Connecting Classrooms across Continents

Connecting Classrooms across Continents

Mar 22, 2021

Undoubtedly this past year has been a rollercoaster ride for teachers. We have worked hard to ensure our pupils are making good progress either online or in their keyworker bubbles in school and we have cared about their mental health, their engagement and their return to the classroom. Testing has become associated with lateral flow devices in addition to exam scripts and wearing masks is no longer just related to drama or art.

These are challenging times if you are a teacher. From morning briefings to the evening twilights sometimes it’s difficult to catch your breath and consider the world beyond the classroom walls. However, our volunteer writer, Meryl Batchelder, would encourage you take a step away from your hectic routine, to grasp an extraordinary opportunity for promoting global citizenship and sustainable development in your school and to embark on a British Council and FCDO Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning project.

(Photos all courtesy of Meryl Batchelder)

Connecting Classrooms across Continents

Twelve years ago, at the ripe old age of 40 and much against the advice of my mother, I trained to be a teacher. My comfort zone became my classroom (which is actually a lab as I teach science) and I’ve never looked back. I have had some incredible times with my pupils including winning national competitions, leading fieldwork expeditions and media appearances relating to our work on environmental education. But the most incredible experience has been a recent British Council and FCDO-funded Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning project which, just before the UK locked down in March 2020, took me thousands of miles away from my science lab. Although admittedly a novice at international teacher collaboration, my experience may help likeminded teachers take a similar jump into the unknown. 

Have an open mind 

I wasn’t particularly looking for adventure but chance meeting with an education development advisor from the local development education centre (DEC) planted a small seed in my head. I looked into the Connecting Classrooms through Global Learning programme and it didn’t appear too daunting.

So, in early 2019 I started the process by choosing a country which I thought would be interesting to connect with. I am well travelled but had never been to Africa and wanted somewhere with fascinating history and geography, had a climate which was not too hot and not too cold (to quote Goldilocks), was safe enough (according to the FCO) and slightly off the beaten track but not overwhelmingly different. It was an easy choice to make; Addis Ababa in Ethiopia ticked all my boxes. 

Share your passion

The next decision to make was the project theme. It’s a good idea to choose a topic that you are really enthusiastic about. The British Council and FCDO are very flexible but require links to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs or Global Goals). There have been projects on storytelling, rivers, gender equality, biodiversity, recycling and upcycling to name but a few. I chose to focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Maths) alongside SDG6 - Clean Water, and SDG7 - Clean Energy which both link to SDG13 - Climate Action. Using the Practical Action challenges on Ditch the Dirt and Wind Power made the logistics of planning pupil investigations in both the UK and Ethiopia relatively stress-free. This was an opportunity to share good practice, raise awareness of environmental education and embrace global citizenship. 

Communication is key

Once my head teacher had given the project her blessing I set up a local cluster by sending an email to all the other head teachers in the area. Within a fortnight six schools had replied and I had a willing volunteer from each.  We carried out a self-assessment on global learning to decide which parts of the programme would benefit our curriculum requirements the most. Then I was in a position to contact the Connecting Classrooms team and submitted a request for possible partnership schools in Addis. They responded quickly with six schools – spanning primary and secondary which matched well with our six schools in Northumberland.  The British Council in the UK provide advice and I remained in regular communication with my counterpart, the lead teacher of the Ethiopian team, and the Programme and Partnership Manager from the British Council in Ethiopia. 

Dot the Is and cross the Ts

Once the teachers and schools were selected I submitted the main application. It took a while to collate information from all the schools and to provide a cost breakdown but it wasn’t too onerous. We received confirmation pretty quickly that our funding had been approved. This covered reciprocal flights, accommodation, subsistence, local travel, visas, insurance, vaccinations, some resources and celebratory events. It is essential to keep careful records of any financial expenditure.  The British Council recommend that you organise the visas before booking flights or accommodation as it can take several weeks for overseas teachers to gain a UK visa. One essential ‘i’ that needs dotting is to ensure your team has adequate insurance. 

Don’t sweat the small stuff

All project leads in the UK are invited to a CPD course over two days. In addition to some invaluable advice on how to manage the finance, safety and cultural aspects there were sessions on how to incorporate global citizenship and the SDGs into the project. It became obvious that with so many strands to a successful collaboration the lead coordinator should delegate what they can – from collating teaching resources or preparing first aid equipment to researching accommodation options, each team member can be responsible for something.  

At my CPD session I met some incredible teachers with a huge amount of experience in international exchanges. One inspiring head teacher introduced the concept of a ‘floor book’ – a large memory book for each participating school to create as their project progressed. Our trip was just a week away and that night I lay awake worrying about how to get twelve floor books and then how to transport them to Ethiopia. After a couple of sleepless hours I realised the books were just an optional extra, not an essential part of the project but, if I ever do another exchange, I’ll put them on the list!

Prepare for the unexpected 

The Ethiopian teachers visited Northumberland in November 2019 and stayed in an AirB&B. They spent time in all the schools and they taught children about Ethiopia - answering a plethora of questions from our pupils. I led short workshops so everyone in the partnership understood the practical STEAM investigations we were undertaking. We also had an evening CPD session with our local DEC on teaching about the Global Goals and global citizenship. 

The little free time we had was spent entertaining the guest teachers in our homes, sightseeing and visiting a local wind farm which was a huge success. There was also an emergency hospital visit for one of the Ethiopian teachers resulting in the fitting of a pacemaker. He was back in school within two days but the doctors suggested that the visit to the UK and our quick response saved his life. 

Other plans might also need to be flexible; a month before the UK teachers were due to travel the airline cancelled and rearranged our international flights to really inconvenient times including a 22-hour stopover in Heathrow and a day less in Ethiopia. Using a travel agent may be slightly more expensive but a quick call meant our flights could be changed again to something more acceptable. 

Find the similarities 

Our reciprocal visit to Addis took place in February 2020. We were welcomed to Ethiopia with incredible warmth, were invited into our partner's homes and were bowled over by their kindness. We visited their schools and discussed environmental issues with hundreds of eager students. We saw the results of their wind turbine and water filtration projects, the children were delighted to see photos of our pupils doing the same STEAM challenges (take a look at the photos below of the wind turbine projects in Addis [left] and here in Tynedale [right]). All of the schools had adopted the SDGs into their teaching and were proudly displaying posters and displays on the Global Goals. Some had even set up EcoClubs for their students, initiated community projects to clean up local rivers and started school gardens. 


This was a work trip, the days were long but we had a little time for shopping and even visited the three-million-year-old skeleton of Lucy, known as ‘Dinkinesh’, which means ‘you are marvellous’ in the Amharic language.  Every evening as we relaxed in our hotel we reflected what we had seen in each school, there was always plenty to talk about but overwhelmingly the similarities outnumbered any differences. 

Be resourceful

If you are teaching in schools overseas sometimes you need to be inventively resourceful. Although our partner schools had some reasonable equipment many rural schools may not have paper supplies, chalk boards or electricity. My main challenge was that, one morning in Addis, the British Council organised a session for 50 local head teachers to encourage them to sign up for Connecting Classrooms and asked me (most politely) if we would be involved. Three UK teachers and three teachers from our Ethiopian partner schools gave a panel session with questions from the chair and then Q&A from the audience. Following the panel discussion I gave a CPD session on how to incorporate the SDGs into lessons. We received some really positive feedback and the head of the British Council in Ethiopia asked to thank me in person which was quite an honour.  It was just another step outside of my comfort zone but one that I won’t forget. 

Celebrate your achievements

The impact of our collaboration had been considerable; from sharing the Global Goals with thousands of pupils across twelve schools and encouraging them the use of STEAM to tackle global issues to even saving a life. Connecting Classrooms has been the most incredible and rewarding teaching experience in my teaching career. We have become firm friends with our partner teachers in addition to sharing best practice, exchanging ideas on education and learning about each others’ countries and culture. For our pupils, both in Addis and in Northumberland, the development of relationships with schools on another continent has been hugely worthwhile - the environmental themes cross borders and have prompted plenty of discussion on global citizenship. 

Weigh up the benefits

As someone who is passionate about sustainability, I really struggled with the environmental impact of the flights for the twelve teachers in our partnership. Flying contributes to climate change but was an essential part of our reciprocal visits. To counteract this I donated over and above the value of carbon offsetting the flights to Practical Action as our STEAM challenges were based on their resources. 

A second issue was that we travelled in February 2020, just as COVID-19 was starting to be considered as a global pandemic and I recognise that international flights exacerbate the spread of disease. Global travel may have increased restrictions in the future but I sincerely hope that teachers can continue with educational exchanges as they provide invaluable opportunity to make us realise the true meaning of ‘global citizenship’ and every Connecting Classrooms project will be a uniquely rewarding experience to those involved. Whilst we wait for restrictions to be lifted you can still apply for British Council and FCDO funding and start working virtually with your partner schools. 

After completing our initial projects the Addis-Tynedale team is very much still in contact. During lockdown I worked with my Ethiopian colleagues on two webinars with teachers across West Africa and have had several UK group catch-up meetings when social distancing rules permit. We have just used some of our funding to purchase water testing equipment for all schools relating to a new project on SDG6 and our local rivers which encourages our pupils to take action to improve their catchment area. We are planning to work together on the inspirational Rivers of the World project.  The beauty of a Connecting Classrooms project, like the rivers we will be studying, is that there is no fixed course to follow, but once the ideas start to flow the journey can be incredible. 


Taking this further

Connecting Classrooms

Practical Action STEM Challenges

World’s Largest Lesson (for the SDGs)

Rivers of the World


The Lure of the Honey Bird, The Storytellers of Ethiopia by Elizabeth Laird

Connecting Classrooms across Continents