Priscilla Zelaya’s (B.A.E. ’11, M.Ed. ’12, CALS Ph.D. ’16) belief about education is rooted in collaboration and community partnership. She is the co-founder and COO of P4H Global in Haiti, which recently received the UNESCO-Hamdan Prize for Teacher Development. This biennially awarded prize rewards outstanding and innovative practices related to teachers so their lessons can be shared and spread. P4H Global is the largest teacher-training organization in Haiti. Their approach involves connecting, equipping and empowering local K-12 teachers via a three-year on-the-job pedagogy training program taught in their native Creole, transforming Haiti’s education system.

A Nicaraguan American enrolled in the Pro-Teach program, Zelaya was excited by the focus on working with others. “I think Pro-Teach was my first real insight into how to work collaboratively with other educators. The cohort environment was absolutely amazing. We learned from each other, worked together and got to see how this would be applied in life as a teacher.”

Photo courtesy of P4H Global

A Haitian teacher in an orange shirt with text in Haitian Creole. They are leaning over a desk and talking to other teachers who are also wearing orange shirts.

Zelaya and her co-founder, fellow EduGator Bertrhude Albert, Ph.D., were motivated to help Albert’s native Haiti after the devastation caused by the 2010 earthquake. During their first visit, they learned an important lesson: what Haitians need is partners who directly work with and in local communities after mutually identifying areas of need. “At the end of the week, they came to us and said, ‘Thanks for doing what you did, but you hurt our community more than you helped us,’ said Zelaya. “It came crashing down on us — the realization that we had never really asked what they needed in the first place.”

This valuable lesson led them to shift to a focus on sustainable development via education and skill sharing. What resulted is a community-driven, collaborative partnership that allows for the co-construction of knowledge all over Haiti. Starting with a focus group, education was quickly identified as an area of interest and need. This was serendipitous since Zelaya was working on her bachelor’s at the College of Education. “There are so many people in Haiti who would love to sit in a classroom learning all these theories and best practices like I was,” she said. She quickly realized that the approaches to education she was learning as a student would also benefit in-service Haitian teachers. “If there’s a way I can help re-package these things that I’m learning and help make it applicable to these communities in Haiti that would like to know this information, I want to do that.”

P4H Global now employs 40 Haitian teachers who were educated in and understand the classroom culture of Haiti. “We see Haitians as having so much value and knowledge. Their real-world understanding of their values and context brings so much value to their students — and to us.” 

Their three-year program equips teachers to move from a teacher-focused classroom to a student-focused classroom and to avoid corporal punishment. During the program, teachers take diagnostic assessments, receive classroom observation and personalized coaching, and are connected with other teachers via WhatsApp. “80% of teachers in Haiti don’t have any pre-service training. So a lot of teachers don’t have the background needed in order to understand how to teach well. So we step in,” said Zelaya. Since 2011, the three-year program has trained over 8,000 educators and 350,000 students in all ten of Haiti’s departments. What began with annual conferences for teachers has grown into a program that recruits university graduates from around Haiti and uses a train-the-trainer model with some of their program participants.

Photo courtesy of P4H Global

“Behavior change begins with knowledge change,” she said. 

But beyond improving classroom teachers’ knowledge, Zelaya and P4H are working to change the culture in Haiti to value teachers more. One way they’re doing this is by creating a National Teacher of the Year Award. Starting in 2021, one finalist from every department in Haiti is selected to compete for the national title. “They are valued professionals, and we want to celebrate them — and the profession,” she said.

Despite P4H’s international recognition, Zelaya is staying focused on their goals. “We want to reach more teachers in Haiti. We have the desire to reach 100% of teachers.” She also believes that their model can benefit teachers in other countries. “Haiti can serve as an example of how (the culture of) teaching can be transformed by putting teachers at the center.”

“At the end of the day, teachers are the motors of the school.”

A posed photograph of Bertrhude Albert, Ph.D. (left) and Priscilla Zelaya, Ph.D. (right) in UF doctoral regalia in the football stadium on campus. They are both smiling.

Bertrhude Albert, Ph.D. (left) and Priscilla Zelaya, Ph.D. (right)