7/1/2019 | Culture and Education

“Imagine you live in a country without lighting”

Inês Rodrigues, acknowledged with an honorable mention at the Global Teacher Prize Portugal, transforms plastic into tiles and lights houses in Guinea-Bissau

“Imagine you live in a country without lighting. Imagine that at night the only lights that shine are lighthouses, cars, or the flashlights used by people who go walking. Imagine that the only light in that country, at night, is the one at the airport and that, when the last passenger exits, everything goes dark.

Imagine that your children study and live in a country where they have to bring along their seat from home, because the school does not have furniture. Or that they have to use a plastic bag, such as those from supermarkets that we see here, to carry their supplies to school. This country is called Guinea-Bissau.”

These were the words spoken by Inês Rodrigues, Language teacher to students in the 9th, 10th and 11th grades in Gondomar, in a TEDTalk given at the invitation of TEDx Funchal. Inês was one of 10 finalists of the Global Teacher Prize Portugal 2019, in which she received an honourable mention from the Galp Foundation, for the nature of her project. She did not win the “Nobel Prize” of Portuguese teaching, but, in the eyes of her students, - who know that her work is changing the lives of thousands of people - it is as if she did. The teacher from Gondomar told us about how education works in Portugal, what it is like to be a Teacher, and the Project that earned her an honourable mention in the biggest project that acknowledges this profession in Portugal and across the world.

Words spoken by Inês Rodrigues, Language teacher to students in the 9th, 10th and 11th grades in Gondomar, in a TEDTalk given at the invitation of TEDx Funchal. Inês was one of the 10 finalists of the Teacher Prize Portugal 2019, a project sponsored by the Galp Foundation, whose 2nd Portuguese edition took place this year.

“Lives without lighting, without sanitation, schools without a ceiling. That was when it clicked.”

She drew inspiration from her students to start the project. She taught at a school that welcomed students from Portuguese-speaking African countries (PALOPs). The stories that students told her every day about their specific and different lives made Inês think about a way to make an impact on other realities, based on her own reality.

She chose Guinea-Bissau after going there for the first time and realising the extent of the reality of that country. “Guinea-Bissau is among the 10 poorest countries in the world, according to the UN, and people speak Portuguese there. Why not?” It was in 2011 when she knocked on the door of the school principal to present him the PBL – Project/Problem Based Learning, a different teaching method for a time when curriculum flexibility had a long way to go. The challenge made to students was not easy: how to solve a problem using low-cost materials found anywhere in the world and that can be reproduced by anyone, according to specific needs, including people with little schooling?

The method covers the inclusion of theoretical knowledge which students obtain in the various subjects while “learning by doing”. Students apply the content they were taught to solve actual problems and execute products that are subsequently implemented in communities in Africa or in Portugal. It is a model that can be adopted in any school. Five teaching solutions have already been adopted in Guinea-Bissau and one in Mozambique, developed by different classes and schools, which were then replicated by locals.

Inês says that “this way students develop key skills for the 21st century, some of which cannot be taught using handbooks, but are developed through personal experience, such as creativity and responsibility, collaboration, and leadership”. The teacher has been implementing the project in every school she goes to and, in her opinion, the most important aspects of this project in the past 8 years are the feedback from students and the impact it had on their lives.

“Sharing with students these testimonies has an outstanding impact. I have seen students, grown men, crying.”

Her method and innovative approaches contributed to build a close student-teacher relationship and create an environment of mutual respect. “Having a class composed of boys who enter the classroom after one month of lessons and shake my hand, every single one of them, is a sign that I am ‘part’ of their world”. The teacher struggles to find words to convey the reaction from the young people every time she returns from a trip and shares with them all testimonies she gathered, and, in her opinion, these are the key moments that motivate her: “Hearing someone say that he can now take care of his child or shut the door of his house because now he has light is something that one does not forget and that motivates people to keep up with this work.”

However, is this approach truly effective? Inês has no doubts about this question. Feedback from class boards since 2011 has been similar to that of the current year: students who take part in projects are more motivated to learn, behave better, have a better attitude and attend school more regularly, leading to improved performances.

“The class is different, you saved the class” – a co-worker told her, regarding a class in charge of electrical fittings that is involved in a project. Nonetheless, Inês does not agree entirely with this statement. She believes that it is not a matter of saving, but rather of identifying and encouraging skills and talents that students themselves already have, without being aware of them. When we speak about results, her response is immediate: “(...) our job is to show possibilities, not impose them on students. I can’t express it in figures. It is impossible to quantify desires or the feeling you get when you finished a task, when a student at risk changes his attitude towards school, because he now understands that what he is learning can make a difference in someone’s life”.

But Inês does not just devote herself to changing the methods of Portuguese teaching and the lives of her students on a daily basis. As a way of establishing the project, she founded Educafrica, a NGDO which enables the aggregation of all projects, their execution in different schools and easier creation of partnerships in Portugal and in Africa. Educafrica provides her a flexibility that she would not have without this project. She establishes partnerships with associations and local schools, receives donations and purchases material for projects by means that are cheaper and quicker than in schools.

Simply put, when students develop a solution, it is implemented in Africa and training is provided to the teachers of local tabancas (villages), an excellent means of information to allow the replication of solutions. In the end, Inês returns with feedback to carry out changes or to make the handbook/video of the execution of the prototype, which will enable anyone across the world to replicate the concept.

The projects

Inês turns to companies like Lipor or Superbock, or asks for the support of the Bissau Chamber of Commerce and Industry, to enable the execution of projects. The support that entities give to this teacher, from the donation of solar panels or components, technical assistance and sustainability assurance, transportation and logistics, make the project happen.

Uma Gota de Luz (A drop of light)

It is one of the projects that were implemented in Guinea-Bissau for the first time in 2014, as a result of the need to provide lighting to houses in Guinea-Bissau without using any connecting wire. It is based on the reuse of water bottles (waste) for the construction of solar-powered light bulbs. Due to weather conditions, intense heat and significant solar radiation throughout the day, structures are enclosed, windowless or have few openings, to prevent heat from entering, which means that direct light is non-existent and the space is likely to cause domestic accidents, such as burning while cooking meals in a fire.

This project was implemented in four tabancas (villages) in Guinea-Bissau, Cubampor, São Domingos, Elalab, Canchungo, and Ingoré, covering a population of about 30,000. 10 training sessions were provided to inhabitants for its implementation. Educafrica had a permanent worker on the field in charge of monitoring and maintaining bulbs installed. The solution has also been adopted in Portugal, where solar-powered light bulbs have been installed in shelters to support crop fields.

África 2Eco

Implemented in Mozambique, this project is broadly aimed at recovering municipal waste, by viewing it as resources, and donating a plastic recycling machine to communities. Within this scope, schools deal with issues related to plastic and develop campaigns for the reduction, sorting, reuse and recycling of that type of waste.

This environmental awareness campaign was brought to Maputo, where schools receive awareness-raising activities and students are awarded the badge of “Environmental Agents”, acting as a means to inform the remaining community. They raise awareness for the collection of plastic waste, which is taken away to be recycled into spinning tops, tiles, drink coasters, among others. Machines are taken to a school once a week, so that all schools in the region (46 public schools) can benefit from the awareness campaign during the academic year. The field team operates autonomously and will reach three tons of transformed and recycled plastic this month. Three tons that never reached the Indian Ocean.

About the acknowledgement of the profession, ranked among the three professions in which the Portuguese people trust the most, but the least recommend to their children as a career, Inês mentions that “parents and guardians trust teachers”, but she points out some reasons for this disparity: “constant mobility of teachers, and subsequent professional instability, make it so that students are less and less interested in entering this profession. However, she has a positive view on the quality of education and the teaching staff: “there are currently excellent projects in schools. You can say that the 10 finalists, with varied projects, represent the fine quality that schools offer in terms of initiatives”.

Now, basically one month after her acknowledgement, Inês can put everything into perspective and ponder about what this application brought into her life.

“I felt that years of work were being acknowledged and that acknowledgement motivates us to go on.”

After being initially incredulous with her inclusion among the finalists, the teacher feels that the outcome of such a nomination is always the best reward for the appreciation of a profession that is worthy of such an honour.