Proactive teaching methods and technology have been introduced but there is still much work to do with teacher development and training vital.
Unesco's work benefits Sharjah education
SHARJAH // Two years have passed since Dr Christina Gitsaki stepped in to head the United Nations' educational efforts in the UAE, and in that time 220 Sharjah teachers have been retrained.
Her work is far from over as she must expand the project to take in more of the Sharjah Education Zone's 320 primary and secondary school English teachers and promote more research into education.
Dr Gitsaki is the third person to fill the position, created eight years ago, of running the UAE arm of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
There are 75 such Unesco academics around the world, who help countries develop their education systems. Continuous education for school, college and university teachers is part of this agenda and Dr Gitsaki, who is a specialist in teaching English as a second language, has done this by introducing innovative teaching methods and technology.
The creation of the position - funded by Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah - was an acknowledgement that Sharjah needed help to reform its education system and develop private schools.
Dr Gitsaki has also trained dozens of English teachers at the Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT).
"English really holds the key to these children's future," she said. "They need it to get into university and the level of teaching needs to be raised." When she arrived, she found that teachers were doggedly relying on textbooks.
"The teachers couldn't engage the students," she said. "There was little or no use of black or white boards to introduce more vocabulary, the teachers wouldn't bring resources to make the class more interesting and group work just meant that the weaker students would copy the work of the people who knew what to do."
And after eight months of training, the difference has been "day and night". "They were bringing worksheets that they'd prepared at home, constructing game-style activities. This was an overhaul reform."
Forty-nine teachers who were preparing students for the International English Language Testing System, which is used for university entry, were given three months' training. It included extending vocabulary and more detailed reading comprehension. In addition, a group of newly graduated Emirati infant school teachers have been trained in classroom technologies.
Both groups are now being assessed to see what difference the training has made to their teaching style.
Ahmad Bourini, the head of professional development at the Sharjah Education Zone, said the project's effect is already visible in classrooms, with teachers embracing technology and more creative teaching techniques.
Even before it started, he said, teachers were asking for this type of training. "We can see many of them are now feeling more comfortable with shifting towards a more modern approach to teaching, which was necessary."
During training with HCT's teaching staff, one area of research has been the educational value of social networks and online multimedia tools, capitalising on the popularity of websites such as Facebook.
Although many teachers were sceptical, most end up comfortable with tools like Xtranormal, which can be used to make animated films. "The students are using these tools anyway, so we should see how we can utilise them in a way where the students actually learn something."
With all that under way, Dr Natasha Ridge, the director of the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras Al Khaimah, said Dr Gitsaki's next step should be to reach beyond HCT.
"Christina has contributed a lot in terms of HCT and promoting education research in the UAE," she said. "But for the future, it would need to be something that wasn't institution-bound but cuts across all the federal institutions as currently, its impact is limited. It would be good to see her work stretch farther than Sharjah."