This May Day (or Labour Day as we call it here) my thoughts
are with Malawian teachers and their struggles. In particular my thoughts are
with those teachers who defy the odds and make a difference in the lives of
their students and in their communities. I would like to share a few stories on these
In October 2012 I received a Facebook message from someone who introduced himself as James Mitengo, a Standard 4 teacher at Mpeni Junior Primary School in Thyolo. He was looking for opportunities to extend a training programme he had
developed on teaching using locally available resources, known in short as
Talular. On his own initiative, James had managed to train up to 2,000 teachers
in a number of districts in the southern region. He was looking to train more
teachers. Were there organisations that
could fund him to extend the trainings to more districts?
I did not know organisations that could offer the funding he
was looking for. But I could connect him to an online forum for teachers (Bwalo la Aphunzitsi
), where he could network with other teachers. He did not succeed
in getting the funding he was looking for, but he was able to achieve something
else. He responded to an article I posted on the said forum describing how teachers in
the United Kingdom were connecting their classrooms with teachers in Pakistan
and Afghanistan. An official in the British Council office in Lilongwe, a fellow member of the forum, got in touch with him and invited him to a training in
Liwonde on how the programme works.
James was able to get Mpeni Junior Primary School connected
to a school in Scotland, and later to another one in England. But there was
another problem. He did not have a laptop, nor did his school. James was able
to make contact with fellow Malawian teachers, with the British Council and with
schools in the UK using his mobile phone only. It worked, but did not provide
his students an opportunity to connect with other students in Malawi or
elsewhere. He needed at least a laptop.
I reached out to my network on twitter and facebook, and got
a few expressions of interest and some pledges. One of the pledges came from Dr. Lisa Jilk, a
friend and former classmate of mine, now a professor at the University of
Washington in Seattle, United States. She sent James
$1,000, with which he was able to buy a laptop. James was now able to use a
laptop in his classroom with his students. In July of this year James is going
to Scotland to spend two weeks at the partner school. He will train the
teachers there on Talular.
|Teachers learning how to use a computer. Pic by James Mitengo|
Mpeni Junior Primary School has no electricity; the school needs K100,000 (approx US$270) to get connected. There are eleven teachers at the school, but only two teachers’ houses. The school needs more classrooms to accommodate the large numbers of students. But by being creative and persistent,
James is slowly developing his school and inspiring students and fellow
teachers. He has the drive to reach out and network with other teachers and
educators in Malawi and outside. But he is not alone.
In September 2013 I visited Nadzikhale Primary School in
Dedza to observe a team of primary education advisers (PEAs) and head teachers
conducting school evaluation. They were conducting what is known as School
Performance Review, a school evaluation process developed by Link Community
Development, which I work for. Nadzikhale school is located in a beautiful part
of Dedza. From the school’s open ground you can see a vast open valley that
stretches west to east, with blue hills in the distance.
One of the PEAs sat down with the head teacher of the
school, Phillip James. I joined them on a bench under a tree shade. I noticed a
bicycle leaning against the tree. It belonged to the head teacher, Mr James. It
was an old bicycle, visibly worn out with tyres that had seen better days.
Phillip told me he had used the bicycle for all the fifteen years he had worked
at the school. The school has only two teachers’ houses, with a third house set
aside for student teachers in the Open and Distance Learning programme.
Every day of the fifteen years Phillip has taught at
Nadzikhale school he has commuted from the neighbouring village using the same
bicycle. On this day the mobile phone network was very good, and I was able to
go on twitter. Before we left the school I had a direct message in my twitter
account. A friend who saw the tweets wrote and said he was touched by the
dedication of this teacher. He was going to do something to express his
gratitude. It was his conviction that such teachers, who worked hard for many
years and never gave up, needed to be appreciated. He sent MK30,000 (approx US$75 in 2013), and today
Phillip rides a new bicycle.
|Phillip James's old bike and new bike|
I have decided to share these two stories above because they
defy the ubiquitous image of Malawian teachers who are demoralised and are
always complaining of the conditions in which they work. No doubt, many Malawian
teachers feel so demoralised they see nothing positive about the profession.
And we cannot blame them. But there are a few who are not letting the problems
they encounter paralyse them. Not only do they persevere, they actively seek
solutions to problems their schools face.
The difference lies in the types of attitudes between
teachers who feel hopeless and helpless, and teachers who actively pursue new
ideas and seek solutions to problems. Most teachers graduate from teachers college confident that they will make a difference in the school and community they
will serve. But many feel overwhelmed by the reality that hits them once they
start their jobs.
As I have argued many times before, the model Malawi uses to
train primary school teachers needs reform. Currently teachers are trained for
two years, spending one year doing course work and one year doing teaching
practice, in the residential system. In the open and distance learning system
things are a bit different in that the student teachers spend the entire two
years doing teaching practice in a school, only going for course work when
school is on holiday.
The open and distance learning model was introduced in 1989,
and I was in the inaugural class. Our training lasted four years; we did
not graduate until September 1993. Throughout those four years I did not feel
intellectually challenged by the content. So I went about buying books and
novels that I read in my spare time. This was when Malawi had proper bookshops
spread out across the country.
Today, much of the training is done through modules written
by teacher educators who draw on materials produced by other educationists. There
are no peer-reviewed books or journal articles published in a proper academic settings. Lecturers in our teacher training colleges are not required to
conduct research and publish. The only new knowledge being introduced in our
teacher education system is through donor-funded workshops and projects. None of
our universities has active involvement in the education of primary school
|The Deputy Headteacher at Mpeni working on the donated laptop. |
Pic by James Mitengo
There were efforts a few years ago to integrate teacher
training colleges into public universities so that primary school teachers should be undergoing a more academically-rigorous university-level teacher
preparation. I do not know how far that discussion went, as no one mentions it
anymore. It has been argued that training primary school teachers up to
university diploma or degree level would end up solving the wrong problem –
that of teacher shortage in community day secondary schools.
But that problem would only arise if there were no
improvements in remuneration and conditions of service in primary schools. Teachers,
as is the case with any workers, will go where the pay and conditions of
service are better. If salaries and conditions of work in primary schools are
made attractive for highly educated teachers, they will stay and will improve
the quality of primary school education.
There have been major changes in the teaching profession in
Malawi since my days as a teacher. There were no teacher development centres
during my day, and inspectors were based at the district office rather than at
the zone. Schools now get annual grants for school improvement projects, and
the amounts are doubling each year.
But the mentality amongst many teachers remains stuck in a
beggar-mindset, possibly because the needs are too great and the pace of change
is very gradual. A group of teachers I met in 2013 told me their school had not
used their grant from the previous year, and they were about to get a new
grant. They had no idea what the funds would be used for; they were appealing
for help from “well-wishers”.
We need to develop a system to recognise, support and reward
creativity, innovation and hard work amongst our teachers. Teachers who have innovative ideas need to
know that they can be supported and rewarded. In other countries teachers are
recognised by national teacher of the year awards at various levels. We need to
develop our own system starting at the school level going up to the national
level, including primary education advisers and district education managers.
That will be the best way of motivating teachers and educators, and injecting
authentic pride and dignity into the teaching profession.