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Teachers Know Best: Guiding teachers of refugees with language- and context-specific content

Translators without Borders will use innovative language and community tools to overcome language barriers to educating refugees in Greece.

Photo of Rebecca Petras

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What problem does your innovation solve?

The Greek government’s goal to educate 20,000 refugee children is problematic; the 2,500 who do attend are woefully underserved. The language barrier is an issue in many ways: Illiteracy -Greek teachers are ill-equipped to teach children who may not read or write; Greek as a second language (GSL) - GSL teachers and content are scarce; language of instruction and communication - teachers have little background or knowledge of mother tongue languages and have limited access to language assistance.

Explain your innovation.

TWB’s Teachers Know Best pilot addresses the language barrier in refugee education by harnessing a global network of language professionals to support teachers in Greece with content and professional assistance, serving them as they guide and encourage the refugee children in their classrooms. The INEE minimum standards state that learning content, materials and instruction should be provided in the language(s) of the learners. With its deep experience in language, and community collaboration, TWB applies this standard, equipping and supporting teachers in three areas: Educational content: TWB will work with content providers to ensure that teachers have appropriate Greek and mother tongue educational materials and teachers’ notes, available openly and electronically. Collective teacher communities: TWB will build support communities for teachers to work together, share content and good practice, discuss gaps in materials, and overcome challenges. The communities will include language professionals to support teachers in language issues and encourage sharing of locally produced, in-language content. Direct support for teachers: TWB will set up a system to give teachers access to specialized interpreters via phone and video conference, allowing teachers to get individualized support for specific language issues. The pilot will be tested with local partners in Greece. After refinement, TWB will advocate for its integration within the Education of Refugees Program.

Who benefits?

The pilot is small scale: approximately 10 teachers and 25 children, ages 6 - 15. Greek potential is much higher: 500 teachers and 2,500+ refugee children (according to government numbers); European reach in the thousands. The teachers in the initial pilot will work integrally with language teams locally and internationally, creating in-language content that can be shared through the TWB teacher – language community, and refined for larger roll out. The teachers also will get immediate ongoing support from interpreters. The students will benefit with language assistance in the form of materials and better educated and supported teachers. TWB believes this benefit will increase integration in the classroom and, ultimately, more attendance. Success of the pilot will be measured by amount of contextualized content available, interaction in the teacher – language community, and percent of fulfilled requests for language support.

How is your innovation unique?

TWB does not believe there is a similar program in refugee response that pairs teachers of refugee children with language professionals to address the significant language barrier evidenced in Greece and beyond, despite the fact that evidence repeatedly shows lack of content to support and integrate refugee children in classrooms, and lack of guidance for teachers. TWB is deeply involved with the refugee response in Greece and with mother tongue language, and has found no common tools to overcome language barriers. There are some language tool providers with which TWB may partner, including Tarjiml.y , ETCall, Get Across (all for remote interpreting); Lexica, The Refugee Phrasebook, Refugee Communication Boards (for phrasebooks and glossaries); and, METAdrasi (specifically supports Greek language). Content providers locally may include Refucomm. TWB is experienced in bringing diverse tools together to create an overall language solution.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

We will be asking and attempting to answer a number of key questions; a full measurement and evaluation program will accompany the pilot to ensure refinement based on conclusions. Some key questions: How will language support to teachers impact children’s attendance and performance in schools? Is connectivity good enough to allow teachers this sort of support? Are teachers tech savvy enough to make best use of the tools we develop? Will teachers stay engaged and motivated throughout the pilot? What limitations will be imposed by government?

Tell us more about you.

Translators without Borders provides vital knowledge in underserved languages through diverse services for humanitarians and affected people. Since registration in 2011 in the US (registration in Kenya, 2012), TWB has translated 45 million words for NGOs in more than 190 language pairs working with 4,000+ professional translators. The TWB Words of Relief crisis relief service was the first innovation of its kind, developed in 2013, and deployed in many crises, including in Greece since 2015.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Natural disaster
  • Prolonged displacement
  • Other (please specify in next question)

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

The pilot will be implemented in Athens, Patras or Thessaloniki, in one or two schools supporting approximately 10 teachers and 25 refugee students. The school(s) will be near a refugee camp; TWB also will have access to NGOs within the camp to inform students and parents of the pilot program. TWB is building on-the-ground partners to choose the right school and/or camp and upon its in-camp experiences with Save the Children to choose the best location. UNICEF also will assist with selection.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

The Teacher Knows Best program will have the most impact where schools are attempting to integrate refugee children into schools, or where teachers are brought in to refugee settings (such as camps) to provide education to 6 – 15 year old children. Greece is one example of this environment; there are 97 schools within Greece supporting refugee children, and the goal is to expand to those schools. Other locations include Italy, the Balkans and refugee settings in Nigeria, Tanzania and Kenya.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • Yes, for more than one year.

In-country Networks

TWB has responded to the refugee crisis in Greece since 2015, with more than 18 international and local partners and funding from Start Network, Save the Children and the DfID-funded Mixed Migration Platform. TWB has provided language support in Arabic, Farsi, Dari, Greek, Urdu, Pashto, Kurmanji, Sorani and more, as needed by refugees and partners. Additional work includes language training for partner staff, refugees, and cultural mediators; interpreter working group; and, interpreter roster.

Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for more than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

TWB provides language solutions for partners worldwide, focusing on crisis, health, education and human rights. Improved mother tongue education content and instruction is a 3-year goal for TWB. Many current partners span the humanitarian and education sectors, including Save the Children, UNICEF and StoryWeaver. TWB’s potential Greek partner, Hellenic Cultural Centre, has strong ties with teachers. Another possible partner, Team to Teach, has strong expertise in refugee education beyond Greece.

Innovation Maturity

  • Early Stage Innovation: I am exploring my innovation, refining, researching, and gathering inspiration.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

TWB is registered in the US, Kenya, and Ireland. TWB has a team in Greece, and runs remote teams for Middle East, Asia and Africa.


How has your Idea changed based on feedback?

In the feedback phase, TWB ran a prototype to simulate the project, with teachers and translators recruited, and devised a feedback survey for teachers and experts. We learned the following: Collaboration tool and tech platform must fit into current routine of teachers (switched to Facebook and Moodle). All communications must be in Greek (switched to Greek moderator). Formatting and design may be issues (will use in-kind graphic design donor). Universities will be good recruitment sources.

Who will implement this Idea?

TWB will project manage the pilot, the technical platforms, measurement activities, refinement and expansion. TWB will hire a local Greek-speaking moderator/project manager, supported by the head of development (remotely), a measurement staff person (remotely), and an intern (in Greece). A local partner, possibly Hellenic Cultural Centre, will handle teacher recruitment and mobilization with one staff person. An international organization (possibly UNICEF) will build the connection with the Ministry of Education and help implement at other Greek sites. Team to Teach will partner beyond Greece.

What challenges do your end-users face? (1) What is the biggest challenge that your end-users face on a day-to-day, individual level? (2) What is the biggest systems-level challenge that affects your end-users?

The main end-users are teachers. They face many challenges, from budgetary constraints to low wages to absenteeism among students. Many of these challenges were expressed by the teachers who participated in the one-week prototype TWB ran in July. Teachers Know Best recognizes these challenges and addresses two specific issues: Access to learning resources and materials that benefit refugee students, and improving individual and overall cultural awareness and understanding of their refugee students. The program is designed as a light touch that does not increase the stress among the teachers. Teachers choose to participate on their terms. The hope is that by addressing these direct issues, teachers will be less burdened and, perhaps, other challenges, such as absenteeism, will be improved.

How is your organization considering sustainable growth in order to continue making an impact over time?

In its first seven years, TWB has evolved from a start-up volunteer organization to a growing international non-profit organization with a sustainable financial model. This evolution was made possible by a combination of grant funding to support specific programs, restricted infrastructure funding, unrestricted funding from supporters and, beginning one year ago, a pay-for-service model for major non-profit partners. Meanwhile, TWB has continued to grow its volunteer community, a critical resource without which TWB would not be able to grow, and has many in-kind donation supporters.

Tell us about your vision for this project: (1) share one sentence about the impact that you would like to see from this project in five years and (2) what is the biggest question/hurdle you need to address to get there?

How do we affect long-term change through language? That question led TWB to focus on mother-tongue education as one of its main programs within its TWB 2020 Program Strategy. Teachers Know Best is the first project within that strategy to be fully designed. Impact: By 2020, TWB envisions all teachers of refugee children in Greece have access to the project and it has spread to other refugee communities, especially in major refugee locations in Italy, Nigeria and east Africa.

How do you currently measure (or plan to measure) outcomes for this project?

Translators without Borders will measure percentage increase in refugee children school attendance (within the pilot), exam results of refugee children; progress in learning will also be measured from teacher feedback and a comprehension study of students. Outputs include number of teachers and translators participating, number of interactions between teachers and translators/interpreters, content created during pilot and number of materials accessed by teachers outside of the project.

What is the timeline for your project Idea? What are the key steps for implementation in the next 1-3 years?

Year one is Launch: pilot in one part of Greece, including set up, partner establishment, tech platforms developed, measurable results for the teachers (and students) in the pilot, connections with MoE, and useful learning aids available to teachers beyond the pilot. Year two is Refine and Replicate: Involve new partners to expand in Greece and eastern Europe; increased funding. Year three is Sustain: Funding model for long-term growth in place, expansion to other locations, especially Africa.

My organization's operational budget for 2016 was:

  • Above $1,000,000 USD

How many of your team’s paid, full-time staff are currently based in the location where the beneficiaries of your proposed Idea live?

  • Under 5 paid, full-time staff

Is your organization registered in the country that you intend to implement your Idea in?

  • We are a registered entity, but not in the country in which we plan to implement our Idea.

How long have you and your colleagues been working on this Idea together?

  • Between 6 months and 1 year

What do you need the most support with for your innovation?

  • Business Development / Partnerships Support
  • Other Technical Expertise


Join the conversation:

Photo of Vanessa Sore


I think its great you intend on utilising universities as as recruitment source. I am interested to know if you have any other existing partnerships which will help the success of your organisation and market penetration?

Vanessa S

Photo of Rebecca Petras

Hi Vanessa,

I am very sorry for the late reply; I am wondering if you are still around! I just spent a month in Bangladesh working to set up a language and education program for the Rohingya refugees, so I am a bit behind! We do have a lot of partnerships, and we recognize we cannot advance as an organization without them. We also work with a number of major translation networks with access to 400,000 or more translators around the world. In terms of market penetration, the main goal is to work with education partners and international NGOs with strong education platforms who are working with national or local groups. Save the Children and UNICEF are two that are very important partners.
Thanks! Rebecca

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