When he officially opened Malawi’s newest teacher training college, Chiradzulu TTC, on 16th September, Malawi’s president Peter Mutharika said something that if he does not follow up on with action, might shadow his legacy in Malawian education. It is something I have decided not to cynically dismiss as one of those things presidents say and never mean it.
Today is 5th October, the day the world commemorates and celebrates teachers every year. I want to use the occasion to reflect on the state of the teaching profession in Malawi, and in parts of the world where teachers’ issues have been in the news lately. I want to discuss the implications of the promises President Mutharika made to Malawian teachers in September, and to draw attention to issues that now impinge on the teaching profession globally. Continental momentum, in the form of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, and a global imperative in the form of the newly launched Sustainable Development Goals give teachers new ideals to aspire to and to inspire their students with.
Now back to President Mutharika. The Official Malawi Government Online facebook page quoted the president as saying: “We must provide teachers with necessary resources and respect them because teaching is the mother of all professions.” Nyasatimes quoted him thus: “My government wants to make sure that teachers also live a good life like Engineers, lawyers and doctors as a way of motivating them to mould our children’s future with dedication.” He added: “Let us be people who raise the flag of our standards very high. We deserve the best and must aspire to be at our best. Education is where we begin the making of a nation.”
Mr President, these are solemn, loaded, heavy, pregnant words. If you will not do anything to make sure that what you have promised actually happens, these words will ring hollow in the minds of Malawian teachers. And they will be a yardstick against which to judge your legation in Malawi’s education.
There is enough precedence to view the president’s words as another of those speeches presidents give, powered with high-falutin profound-sounding words without meaning to do anything about the promise. We have heard these things before too many times it would be folly to imagine that this time the president is serious. It was probably a scripted speech, written by someone within the Ministry of Education, if not the minister himself. But I am choosing to take the president up on his word for one simple reason.
Amongst Malawi’s numerous priorities, in ranking order of more pressing priorities within the highest priorities, changing the status of the teaching profession ranks, for me, as of the utmost importance when thinking of long term national development plans. It is so important that it does not matter to me that the president may have made yet another empty promise using this very language.
There are four or so countries in the world that have actually made this happen: raise the profile of the teaching profession into a highly prized, prestigious one. The best known country for this is Finland. South Korea, China and Singapore are also spoken of in similar terms, but Finland is the best known example (I initially included Japan on this list, but a Japanese academic, who is also a friend and former classmate, said that was no longer the case). In Africa, Zimbabwe gets the trophy.
Although the countries I am mentioning here are far advanced and far wealthier than Malawi, perhaps with the exception of Zimbabwe, debatably, it is their investments not just in education, but in the teaching profession, that has been central to their advancement. They did not all start out wealthy and developed. They worked toward it. Although ours is a different context, with different resources and circumstances, I do not see why we cannot study these countries to see what they did, what we can learn from them, and what we can ignore.
As Finland’s most prominent educationist, Professor Pasi Sahlberg, has explained, Finland learned a lot from other countries, particularly the American education system. But their learning was on the terms of the Finnish people, such that they were able to develop a Finnish education system that today surpasses the American education system.
One of the most important things Finland did to turn around a mediocre education system into a world class one was to change the way they educate and reward their teachers. To qualify as a primary school teacher in Finland (and in a few other wealthy countries), the minimum requirement is a masters’ degree in education. And they do not accept into their teacher education programmes just anyone. Candidates are subjected to a rigorous process that culminates into an interview, where prospective teachers must articulate their life philosophy and express a deeper perspective about why they would like to become a teacher. Many, very bright and promising, fail.
So selective is the process, according to Professor Sahlberg, that teaching is the most sought after programme in the Finnish education system. Contrast that with many other countries, including Malawi and the United States, where the most prestigious university programmes are medicine, law, finance and engineering. Education ranks at the bottom.
The result of such highly specialised teacher education is that Finland puts a lot professional and intellectual responsibility into the teacher’s hands rather than into the hands of the authorities. In Professor Sahlberg’s words, the Finnish system believes in teacher responsibility rather than teacher accountability. He says accountability is what remains when responsibility has been removed.
Finnish students enter school and go all the way to the penultimate year of secondary school without sitting a national examination. The only examination they sit is at the end of secondary school. This is deliberately designed so as to remove the pressure of teaching to the test and give teacher the space to be creative and give each child the attention and support they deserve.
Recently, Professor Sahlberg has expressed worry that the success of the Finnish education system may be in jeopardy. The Finnish government has adopted austerity measures and is planning to implement cuts in the national budget, including education. Finnish teachers recently joined other public workers in a nation-wide strike to protest against the cuts.
A recent upsurge in teacher accountability has changed the teaching profession around the world. Students are now being subjected to too many tests whose results are purported to reflect a teacher’s performance. As a result teachers are now being dictated to by examinations, teaching to the test and taking away the creativity that classrooms need for an education system to excel.
This is happening in many countries around the world. In South Africa, Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Free State and a leading educational thinker on the continent, says teachers are now “preparing young people for examinations rather than for deep and meaningful learning in the subject.” He argues that the country’s Annual National Assessments, which have recently become a bone of contention between the government and teachers’ unions, “distort the purposes of education at the bottom end of the system.”
This trend is happening including in the developed world. When Nancy Atwell, an American teacher of reading and writing, was announced as the winner of the $1 million 2015 Global Teacher Prize, the first time the award has been given, she lamented what has befallen the teaching profession in her country. In remarks that stirred a debate amongst Americans, Ms Atwell said she would not encourage youngAmericans to join the teaching profession in the state it is today. Perhaps in the private schools yes, but definitely not in the public education system. “If you’re a creative, smart young person, I don’t think this is the time to go into teaching.”
The Global Teacher Prize is considered to be the Nobel Prize for Teaching, so Ms Atwell’s words were greeted with shock and amazement by some. In August this year a teacher in the state of Michigan announced she was quitting teaching in the public education system to teach at a private school. She titled her essay, published on the Huffington Post, “Why I can no longer teach in public education.”
In the same month of August, Motoko Rich of the New York Times reported that between 2010 and 2014 enrolment into teacher preparation programmes dropped by30 percent across the United States. Worse still, 40 percent of new teachers leave the profession within five years. Stories like these are becoming common around the world.
Last Saturday 3rd October the British newspaper The Independent reported on a survey done for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) that revealed that 53 percent of teachers in Britain are contemplating quitting the profession in the next two years. The top three reasons are “excessive workloads, poor pay and low morale.”
It would be interesting to know what the numbers look like for the teaching profession in Malawi or on the African continent. The only exception might be in countries where unemployment is so bad that quitting a job in hand is not an option. This happens to be the case in countries where unemployment is indeed very high and teachers remain in the teaching profession only because they have nowhere else to go. High unemployment is now becoming a global problem, affecting even the wealthiest of countries.
Such teachers only teach because they have no choice. Otherwise, they hate the job and everything to do with it. Such a scenario is very unfortunate because it is innocent children who get the brunt of these teachers’ anger and frustrations. Elephants fighting and the grass getting pulverised. Often things get to this point when teachers feel that they have nowhere to go to air their grievances; nobody is listening. Right now, that is how the majority of teachers feel, in Malawi and in much of the world.
The theme for the 2015 World Teachers Day is “Empowering teachers, building sustainable societies.” Another very powerful-sounding phrase, only if it can be put into action. It is such a gratifying, highly motivating theme, one that demonstrates the seriousness with which the teaching profession needs to be taken. We know societies where this is taken seriously, as earlier discussed. With the newly launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), sustainability has become such a powerful word, as Chiku Malunga has observed.
In Malawi, as in many countries, we have been lagging behind in terms of recognising the importance of teacher empowerment. While much of southern Africa has improved the minimum qualifications of teachers, involving universities in the education of teachers, in Malawi primary school teachers are trained in a way that can only be described as hap-hazard.
A two-year certificate, one year spent in college and one year in a classroom. There is very little academic rigour involved. The effort has been there to enhance primary teacher education and involve the universities, but it has been slow, halting, and uncoordinated. Things have picked up in recent years, and we are on the verge of a significant change.
It might be that President Mutharika’s words have been uttered at a propitious moment when the Ministry of Education has been thinking along the same lines, but it is a moment that must not be missed. At the continental level, the discourse is about the renewal of Africa; a rebirth of the continent; an African Renaissance. The African Union has launched an ambitious 50-year plan, to run from 2013 to 2063, known as Agenda2063. Africans are slowly getting to learn about this agenda.
Although Agenda 2063 has very little in terms of strategy (it's not meant to be), it is a dream that perfectly captures “the Africa we want”, as is expressed in the document’s subtitle. I have argued elsewhere, and want to reiterate the assertion here, that Agenda 2063 and the African Renaissance will not be realised without the involvement of teachers. And this is where the importance of teachers who are highly educated, genuinely motivated and meaningfully empowered becomes poignant.
Agenda 2063 needs to be adopted into not just national development plans, but into educational policy and school curricula as well. That way, teachers will teach and students will learn inspired by a long-term Pan-African vision and spurred on by the dream of a better Africa whose planning and enactment start today. Only empowered teachers can understand and implement such a policy.
Empowerment, as one of my mentors taught me years ago, is not something someone hands to you. It is something one takes upon oneself. Teachers should not sit and wait for someone to come and empower them. They should empower themselves by organising themselves, speaking out on things that matter, and showing their students how to make learning problem-based and community-building.
As I have also argued elsewhere, Agenda 2063 needs to be translated into local African languages so as to enable ordinary Africans, the majority of whom do not speak English, to own it and make it part of their aspirations. As Cheikh Anta Diop pointed out in 1948, and as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has more recently stated, there cannot be a renaissance without the involvement of African languages. And as Kwesi Prah said in 2013, “No country can make progress on the basis of a borrowed language.”
This is not to say we must abandon Western languages, no. We need them. We have invested so much in them already, and continue, as I am doing this very moment. But we must equally invest in African languages so as to allow the majority of Africans, ninety percent of whom do not speak a Western language, to participate in the renewal. It cannot be the case that there is no indigenous genius in African villages unless one speaks a Western language. There can be no African Renaissance without the talents, creativity and brilliance of ordinary Africans being unleashed and expressed in their own languages.
The role of teachers in this endeavour will be pivotal. The best educated teachers serve as thought leaders and community enablers. They inspire young people by their knowledge of subject matter content as well as their intellectual curiosity about the world and its future. They impart to their students ethical standards (uMunthu/uBuntu) and a problem-solving ethos.
In other words, they embody the message in the words President Mutharika used when he was opening Chiradzulu Teachers College: “Teaching is the mother of all professions … Education is where we begin the making of a nation.” They may be empty, high-falutin, meaningless words spoken by every president, but they come at a time when teacher empowerment is becoming an ideal that can claim a central place in the rebirth of the Pan-African world.
As the SDGs kick into action, replacing the unachieved MDGs, President Mutharika has been appointed to serve as a co-convener on the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity, chaired by former British Prime Minister and UN Special Envoy for Global Education, Gordon Brown.
Other co-conveners are the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, and UNESCO Director General, Irina Bokovo. The International Commission itself is made up of more than twenty world leaders, who include five former presidents and prime ministers and three Nobel laureates.