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
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
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
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
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.
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.
As the world celebrates teachers today, the words of President Peter Mutharika that "teaching is the mother of all professions" send an echo to all world leaders. The teachers of the world are not sitting and watching, waiting to be "empowered." They are empowering themselves. Happy World Teachers Day!
Labels: African Renaissance, Agenda 2063, Global Teacher Prize, Gordon Brown, International Commission on Financing Global Education, Jonathan Jansen, Pasi Sahlberg, Peter Mutharika, SDGs, World Teachers Day