Written by: Funda Demir, Education Manager and Ayşen Güven, Director of Education, British Council Turkey

Since 2019, we have been collaborating with the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) and the Sabanci Foundation in Turkey on the national capacity-building project, English Together. English Together focuses on establishing Professional Development Communities (PDCs) to enable a supportive and sustainable network for English language teachers across the country. The project employs a community-based approach, where teachers from the same geographic area meet to discuss various teaching-related topics based on their needs and interests. To date, we have trained 2,000 PDC facilitators from all 81 provinces in Turkey. These facilitators have engaged with over 25,000 teachers. This model of professional development empowers teachers to reflect on their teaching practices, explore common problems and identify appropriate solutions. These positive changes directly impact their classroom practice and ultimately student learning outcomes.

On the morning of 6 February 2023, we woke to the news of a devastating earthquake striking the southeast of Turkey. As we tried to comprehend the magnitude of this event, we were informed that MoNE had declared school closures across the region. Recognising that many of our facilitators and the teachers they engage with through English Together would be directly affected, we promptly took action. We collaborated with the MoNE team and agreed to adjust plans in line with the national mourning period. Considering the earthquake's scale and its impact on our project participants living in affected cities, we made the quick decision to cancel training for the foreseeable future. 

We recognised the need to focus purely on people and not worry about project activities. This was essential in understanding the scope and impact of the disaster and the trauma people were experiencing. Reaching out to the ministry and project partners, individual teachers, and offering our support was our absolute priority. Throughout this challenging period, we prioritised our teachers’ wellbeing, allowing them to focus on relief support. Out of the 1,400 PDC facilitators we collaborated with 300 that resided in the affected areas. 

As the country began its recovery, online engagement with the network of teachers resumed gradually, acknowledging the needs of both teachers and their learners. In September 2023, face-to-face activities recommenced following consultations with MoNE, initiating PDC meetings across 70 provinces, and then to 77 provinces with the remaining four still going through major recovery. Re-establishing these meetings provided teachers with a platform not only to return to a focus on their professional development but also, more importantly, to extend mutual support during their recovery from the crisis. Following the earthquake, more than 240,000 students were relocated to schools across Turkey, while approximately four million still reside in the eleven affected cities. Many of our PDC facilitators have students in their classrooms from these affected areas. As we resumed our project activities, we ensured the inclusion of wellbeing content in our online support programme.

We became aware not only of the role that our project could directly play at supporting this large network of facilitators through the crisis, but also some positive unintended outcomes. We discovered that the communication channels of the PDC groups were extensively used following the earthquake to identify those in need and provide relief. Additionally, the network of PDC facilitators was mobilised, calling upon our teachers to serve as translators as many international teams joined the rescue effort. 

One of our PDC facilitators describes how teachers in the Professional Development Communities were supporting each other and relief activities in the region: 

‘As the coordinator for Gaziantep province during that time, I personally witnessed the communication and solidarity among the teachers working in the region. Through WhatsApp groups set up within the project, we could ask all English language teachers in the area, 'Are you all right, do you need anything?' But it wasn't only our teachers actively involved in this. Ministry staff from provincial and district offices stood by our side. They used these groups to communicate needs at their assembly points and where to collect incoming aid parcels. When foreign search and rescue teams arrived in our region, the primary community they called for help was ours, the PDC communities. Before their arrival, staff from the provincial Ministry office reached out, seeking volunteer translators. Although the British Council and the Ministry of National Education might have initially aimed to establish a strictly professional development community with this project, these communities unexpectedly proved to be a true collective during the country's most trying times.’