Minnesota teachers bring training to rural Bolivia

Jackie Smith and Debbie Hadas spend their summers like most educators—teaching and participating in professional development opportunities. But unlike most other educators, for the last five years Smith and Hadas’ professional development classes have been taking place in rural Bolivia.

Smith and Hadas work with the nonprofit organization Mano a Mano, whose mission is to create partnerships with impoverished Bolivian communities that improve health and increase economic well-being. They spend about two-and-a-half weeks in Bolivia each summer, teaching the teachers and learning from them as well.

Smith is an instructional coach in St. Paul. Hadas is now retired from her English language learner teaching position in Apple Valley.

“About six years ago, a group of teachers who were connected through church and other organizations were asked to put together a professional development session for teachers in the rural communities of Bolivia,” said Smith. “Teachers in rural Bolivia had few opportunities for professional growth.”

Smith and Hadas, along with a few others, got to work planning lessons.

“We had to come up with teaching strategies that could be easily shared and that would require minimal resources,” said Smith.

The group has developed model large-group reading lessons and presentations for the teachers, as well as math games that increased student engagement using accessible items like dice or playing cards.
“We focus on simple tools for teachers to differentiate in their classroom,” Smith said.

Each year, Smith and Hadas say they are able to better prepare for the trip and plan lessons that will meet the needs of the teachers in these communities, the challenges they face and the profound needs of their students.

“The teachers are extremely receptive to the learning and have made it their own,” Smith said. “We’ve returned to the places we’ve gone and have seen how they modified the strategies to suit their students and their environment.”

And the learning is not just a one-way street.

“We’re learning from them too,” said Hadas. “We see teachers that don’t have the material resources American teachers have, but they are no less committed to their students.”

“We’ve learned a lot over the last five years about the education system in Bolivia and how we can match our lessons to fit into their system,” Smith said. “It’s not a lot of time to be there. You have to have everything prepared before you go. It’s not like you can make copies when you get there.”

The first day of the trip includes visiting with the community and teachers first to see what they need most and what challenges they face. 

The next two days serve as the professional development workshop or conference.

“We always do it in cooperation with the local teachers to make it work for them,” said Smith.

After the conference is over, the U.S. teachers are able to travel with the Mano a Mano staff, visit sights throughout the country and see some of the other work the nonprofit is doing.

According to its website, Mano a Mano has built more than 300 infrastructure projects throughout Bolivia—from clinics and schools to roads and water reservoirs.

“It’s a beautiful country,” said Hadas. “People are warm and friendly.”

But it’s not a vacation, says Smith.

“We come home tired,” she said. “But we come home engaged and invigorated. It’s very personally empowering to work in a peer relationship. It’s really a professional exchange for me.”

And Smith has been able to bring what she learns from her peers in Bolivia into her classroom in St. Paul.

“There is such a sense of community there,” she said. “When you start a meeting, everyone is going to get up and greet each other. There is something special about learning about their culture. And as a teacher, I then want to give my kids time to be together as a community and share in their cultures.”

Each year, Smith and Hadas reach out to other educators to join them, but it’s not always easy. They try to get four educators to come along, and invite anyone else who is interested to help with child care or technology.

“Funding has always been a challenge,” Smith said. “And you have to find teachers willing to give up two-and-a-half weeks of their summer and potentially pay for it. We always have 10-15 people who want to go, but then it whittles down.”

The organization, as well as Smith and Hadas themselves, works to get donations and fundraise to help offset the costs. But they hope to spread the word about their efforts to receive more funding, as well as more interested participants.

“My dream would be to have an application process and then offer them a full scholarship,” Smith said.

To learn more about Mano a Mano and their work in Bolivia, go to 

To learn more about the teacher professional development program, email the organization at manoamano@manoamano.org.