In solidarity with Malawian teachers: Labour Day thoughts

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 teachers.

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.

Teachers learning how to use a computer. Pic by James Mitengo

Teachers learning how to use a computer. Pic by James Mitengo

Phillip James's old bike and new bike

Phillip James’s old bike and new bike

he Deputy Headteacher at Mpeni working on the donated laptop.  Pic by James Mitengo

The Deputy Headteacher at Mpeni working on the donated laptop.
Pic by James Mitengo

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.

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.

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 teachers.

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.

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