Living Well To Learn Well

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Chineme Ugbor is a Founding Partner and Director of Linden Global Learning Support Services, a Berlin-based organization that provides educational and mental health services to international schools and students around the world. She is also the Cofounder of Girls Gearing Up International Leadership Academy. A passionate coach and entrepreneur, Chineme’s experiences range from coordinating workshops in war-torn countries in eastern Africa to running programs for young people previously caught up in the juvenile justice system in the US.

In an interview we chat about the importance of wellbeing in education, widening opportunity gaps and hear her vision for schools of the future.

DWIH: Hi, Chineme Ugbor. Thanks for taking time to chat with us. Excited to hear your thoughts, so let’s hop in. Tell us about your work and what specifically you have seen emerge in the field of education in the past year.

Ugbor: Thank you so much for the opportunity! I am the co-founder and director of Linden Global Learning Support Services based in Berlin, Germany, and my wonderful co-director is Dr Christina Limbird. We are currently Europe’s only comprehensive student support agency for international schools around the world. We started Linden because we wanted to expand the range of support services that international schools offered struggling learners and families. We help international schools by connecting students and teachers with the support they need wherever they are in the world. Our team includes pediatric occupational therapists, speech therapists, learning support and autism specialists, mental health counselors, and school psychologists. We currently have 45 specialists on our team representing 16 different nationalities who speak 17 languages. Our vision is really to see a world where diverse global learners can thrive and reach their full potential, whatever it takes.

The pandemic has been quite challenging for so many of our students as well as educators. We have seen various permutations of lockdown. Teachers have had to juggle learning new technologies remotely while trying to maintain strong relationships with their students, school directors have had to ensure that schools reopen safely, and students have felt quite disoriented by all disruptions and changes.

Chineme Ugbor

At the same time, we have also seen a rise in innovative online educational services, resources, professional development around digital literacy, and various edtech initiatives for schools. We are also seeing an increased need for counseling and mental health support for students and educators. Despite the various permutations of lockdown, schools have been able to adjust and take on feedback from students and parents. Many schools are now seeing moving online is a necessity.

At Linden, we were determined to continue meeting the needs of our students and moved all our educational and therapeutic services online, including psychoeducational assessments – something we always thought could only be done in person.

To give an illustrative example, we worked with a school in France struggling at the beginning of the pandemic. Many of the teachers didn’t even have email addresses. They hired us in June last year to provide training on effective online teaching and later on asked us to provide both remote classroom teachers and then even “edutainment” for their younger students who needed more creative input. We were able to bring together jugglers, illustrators, Caribbean storytellers and yoga teachers to their online classrooms. I think this “out-of-the-box” thinking would not have occurred were it not for the pandemic. So I am hopeful that we will continue to reflect and rethink how we do schools and find innovative ways to enliven education and expand access to support for all students around the world.

Keys to Success

DWIH: As an expert in education, can you tell us the key factors you’ve found to make remote learning effective?

 Ugbor: I must say we continue to be impressed and inspired by the way educators and students have adjusted to all the changes and disruptions brought on by the pandemic. It’s been a huge learning curve for everyone.

We found so many factors to be essential in making online teaching effective but if I were to boil it down, I would say two things:

  • That the teachers/support staff wellbeing is a huge factor. The fear of the virus spreading, health concerns, increased stress from disruptions, competing demands, isolation and the use of new technologies can affect the mental health, well-being and job performance of school staff. In order to make online teaching effective, schools not only need to provide educators and support staff with ongoing technological support and digital pedagogical skills but also mental health support. Teachers are role models in so many ways and if the teachers are doing well, the students will benefit. We have found teachers incredibly grateful for, and in need of mental health booster sessions with professional counselors. Some of the schools we work with have had enough insight and compassion to allow us to offer mental health counseling/ coaching for any staff in need of help. On more than one occasion, I know this has literally saved lives. School leaders can also find creative ways to engage and build trust in virtual environments. At Linden, we held  “Motivation Mondays” – a weekly gathering for our team to check in with each other, share best practice and celebrate achievements.
  • Secondly, we found ourselves with a new motto: anything you or an educator or therapist can do in real life, can be done online – with a lot of creativity … and a good internet connection. That means, we ask counselors or teachers “What are the MOST important parts of what you do in your “craft”. We get them to write that down, then creatively look for ways they can do those things online. When educators remember what is MOST important to them in teaching (such as connecting with students, inspiring new ideas, showing they care, making learning fun, or being a great listener), they can always find ways to bring that to life on line. The teachers feel so much more confident doing their remote work when they realize that their WHY hasn’t changed. Just the HOW a little bit.

Tips for Effective Online Teaching From Linden Global Learning Support Services

  • Ensure that there is enough light in the room with the computer camera on eye level
  • Integrate movement and stretch breaks
  • Use visual schedules
  • Keep lesson plans fresh with fun animations and gifs that can be downloaded from the internet
  • Communicate clearly with parents
  • Find innovative ways to give feedback
  • Make the most of household items during lessons

On Equity

DWIH: The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the opportunity gaps that exist for students with disabilities, poor students, migrant students and students of color. Regarding equity and access, what advice do you have for educators and administrators for right now and for the future?

Ugbor: COVID-19 has in so many ways widened the opportunity gap and inequalities that already exist for so many students so it is so important to intervene and find innovative ways to reach out to support vulnerable students. The pandemic has also shown us that telehealth can expand children’s access to the support they need. Teletherapy has boomed over the past year and practitioners are experiencing a massive growth since the pandemic. Now is a great time for educators and support staff to expand their networks in order for students to stay engaged and thrive in an online setting.

I hope that teachers and support staff can consider their role in creating a network of community-based and remote learning support services for all students. Knowing who is, and who is not providing best practice in your community and virtually is so important.

I think it is clear to most educators that we will likely never go back to “normal”.  Schools and students will continue to use remote learning to extend access to quality instruction (e.g., special courses, additional languages, etc.). In our online girls leadership academies, we see every week how poor internet connections detract from the learning opportunities for our girls in certain countries with poor infrastructure. It’s something we have always known of course, but seeing every week how the girls in Europe and the US are so much better able to access content and participate is heartbreaking. One of our aims this year is to even the playing field by providing data boxes and tech equipment to help students in those schools be able to participate equally in our leadership academies.

So to answer your question, my biggest piece of advice would be for us to help extend tech and strong internet access to schools and homes in as many corners of the planet that we can. If we don’t, we are in danger of leaving even more brilliant future scientists, writers, artists, innovators, tech geniuses and legal minds behind.

A Progressive Vision

DWIH: The pandemic has been called “The Great Reset.” If given the opportunity to envision a new kind of schools and education systems, what would you hope to see?

 The pandemic has been the Great Reset but I also think it has been the “Great Exacerbator” of inequalities. We have a long way to go to ensure that the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 on Education is realized. The SDG Framework for Action emphasizes the importance of  inclusion and equity, but schools around the world still fall far behind when it comes to providing for their students special learning and mental health needs. Whereas approximately 15 percent of school-aged children have a learning difficulty or social emotional challenge, only 1 out of 10 schools say that they have the capacity or resources to support them.

This is a time for reflection that moves us from empathy to action. I believe we must continue to create a world where diverse learners, not just neurotypical children, can thrive and reach their full potential. I recently saw a wonderful post that read, if 1 in 20 children has a disability, that gives 19 kids a daily opportunity to learn about collaboration, inclusion, diversity and friendship!

I also hope to see a world where anti-racism, diversity and inclusion training remains on the schools agenda. At Linden, we launched a series of DEI workshops and have been so encouraged to see so many schools and universities actively engaging in this topic. Many schools have started reevaluating their staff recruitment practices, organizational culture and ways to diversify their curricula –  there is much to be done. DEI is really about having a deeper understanding and appreciation of all humanity. I hope every learning environment in the future would be a place where every students’ identity and heritage is truly affirmed and celebrated. This can advance group learning and foster more inclusive and equitable classrooms and ultimately a better world.

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