Monday, May 09, 2011

Transforming the teaching profession as a national development strategy

Note: This article appeared in the Daily Times, 7 October, 2010

The occasion for this year’s World Teachers Day commemoration, October 5th, has spurred recollections and reminiscences of teachers who have been influential in a number of people’s lives. In a ‘My Point of View’ op-ed column by Limani Nsapato in the Friday October 1st issue of the Daily Times, he wrote about a Mr. Zuze, his Standard 3 teacher who inspired him to start liking school, and achieve academic success in later life. In the Nation on Sunday of October 3 Akossa Mphepo dedicated her Editor’s Note in the EveryWoman section of the paper to the teachers who have remained memorable for her to this day. She also interviewed Maggie Madimbo, a primary school teacher who went on to amass degrees, and is now studying for a Ph.D. in the United States.

Not wanting to miss out on the fun, I would like to say something about my own teacher training days and how I was inspired by teachers who shaped my passion for reading and writing. In so doing, I would also like to celebrate friends and colleagues with whom I have travelled along this path, some of whom are, unfortunately, departed. I will conclude my thoughts with a discussion on Malawi’s aspirations for its future teaching corps, as outlined in the National Strategy for Teacher Education nd Development (NSTED), developed in 2008. Over and above everything else, I want to suggest that we engage in a constructive national debate on how to transform teachers’ lives and performance in Malawi.

My teacher training started in December 1989 and ended in September 1993. The MASTEP program had been designed as a three-year program, combining a residential model during the school vacations, and a distance-learning model during the school year. In effect, as can be seen from the dates, it lasted four years. I made some very striking friendships within a week of my arrival at the Lilongwe Teachers’ College, towards the end of December 1989. In a matter of days, I had become very good friends with Charles Mnjale Gwazeni, Albert Kalimbakatha, Isdor Kaiya, Limiton Chalera, Ken Kalonde, and a few others. We all had one thing in common. We loved to read and write. Soon we formed what we called the Malawi Special Teacher Education Program (MASTEP) Writers Workshop. During our two-month stays at Lilongwe Teachers College over the next three years, we met almost every afternoon right after lunch. We took turns reading our writing, and critiquing each other. Our writing ranged from poetry to short fiction to feature essays. Gwazeni, Chalera and Kalonde are deceased now, but their literary and teaching spirit lives on in those of us who were touched by their genius.

By the end of the MASTEP program we had put together a literary journal containing works of poetry, fiction, essays and other types of writing. We drew inspiration from some of Malawi’s finest writers. After the initial two-week residential orientation at Lilongwe Teachers’ College, I was posted to Chikande Primary School, in Ntcheu, where I spent the rest of my teacher training. We taught during the school year, and we went into college during the Christmas, Easter and Summer vacations.

Looking back at my time in the MASTEP programme two decades later, I am very happy that I chose teaching as my profession. Well, I didn’t actually choose it over other careers. I was away at my home village in Ntcheu enjoying the summer vacation when my father saw an announcement for the MASTEP programme in the newspaper. He cut it out and mailed it to me, advising me to apply for it. My father, a police officer of many years, believed that I would make a better teacher than a policeman. He thought my mother was an excellent primary school teacher, and I could tell he respected teachers more than he respected any other profession.

Teaching gave me a start in my professional life, and I have grown to see the world from the perspective of a teacher and the role teachers play in building a society. Even as I have developed other professional habits, teaching has always been at the centre, from the knowledge production aspects around a particular practice, to the dissemination and utilisation of that knowledge for broader social purposes.

Over the years I have had many wondeful teachers, at various levels of the educational system. Mrs Kajawo was my first ever teacher in Standard One at Police Primary School, and in Standard Two Mrs Saiwa and Mrs Mwenelupembe were my teachers. These wonderful teachers guided my earlierst attempts at reading, writing and numeracy. In secondary school, two teachers stand out, mostly for their encouragement, through actions mostly, on the importance of reading widely and writing seriously. I started thinking of myself as a writer when I was Form Two at Nankhunda Seminary in Zomba. In Form Three our English teacher was Fr. Lawrence Mlenga, and he easily noticed how I enjoyed writing. I did my Form Four at Police Secondary School in Zomba, and there it was again an English teacher who stood out. Mr Lot Dzonzi, now Commissioner of Police, introduced a Writers’ Board, and encouraged us to write and post our stories there. In addition to being my English teacher, he was also patron of the drama group, and we ended up at number three at the 1989 ATEM national grand finals. Police Secondary School later won the national championship. By then I had finished my Form Four and left.

Mr Dzonzi went beyond the call of duty. He took personal books from his library, which were not even on the exam sylabus, and gave them to his students to read. One such book was Ngugi wa Thiong’os Devil on the Cross, which I read right after I finished Form Four. Another one was Athol Fugard’s published play Sizwe Bansi is Dead. After the MSCE exams, he took me to the homes of Wokomaatani Malunga and Garton Kamchedzera, where he introduced me to these Malawian literary luminaries and encouraged me to follow in their footsteps. It was these steps that later led to my becoming a non-university member of the Chancellor College Writers Workshop, which later led to many other writing ventures, two decades later.

I recently wrote about spending six months in 2004 visiting schools and talking to Malawian teachers about prospects for peace education in Malawi. For me those six months epitomised the coming full circle of teaching, writing and national aspirations. As a classroom teacher, I remember feeling respected by the village community around Chikande in Ntcheu, while learning how unappreciated teachers were by the authorities. My school visits and talks with teachers in 2004 revealed to me new depths in the anger and frustrations many Malawian teachers feel, especially in primary schools. This is no secret to anyone who studies Malawian schools. The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has highlighted the problem of teacher morale and frustration in its 2008 National Strategy For Teacher Education and Development (NSTED). The NSTED document has offered practical recommendations for teacher development policy to enhance the lives of teachers and thereby promote teacher performance in Malawian schools.

No clause in the NSTED strategy holds more potential for the revitalization of the Malawian school system than the recommendation to introduce an accreditation programme to offer teachers a path for career advancement through classroom performance. The NSTED proposes that the accreditation programme be tied to collaboration between teacher training colleges and universities, and be supported by equipping Teacher Development Centres with modern technology and Internet connectivity. 

The NSTED is a far-sighted, comprehensive educational policy recommendation that has the potential to transform teacher education and school performance in Malawi. If it can become widely publicised so that every teacher and educator in the country knows what the teacher policy is, Malawi will have embarked on the road to revamping the educational system and to a more meaningful approach that goes beyond Millennium Development Goal Number Two, Universal Primary Education by 2015. As many educators understand, it is one thing to achieve universal primary enrollment, but it is quite another to provide those children a quality, meaningful and relevant education.

As has been observed by Bob Moon, founding director of the Teacher Education in Sub-Sharan Africa (TESSA) programme, the MDGs do not mention teachers, an oversight that can potentially stall progress and development in any country. During the BBC’s MDGs panel discussion in New York last week, President Bingu wa Mutharika told the audience that the MDGs missed the “supply side” of the equation. The MDGs, said Professor Mutharika, said nothing about the teachers that would be needed to train the children being targetted for Universal Primary Enrollment. Bringing teachers into the strategy calls for massive investments into not only teacher recruitment, but also sustained, long-term research into how to train and develop excellent teachers. As of now we do not have that kind of research in Malawi, a consequence of not involving the university establishment in the education of primary school teachers.

For the school experience of children to have relevance beyond universal enrollment, we need to not only address chronic teacher shortages, we also need to realign teacher education with the needs of a 21st century society. We need to broaden the discussion on how effective it is to offer teachers a two-year education, with none of our universities taking an active, leading role in teacher education and curriculum research. We need to seriously think of how to motivate teachers beyond cash emoluments and higher qualifications.

Several of us have started a discussion on how to develop an annual Teacher of the Year Award, along the lines of the end of year awards organizations such as the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation run. We are having this discussion using online tools that are increasingly becoming more accessible here in Malawi. In the coming years it will be possible for many teachers to access the Internet, as some teachers have already taken the initiative, on their own, to open email accounts.

To create space for discussing teachers’ issues and share information and developments about education in Malawi and beyond, a number of us recently started a google online forum, called Bwalo la Aphunzitsi. It is located at To join, send an email to, and be a part of the important discourse envisioning Malawi’s teaching profession for the 21st century. 


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