In April, we are launching a new series of stories highlighting the achievements of our staff called World Learning Voices. Our first spotlight is on Leah Bitat, field director in Algeria. We hope to use this series to (re) introduce donors, journalists and general public to the inspiring people who work here.
Leah Bitat is currently the World Learning Field Director in Algeria, and has spent her career applying the values and practices behind inclusive education to institutions across the United States and internationally.
We caught up with her after she conducted a Universal Design for Learning workshop at the World Learning offices on March 16th.
Tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you to World Learning in Algeria.
I’m from Alaska, and I was an educational advocate for kids with disabilities. My first job was to help young people in the small town where I grew up with getting jobs after school. It was so hard to help these young people get jobs because throughout their whole educational career they were separated in a little special-ed group. It was hard to integrate them within the community because they had been educated apart from us.
I got to study inclusive education on the ground in Italy, and then I applied to Harvard graduate school and got my Masters in Risk and Prevention, how to build systems for kids who were dropping out. I met my husband who is Algerian — and Algerians can’t live in Alaska — so we stayed in Boston. I worked in alternative schools in Chelsea, which is a poor neighborhood in Boston.
We really wanted to go back to Algeria, and I found World Learning was trying to do projects on youth employment, which was a nice dovetail. World Learning is doing teacher training in Algeria, but we’re more so doing capacity building. We’re continuing to design programs to engage a diverse group. Algeria is a very diverse environment, and it has a broken education system, so I find that it’s almost like how I started my career — trying to get people into the job market, coming from an education system that doesn’t serve their needs.
What makes you passionate about working on all of these different levels of education?
I see education as a civil right. Kids spend so much of their time in school — you only go to the doctor when you’re sick, but you see a teacher every single day. I see education as being so impactful on children’s futures, and when it’s not done right, it can break a future. It’s never gotten enough attention; whether it’s in the U.S. or abroad, it always seems to be overlooked. It’s a really difficult profession to do right, and teachers really have to make it up by themselves as they go along, because internationally there are very few good teacher preparation programs.
“When [education is] not done right, it can break a future.”
What do you see as the biggest issues in your work on the ground in Algeria at the moment?
The biggest issues are lack of teacher training. During the ten years of terrorism that Algeria experienced, they specifically targeted teachers as intellectuals. Teachers were killed and the government dismantled the teacher training institutes — there are only three teacher training institutes left in the country. It snowballed from there, because they don’t have trained teachers in classrooms and students are just taught through memorization and recitation, which doesn’t serve the kids or their future.
On a day-to-day basis, what are your greatest challenges? What are the things that keep you going despite them?
The greatest challenge is the stagnant system — it’s a traumatized place. The civil war has been over for fifteen years, but people are still deeply traumatized. Most people, the powers that be, don’t want to hear about change. They just want to get by, and that’s frustrating. It’s a lot of, ‘No, you don’t understand, that can’t possibly work, this is Algeria.’ You hear that everywhere.
What keeps me going are the youth. There are really talented youth who were born during those terrorism years, but it’s almost as if it was that difficult beginning that made them into resilient, creative people. The staff that we have are really dynamic people — trilingual, very positive. They are some of the most positive trainers I’ve seen. The education system is broken but they still want to learn and create and do things, and they do it on their own.
When you think about all of your successes in the Algeria programs, is there one student of whom you’re especially proud?
Mohammad Riad Dadi. He just actually became one of our employees. I would say he is a World Learning success story. He applied to join CONTACT — the peace-building transformation exchange that we do at SIT. It was part of a project that we finished now. Riad spent three weeks at SIT, and he is very much a street kid from Ouargla. He used to talk about how much he was the toughest fighting kid in his part of Ouargla. When we met him, he was finishing his Master’s in Business Administration, and he applied to our peace building program, and did a great job in Vermont.
He went back, and implemented a program in Ouargla — a lot of people go back, but his was a really impactful program. He got local support to get a bus for his program, Languages are Fun to Learn, and organized his university friends to bring food and go out to the rural villages of their province and go into youth centers or schools and get kids excited about learning. They really enjoy it — what’s fun is to see these youths implementing their programs, and they’ve gotten a lot of buy-in from peers at their university. It’s the cool thing to do now, and they’re getting impact — they’re getting kids from these villages engaged in world languages. Now we just extended our career center in Ouargla, and he really wanted to give back. Now he’s thrown himself into being a career counselor coaching university students.
Do you have a personal philosophy that you use to approach your career and difficult situations you might come across?
Find what works, and do more of it. That’s what keeps me going and keeps me inspired. Sometimes I look like a hopeless optimist — I think I am, but what else are you going to do? Algeria’s a difficult place, and you’re not always going to have success. But when it does, you celebrate that.