the INEE Minimum Standards. I did that for a short period of time because I was also in graduate school and getting my doctorate. I decided to leave my job at INEE to both finish my dissertation and start my family.

In my academic role at Teachers College, I have continued to be involved with the Network. INEE has the Secretariat, the Steering Group, and a number of Working Groups that look at policy, practice, and advocacy. I have served on the Standards and Practice Working Group for a number of years. This Working Group is more field-facing – trying to help practitioners who are part of the INEE membership, to benefit from promising practices, from strong evidence about what works and what doesn't work, and to make it more accessible through capacity building opportunities, and tool development.

In addition to the Working Group, I am also involved in INEE’s Teachers in Crisis Context Collaborative (TiCC) – which was initially an informal group of people who came together from different UN agencies, NGOs, and academic institutes. The group recognized that teachers need more attention, and that they play a critical role in this work. We also recognized that a lot of organizations were creating similar tools and approaches to supporting teachers. We thought there was a way to come together and bring all the good practices and the hard lessons learned across different organizations and across different field sites to develop some common tools and guidance.

Through this work, the TiCC provided an exciting opportunity for my students and I to contribute to some of the early thinking and design work on a harmonized professional development model. We helped develop a training pack, a peer coaching pack, and a mobile mentoring pack for teachers. So, the Teachers for Teachers initiative that we did in Kakuma was part of this larger process where we developed this inter-agency approach. We field-tested it and piloted the model in Kakuma, and then ultimately implemented the full-scale program in the refugee camp. In parallel to these efforts, other members of the TiCC were doing the same thing in Iraq. And then the model and resources continued to grow and expand and was distributed to many other contexts.

Now that we have developed the various PD tools, we are thinking about how to support implementation, and also about how we can help strengthen the evidence base about teachers in crisis contexts. We are also working on continuing to elevate the needs of teachers more broadly by developing a Call to Action that will hopefully compel diverse stakeholders to do more. We’ll look forward to seeing UNICEF’s involvement in these efforts as we move forward.


Q) You mentioned some best practices and tools to support educators/teachers – what would that include?

The best practices I am thinking of come from “stable contexts”, but that we also don't necessarily do well in those contexts, even though we know that's what works. We tended in the past to focus on one-off trainings, especially in resource-constrained and challenging environments. There was this tendency to hire short-term consultants who would fly in, conduct a five-day training and leave. We know this doesn’t work and that teachers need continuous professional development. We need to offer training and professional development activities that teachers engage in and then go back to their classrooms and try, test, fail, and succeed and reflect on why it worked and why it didn’t. Then, teachers can come back for more training (if needed) and debrief with a supportive colleague.

We often overburden teachers with the demands we place on their time. So, one thing is thinking about stretching out training approaches so that they can spend more time putting what they are learning into practice and reflecting critically on their efforts. Teachers also benefit greatly from coaching support. Coaches can come in different forms. They could be fellow teachers engaged in peer-to-peer support. That is what we did in Kakuma. Coaches could be head teachers who are taking on multiple roles. It could be national authorities who could expand their remit, if you will, from a compliance focus to a growth and development focus. Coaching conversations could focus more on what teachers think they are doing well, what they need to improve, what support they might need to try new approaches, etc. The coaching dynamic has to be collaborative and supportive, not controlling or hostile.

I think another important practice is teacher collaboration. Teachers are one another's best resources. They know that context better than anybody coming in from the outside. They know the young people who are in their classrooms and outside of the schools. They bring that really important community-based knowledge to the classroom in a way that others who are outside of that context cannot.

I think what we still fail to do is include teachers in the decisions about what they need. We assume we know what they need, and we create grand plans for teacher professional development activities without ever engaging them in meaningful ways in planning decisions.  We need bring teachers in at the beginning of those discussions so they say what they need, what would be the best strategies to help them be supported, and how they could be active members throughout the entire design, implementation, and evaluation cycle. I think we pay a lot of lip service to doing that, but we don't actually do it.


Q) Professor, you also have experience in using mobile technologies for education – what is your experience with them and how do they help?

We embraced using mobile technology for the Teachers for Teachers initiative, because we were thinking about how to provide continuity of support and creative ways that we could leverage technology to reach those teachers. In the first phase – the teachers were very much connected to us at Columbia University’s Teachers College and with my students who were all formally trained teachers or educators in their own right.

In the second phase, we got a little more experimental and we opened it up and recruited similar profiles of trained teachers or experienced educators from around the globe, including in the East African region, who could serve as mentors. Not all of the mentors had experience working in a refugee context, but they brought other skills and experiences to those interactions.  Overall, it was interesting and exciting for teachers, both the volunteer teachers who were the mentors and also the teachers participating in the project, to connect with people in different contexts and to feel like they were part of a larger conversation.

While the mobile mentoring proved promising in many ways, it’s important to point out that what we found in our research was that the face-to-face professional development mattered more and had more of an impact on improving teaching practice. So, I use that as a bit of a cautionary tale, because I think people are very quick to look to technology to solve the problem. And I think the evidence base is still too weak to say one way or the other that it will or will not work.

I also find it frustrating to see millions of dollars spent introducing technology in classrooms (including in refugee camps) where its effectiveness is still unproven and teachers are still struggling to make a meaningful wage or earn a certification that will allow them to engage in a steady profession. 

This tension is one of my biggest concerns in the field today. I understand that the tech sector isn’t likely to start covering teachers’ salaries (nor should they), but I do think they can be more mindful of what it means when they enter a space and how the priorities can shift away from some of those fundamental issues. I also hope to see better partnerships between humanitarian and development actors and the tech sector to elevate their knowledge and understanding of what works in the field and what doesn't work in the field and where technology can be an added value. Technology can never replace teachers. It can never replace the relationships that teachers have with students, which we know are critical, not only for learning, but for growing and developing as young people.

And so, yes, let's leverage technology. Let's use it when, you know, it serves a very specific and very clearly defined purpose, but never to the detriment of the continued needs of teachers.


Q) And to follow up from what you just said, what, what would be then those areas where technology could actually support teachers?

I do think in resource-constrained environments where there is a lack of textbooks and learning materials - both for teachers and learners - there's a really important role for technology to play to expose teachers to additional resources. There are promising practices that are coming out of what UNHCR has been trying to do through their Connected Learning initiatives and some of the partnerships they have with different platforms where they're helping curate and vet quality materials that are integrated with national curricular frameworks. I think that's one area in terms of augmenting access to educational resources in constrained environments that is key.

Going back to the point about teacher collaboration, I also think there are really interesting and promising ideas around virtual communities of practice among teachers. What we found with the mobile mentoring, for example, was that teachers could post a question or request and other participants would crowd-source information and resources that would be helpful to teachers who were sometimes seeking help while they were in class. While we clearly weren’t suggesting that they use their phones during instructional time, it is interesting to think about how to build that connection so that teachers can access one another even more proactively.

I also think technology is useful in contexts that are, for different reasons, incredibly hard to access and hard to support because of the ongoing conflict or disaster. If there is a way through innovative practices to provide both online/offline and synchronous/asynchronous opportunities as a stop gap measure until the situation stabilizes, education delivery via technology can be incredibly helpful.


Q) In terms of sustaining promising practices in education in emergencies, how should we carry the interventions and strategies forward now that we're thinking of reopening?

Yeah, that's a good question. The pandemic has uncovered and further illuminated the pernicious inequalities and inequities that we see in education systems around the world. While we are all reeling from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it does provide an opportunity, as UNICEF often reminds us in times of crisis, to ‘build back better.’ I hear educators saying that this is a critical moment to make real and lasting improvements, while there is also fear of returning to the status quo as we hope for some normalcy in our lives. Education leaders and key stakeholders (including teachers, students, families, and communities) need to find ways to honestly reflect on what is working and not working and commit to making changes. As far as teachers are concerned, we saw a renewed admiration and recognition of their work as families struggled to support their children through home-based schooling. How can we leverage this recognition and come together through advocacy and activism to improve teacher policies and practices, especially for teachers working in some of the most difficult settings? There is no easy answer, and it will take systematic and sustained attention moving forward.


Q) What do you think are your most significant research accomplishments and why? 

I think the work and research we have done connected to the Teachers for Teachers project has been most significant to date. As I mentioned, I worked with a wonderful group of graduate students in our International and Comparative Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University and we designed and developed the training, coaching, and mobile mentoring curriculum and facilitators’ guides that we used to implement the project in Kakuma refugee camp a few years ago. This work is especially significant given its inclusion of refugee and national teachers in the design and implementation of the program itself, which also strengthened the sustainability of the program (currently in Kakuma, the Teachers for Teachers team of refugee facilitators is conducting induction trainings for all new teachers using the training pack from the program).  Additionally, the continuous teacher professional development approach has now been emulated and adapted in numerous countries including Bangladesh, Iraq, Jordan, Somalia, South Sudan, and Uganda, as a few select examples. We have also published a case study on this approach and several scholarly articles to share what we learned about what worked and what didn’t work, with plans to share additional findings in the near future.


Q) Do you have any upcoming research projects and/or publications you would like to share with us? We would like to publish it on our website and have the global community engage with it. 

Through my work at Teachers College, I am the research lead, along with a great group of fellow researchers (Dr. Vidur Chopra, Danielle Falk, Daniel Shephard, and many other student volunteers), for a 4-year EU-funded Oxfam project that supports learners, teachers and education systems to become more resilient in South Sudan and Uganda. The project is aimed at improving and strengthening the non-formal and formal education system, targeting teachers and educators in Uganda refugee settlements and South Sudan communities. The research initiative looks specifically at how the program activities related to accelerated education programs and teacher education professional development contribute to student and teacher well-being, and how teacher well-being and student well-being interact with one another and with the broader community. We are moving into Year 3 of the project now and pivoting a bit to respond to the implications of the COVID-19 health pandemic. We’ll have some findings to share over the coming months and would be happy to send a summary or blog post about it your way.


Q) What do you envision your field of research/area of study to look like in the future? 

I will continue to focus on the critical role of teachers, because improving teacher practices and policies requires sustained attention. We cannot call for improvements to quality education in crisis and disaster contexts without prioritizing the roles, responsibilities, and needs of teachers. As I mentioned, I am fortunate to be involved in INEE’s Teachers in Crisis Contexts Collaborative (TiCC) where the work that any individual member is doing can be supported, vetted, improved, and expanded to actors and organizations who might benefit from our efforts. Through the TiCC, we’ll continue developing and sharing promising practices, informing teacher policies, and helping develop a stronger evidence base about teachers.


Q) What do you see as being important for the next generation and their potential to improve the state of the world’s children?

The recent COVID-19 health pandemic has resurfaced and put into stark relief the vast inequalities and inequities that continue to plague education systems around the world, right here in New York City to refugee camps in East Africa and back again. The continued atrocities of police brutality and institutional racism here in the U.S., but that also manifest in different ways in other countries, continue to reveal how much more work is needed through engaged and sustained advocacy and activism to radically change policies and practices. The number of children and youth who aren’t living in safe home situations, who are vulnerable to violence and abuse, who rely on schools for protection (though schools can also be sites of violence and abuse), meals, and healthcare remind everyone of the fractured and weak social systems in many countries (low- to high-income). While the impact of the health pandemic, institutional racism, and the toll on human life that both have taken is absolutely horrific, we have to find ways to reignite and strengthen the fight against injustice, including in the humanitarian system, to help young people get access to quality education, safe, and meaningful life opportunities, and to support teachers in their efforts to create safe, inclusive learning environments. No one agency can do this alone, and none of us can do it without children and youth, and their teachers, helping to lead the way.




Suggested Articles

Adolescents+2 more topics
📣 Calling all #youth in the #AsiaPacific Region and beyond! Our friends at Youth Co:Lab are hosting the hybrid #YouthCoLab Summit 2022 this summer July 4-7, 2022 🤩 This year's Summit aims to highlight, encourage and celebrate the role of young people in the #DecadeofAction, while showcasing and...