No one left behind after the pandemic
The success of the programme to help struggling students catch up with their peers
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Aysel, an 8th grade student from the central district of Hajiqabul, was struggling at school: “during the pandemic, I had difficulties connecting to the online courses. I knew I was falling behind the other students.” In October 2021, she attended three weeks of additional classes designed specifically for students who needed support. With the assistance of her teacher, Aysel was able to review Azerbaijani grammar rules she had not fully assimilated. Even though she was tired, she knew the classes were helping her fill the gaps in her learning.
In Azerbaijan, education was disrupted not only by the pandemic, but conflict in 2020. The Ministry of Education, the Institute of Education and UNICEF designed a two-pronged programme to help struggling students catch up with their peers, coupled with mentorship opportunities for teachers whose professional development had stalled.
With the closure of schools due to the pandemic, distance learning was implemented in Azerbaijan, but some children inevitably fell behind and experienced significant learning losses. Tunzala Aliyeva, Aysel’s teacher, has been teaching Azerbaijani for over 20 years in the village of Meyniman. She listed the many challenges brought on by the pandemic: “we are a rural school and issues with Internet access are frequent. Sometimes, half of our students could barely access the online courses. Parents were also struggling to make sure that their children were continuing to study. Students also got sick and couldn’t attend online classes or come to school once we reopened.”
The conflict in 2020 also deeply affected students, especially in the western districts of the country. Teacher Nahayat Valiyeva, from Faxrali village in Goranboy, recounted how the conflict impacted her pupils: “Some of our students’ dads were fighting. Even though we were located at a certain distance from the actual conflict area, we could hear the sound of artillery. Attendance and results were getting worse, students were showing signs of trauma.”
The Institute of Education conducted nation-wide online and paper-based assessment studies in March and June 2021, with the involvement of more than 250 000 participants, and most students scored lower than the previous year, a diagnostic confirmed by UNICEF’s research. But the pandemic had also hurt the professional development of teachers. Ilkin Rustamov, a teacher and mentor from Beylaqan, reported that “some teachers had issues with technology, others with managing students who required a different approach or more attention.”
To address these challenges, the Ministry of Education, the Institute of Education and UNICEF designed a program to support both students and teachers. First, additional classes were taught in two foundational subjects - language of instruction and math - to struggling students. Students from grade II to VIII with the lowest scores were grouped by level into small classes, with a maximum of 10 students per class. For three weeks, they attended classes after regular school hours taught by selected teachers. Secondly, 15 mentors were chosen and trained to provide individual support over the course of four months to 75 teachers who needed guidance to improve their knowledge and skills. Six specific regions were selected for the implementation of the project: Gobustan, Agsu and Hajiqabul, which had the lowest overall scores in the national assessment studies, and Ganja, Goranboy and Beylaqan, where the impact of the conflict was felt more directly.
Gunel Mammadova, a teacher from Ganja who led extra classes, saw that “the students were very eager to participate. They wanted to catch up with the students who were doing better. The parents were also very supportive of this initiative.” For the extra classes, she adapted her teaching style to keep the students engaged: “since these classes were after our regular class hours, I didn’t want them to be too much of a burden on the kids. So, I was trying to make them more entertaining for the students.” Tunzala Aliyeva, the teacher from Hajiqabul, focused on the topics from the previous year that were not fully understood for the students to have a solid foundation. She had 8 groups in total and stayed at the school teaching with her colleague, the math teacher, until 6-7 pm every day. But she didn’t mind because she could see tangible progress unfolding in front of her eyes.
The mentors were also doing their best to support their mentees: Ilkin Rustamov, the mentor from Beylaqan, observed the classes of his mentees and identified specific issues he could help with. He conducted individual mentoring sessions as well as group discussions with his mentees. The mentees also observed the extra classes conducted for students who had fallen behind, to see what strategies and methods were used by teachers with more experience in challenging settings. They also had the opportunity to teach those classes themselves and implement what they had learned.
More than 800 students from 20 schools benefited from this program, with an emphasis placed on gender balance and inclusivity. After the program had ended, a post-test was conducted and confirmed what teachers had reported: pupils were doing markedly better. Gunel Mammadova’s student, Deniz from grade III, had a difficult time with grammar rules and rounding numbers. Her initial score in Azerbaijani language was 30/100, but on the final assessment, she scored 63/100. Ilkin, a 4th grade pupil from Goranboy, didn’t really like Azerbaijani and math very much. But thanks to the extra classes, he started improving and enjoying these subjects.
Some students were really excited about catching up and learning new things: in Tunzala Aliyeva’s class, “some of the students who attended the extra classes wanted to have quizzes during regular classes to show what they had learned and that they could compete with their peers. This was really rewarding: all the physical burden of teaching extra classes just flew away once we saw how well the students were doing.”
The extra classes also weaved new bonds between students and teachers: Nahayat Valiyeva from Goranboy taught extra classes to students who were not in her regular classes. Today, “when they have some questions or issues, or face some challenges, they come to me for advice or information. I am still in touch with all of them.”
The mentees also benefited greatly from the mentorship program: one of Ilkin Rustamov’s mentees was very stressed and struggled to manage her class at the beginning. But by the end, she was comfortable, confident, and doing her best to tackle her students’ individual needs. She made a huge effort to improve her skills and broaden her knowledge with the guidance of her mentor.
This uniquely comprehensive project happened right on time, for both students and teachers. The additional instruction and attention provided by the teachers helped students catch up and boosted their self-esteem and self-confidence. The mentored teachers performed much better in the national inspection than before.
As teacher Gunel Mammadova puts it, “there are no weak children, you simply have to be patient and spend a bit more time and all students can thrive.”