Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Week 5 #TeacherTuesday:The single story about Africa’s education

The danger in writing about the African continent is that one can end up falling into the trap of perpetuating what Chimamanda Adichie refers to as the “single story”; that is, writing about one idea where Africa is a country; a deep, dark and poor country. A place out there the natives are starving and waiting for the return of the colonial master. The single story about Africa is limited by those who consider themselves as African as well as those who are outsiders seeking to understand the complexity of this place and explain to others. At least this was how I felt when I read a story about a teacher in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum area.

The first time I found out about Kibera, “the slums of Nairobi” was last year. I was planning a trip to Nairobi and while looking for a touristy list of things to do, I came across an article with “Ten things to do while visiting Nairobi”. On the list, there was a mention of the area Kibera, a large “slum” in Nairobi. The article suggested that it would be inspiring to walk through the “slum” and experience what it might be like to live in this area. The author must have had a privileged and possibly “Western” audience in mind as I was a little uncomfortable with the notion of simply walking through a “slum” (which I assume is the equivalent word we use for a township) to see what it’s like to live in Kibera (“visiting the natives in their natural habitat” as one friend described the idea of “township tours”). While in Nairobi, I didn’t visit Kibera.

I came across Kibera again while reading about Margaret’s story, a teacher in Kibera. While reading about her experience of teaching in a poor area and doing her utmost best in teaching students who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy of importance, I wondered how we could escape the single narrative where African stories are a blemish or yet another narrative of using other people’s stories as a means to an end? Writing about the experience of being poor in Africa can elicit a number of responses: cynicism,  empathy or sympathy. While reading about Margaret’s story I oscillated between awe and bitterness. Awe because there are people on this continent doing the unthinkable and teaching under difficult circumstances, but they continue to do it because of the hope they have in their students. Bitterness because in writing about Kibera I feel complicit in perpetuating “the single story” (especially because the post I wrote a few weeks ago was about a teacher in Malawi who also teaches under great duress).

Margaret’s story is unique. She is part of a group of teachers who know a different reality and persist anyway. Hers could be a story from a teacher in Limpopo or Zimbabwe. Here are some excerpts from her story:
  •  I wake up at 4am, I get the bus in the morning and travel for 2 hours to my school. I have my regular duties to perform. I’m a class teacher of grade 6 with 85 children in a class. It starts at 8am, but we normally come early to mark the books. I also take care of the feeding programme so have to measure the food for the day. I have to mark my work. It’s normally a packed day. Today when you called I was issuing text books to all the different children. There is a lot of counting to be done and a lot of different activities.
  • We end at 3.10pm and then the children have prep until 5pm. Between 6 and 7pm we give an extra hour to some children that can’t do their homework at home because there’s no electricity or space at home. I leave at around 6.30pm. We have to make sure that we clear the compound. Sometimes leave at 7pm. Imagine! But when I’m doing it I don’t mind. We work for the children. Five days a week.
  • There is a persistent shortage of teachers. The government has its own way of doing things, but we are getting forgotten by policies. I am praying the government trains more teachers so we break the large classes into small classes of 50 so we produce the best children from the slum.
  • The children share books, 1 to 3 children per book. The government sends the books but they get destroyed in their bags and sometimes the children sell their books at 50 to 100 shillings to buy food in the slum. 100 shillings, it’s about US$1.5. Children go out campaigning to get other children to come to school.
  • There is a big difference between rural and urban school because they’re not densely populated. The way we do things in urban areas is different. In rural areas teacher to student ratio is 1-40, here is 1-70/100.
  • There is no training for how to teach in slum schools! We’re given training to teach anywhere where there are children - not even in a school! Even if there is no school but there are children, you teach under a tree!

 Of course I could rattle off a list of statistics to support what Margaret’s story shows: if you are poor, you are less likely to get an education that can be an escape from the poverty trap that comes with a poor education. Exclusion from education persists because of the interaction between geography, gender, policies and poverty. However, in countries like Botswana, they have achieved much higher levels of learning, thanks to its much narrower gap between rich and poor. Botswana is challenging the single story narrative, but one country cannot be alone changing the perceptions of an entire continent. 

This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

#Teacher Tuesday week 4: The right to education sacrificed in the name of power, war

As a teacher in South Africa, it’s very tempting to naval-gaze because of the woes facing education in this country. My temptation is always curbed when I read stories about other teachers who are teaching in the midst of political turmoil in conflict-ridden countries. Like a refugee camp for Syrians in Jordan for example. When a country is faced with geopolitical conflict, the stories of the people who suffer the most often don’t make breaking news; their stories become the footnote in the larger discourse of war and militarisation. When we read about Syria we know about the sanctions, the influence of Arab spring and the “rebel” groups and military’s role in violent operations and Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny.

I recently read about a teacher, Mohammed, who works at a refugee camp in Jordan called Zataari. There are schools in this camp supported by various international bodies.  He works for two well-known schools which support almost 20 000 children whose families fled from the unrest in Syria. His experience highlights the tensions that arise in the efforts of trying to a resume life in the context of a refugee camp. There are cultural tensions because all the children in Zataari are Syrians but the teachers are Jordanian teachers.

Schools in refugee camps are highly reliant on humanitarian aid, however this has decreased over the recent years. The EFA Global Monitoring report shows that in 2012, education accounted for just 1.4% of humanitarian aid, down from 2.2% in 2009 therefore “Education suffers from a double disadvantage, not only receiving a small share overall, but also receiving the smallest proportion of the amount requested of any sector”[1]. Organisations such as UNICEF and Save the children have been instrumental is providing support for learning in some refugee camps where hundreds of children are dependent on a few camp schools to support their learning. In Mohammed’s camp he posits that there are “50,000 children in the camp in total. Half of them are school aged children and 20,000 are currently registered with a school.” These children are in safe spaces where they can learn despite of the displacement and trauma they have suffered before arriving at Zataari. However, this isn’t without its challenges. According to Mohammed Some of the children are still scared of school because they saw their schools being destroyed because of bombing and think the schools are like those in Syria. Some of them don’t come because they think they are not certified in Jordan but this is not true, they can all come. Some refuse to take the Jordanian curriculum and want their own Syrian curriculum. Sometimes some students don’t come to school because it’s very far away from their tent or caravan and are afraid to be targeted by the bad boys in the street.

Zataari is one example of how conflict disrupts the lives of those who are the most helpless, the children. Their right to education is sacrificed in the name of war and power. Schools have to become safe spaces for the children in order for them to come to terms with the atrocities they have witnessed. Children across conflict-ridden countries such as Sudan, Rwanda, Congo, Burundi find themselves in camps where 23 000 people have to survive. In one refugee camp in Uganda there were only two primary schools, one secondary school for thousands of children. The question of access to quality education seemed irrelevant when the numbers show that it's near impossible to get a decent education in such a context. Not only are children dealing with the trauma of being away from home, they also have to face the reality that their learning is disrupted and the conditions they find themselves in at camp schools jeopardise their learning.

This is a travesty that will continue until the power struggles in conflict-ridden countries have been dealt with and people can return to their homes to try and piece their lives back together again. Mohammed’s story is an example of how access to education is compromised in countries that are in dire need for stability and reform, such as Syria. When violence erupted in Central African Republic thousands of people were displaced. Some have ended up in Chad. When reading about their situation, it is a very desperate situation where learning and education may not be considered a priority for many months or even years.

When I first began thinking about how education is affected in violent communities I limited my thoughts to South Africa. This is narrow-mindedness is dangerous as there are always people trying to reshape their lives after conflict. It’s easy to take the pockets of stability for granted in South Africa. What should our collective and individual response be to the global phenomenon of violence disrupting learning?

This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

[1] Education For All Global Monitoring Report c/o UNESCO, www.efareport.unesco.org, 2013

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

#TeacherTuesday week 3: A case for gender parity in education

Until Malala Yousafzai’s story became well-known, I doubt many people considered what it means to be young and female and seeking an education in a conflict-ridden society that has a bias against the education of girls. Recently I read about a teacher from Afghanistan, Nahida, and I realised that in another part of the world a girl’s education is not a given. Nahida is a school principal for a girls school in Kabul. She has persevered through many difficulties in making sure the education of girls in Kabul matters. Her experiences also reveal that when a country is conflict-ridden for three decades, the people who suffer the most are girls and the women who teach them.

If we focus on Afghanistan alone, Nahida’s story brings to light the interconnectedness of politics, security and education. She points out that “In the last period of time when Mujahidin came to power, different portions of Mujahidin started fighting in Kabul and other provinces. Schools closed because of security, especially girls schools. Schools become a target for Mujahidin. Slowly when stability came to Afghanistan and Kabul for me it was priority to encourage girls and their families to come back to school. I gave the message to their families and asked them to send their daughters to school again.” Nahida’s story is relevant when we consider the education of girls in other regions because girls living in the Arab States are at a greater disadvantage: the share of females in the out-of-school population is 60 %, compared with 57% in South and West Asia and 54 % in sub-Saharan Africa.

A more gendered narrative reveals that girls education can still be sacrificed at the altar because of sexist ideas that reveal that women and girls do not matter. This is especially the case with the Taliban’s laws in Afghanistan. Nahida reveals that “When the Taliban came to power, it was their policy to close all the schools for females. For me, it was difficult to go to school to teach. When I went to my school, the principal of the school was a Mullah and he didn’t allow me to enter the school and asked me after that not to come to school. But for the boys, school was open. When I understood the policy of Taliban was not to allow girls and female teachers to go to school, I started a home school for girls because families and their parents asked me to teach their daughters.”

Let’s consider some statistics from UNESCO’s EFA report related to education in Afghanistan and the Arab states:
  • ·         175 million young people in low and lower middle income countries are unable to read a single sentence, of whom 61% are female. In South and West Asia, two out of three young people who cannot read are young women.
  •        Afghanistan has the highest level of gender disparity in primary education in the world with only 71 girls in primary school for every 100 boys. It is likely to remain very far from the target of gender parity in primary education by 2015.
  • ·         No girls were in secondary school in 1999 in Afghanistan. By 2011, the female gross enrolment ratio rose to 34%, which meant there were only 55 girls in secondary school for every 100 boys.
  • ·         While almost 80% of the richest boys in urban areas were completing primary school in 2011, the same was true for only 4% of the poorest girls living in rural areas.
  • ·         In Iraq, not only has progress towards gender parity been slow, but poor, rural girls have not benefited. The lower secondary completion rate was 58% for rich urban boys and just 3% for poor rural girls in 2011. Safety remains an issue for girls’ schooling, particularly in areas of major instability and insecurity.

 What do these numbers suggest about the education of girls? Beyond considering the role of the teacher, it seems that in societies where the girl child’s education is not taken seriously, a cultural shift needs to happen alongside the change in policies that recognise that the education of girls is central to the development of any country. Girls born in middle class homes (where both parents are usually educated) have chances of escaping the narrative however for poorer women and girls more needs to be done politically and socially.

Writing about the education of girls immediately invokes the position of boys. It matters for both boys and girls that girls should be treated equally and have access to the same education. Boys that do not grow up around girls  whose minds and opinions matter become men who may interpret that as the default setting for women. An equal education is a good idea for both boys and girls. Whenever the issue of gender equality comes up amongst the boys I teach there’s always the rolling of eyes and defensiveness. Boys have misunderstood gender equality: they have been duped into the idea that the equality of girls means that boys do not matter; that boys are the enemy that are the target when women and girls are being empowered. Boys need to be given a new narrative not only about their masculinity but also about femininity and an equal education with equal opportunities is a central to making those changes.


I went to a girls school for 12 years of my life. My learning was never disrupted, not even by teacher strikes. I never had to contemplate whether my education mattered or not because whenever I went to school, I knew it mattered and it made me believe that I matter too. Apart from the criticism against girls’ schools, when we consider the global context, we need to prioritise the education of a girl child even more. Girls who stay in schools that function are more likely to make different decisions for their lives and these decisions are important for their families, communities and the rest of the world.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

#TeacherTuesday Week 2: The language question (inclusion and exclusion)

One of my colleagues recently took down the sign “English-speaking zone” from her classroom wall. She had put it up at the beginning of the year as a way of dealing with the “language problem” in our school. She is a monolingual English-speaker who teaches students who speak isiXhosa (and Afrikaans occasionally) and she did not want them to speak any other language but English in her classroom. The situation my colleague finds herself is a microcosm of the “language problem” in education in multilingual communities. English dominates the classrooms of children who do not necessarily speak English as their primary language.

The “language problem” is experienced across the world. Natalee is a teacher from Bay Islands in Honduras where the Ministry of Education has declared this year as the “Year of Inclusion” where the ministry will support and prepare every teacher to create an inclusive classroom; embracing learning styles and cultural difference that each of the children in their classrooms. In Honduras, English and Spanish are the dominant languages in a context of 9 other languages which are not highly developed. Research shows that children who learn in a language that is unfamiliar struggle with literacy acquisition because they have to make the leap between the language of school learning and the language they speak at home. The Education for All Global Monitoring report reveals that in Mali, where the language of instruction is French – different from the language most children speak at home – 92% of children were unable to read a single word by the end of grade 2.

Many teachers don’t like talking about the “language problem” in their classrooms because it evokes the question of inclusion and exclusion; dominance and marginalisation in our schools. Natalee’s experience of teaching in Honduras is different from the one most  teachers experience in multilingual countries (as in the anecdote above). In Natalee’s experience, she values the languages and cultures that her students bring in to their learning experience. She reflects that If we find ourselves in a multilingual classroom, it is vital that we bear in mind that our approach must be multicultural, multilingual and needs multi models to reach all students. We must teach the majority language speakers to speak the minority language and the minority language to speak the majority language, which builds on the principles of inclusion. It’s essential to teach students in the language of their thoughts. Some children won’t be able to read or write because they’ve been taught in a language they don’t understand. They’ve been pushed beyond the limit, and they simply don’t understand. However if we teach from the heart with sensitivity and a focus on diversity, we will serve as change agents whose sole goal is that their students become lifetime learners, proud of their cultural identity and respectful of others.

Countries with a rich cultural heritage and a history of dominance are faced with the challenge of deciding which languages should be the languages of teaching and learning. In most countries the language that is chosen will be the language that has cultural capital and has the necessary resources to make sure that learning can happen. Depending on the region, English, French and Spanish are the languages that countries choose to be the language of education. This is also done in the face of sacrificing the indigenous languages which have not been developed fully to be used formally in classrooms (they often lack resources such as having books and material that are written in indigenous languages).

Language can be a great resource where people can and must speak more than one language. When it comes to educating our kids it seems there’s a tension because the language skills a teacher brings into the classroom will determine whether language is going to be a barrier to learning or a rich resource that can expand learning. Teachers who are bilingual often view language as a resource rather than a barrier in their classroom because learners know that they have access to knowledge in more than one language in the classroom. Bilingual learning is not without its controversies. If a child is raised in a multilingual community, by the time they start school they have more than one language in their arsenal to use in the classroom. This is often seen as a disadvantage if it is not the language that the school recognises as the language of teaching and learning. Children are expected to learn a new language in the context of the classroom as though they are in the classroom tabula rasa. In South Africa this happens with English. English is an additional language for the majority of the children in our schools. And many have to make the switch to learning all their subjects at school in English when they are in Grade 4. This often happens with a haphazard introduction to English when they start school in Grade 1. English is introduced too late and they never develop the skills they need to learn other concepts in a language that they are unfamiliar with. This continues to happen despite the policy changes that challenge the introduction of English in the curriculum where the foundation years are taught in a child’s mother tongue (the language they speak at home).

The language children begin with when they start school (the mother tongue) can be seen as the “minority language”  and poor students speaking a minority language at home are among the lowest performers in schools where the language of teaching and learning differs from the language they normally speak. According to the TIMSS assessment in Turkey, for instance, poor grade 4 students speaking a non-Turkish language – predominantly Kurdish – are the lowest performers in Maths at school because school instruction happens in the dominant language. In Peru, the struggle is the use of Spanish and Quechua and their bilingual programme focuses on these two languages. However, they find that most students who don’t have Spanish as their main language (Quechua and other indigenous languages) perform badly in both languages and their performance in their school work suffers; their performance in Spanish as well as their own language is weak.

It’s too easy to simply say that children who speak a “minority language” in their early years should simply assimilate and learn the dominant language. Children should be encouraged to be multilingual and teachers should be adept at teaching multilingual students. Language death doesn’t need to be the fate of minority languages because teachers, parents and policy can ensure that children’s languages are affirmed in the classroom, instead of being part of the “language problem”.

This blog post is part of a blog project #Teacher Tuesday which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

#Teacher Tuesday week 1: Why teach in Africa?

For the next 10 weeks my blog posts will be part of a blog project #Teacher Tuesday which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Monitoring Report. Stories about 10 teachers will be profiled over the next 10 weeks.

Meet Esnart. She is a teacher in Malawi. There’s a bitter-sweet tinge to her reflection about her teaching experience thus far. She was inspired to be a teacher because she “had a teacher that was so good. She loved everyone in class. She wanted to see us succeed in our lessons”. But she also refers to the teaching profession as “the last resort (where) those who have good grades go to university and teachers are another layer who have nowhere else to go. Secondary students go to university. The primary school finishers become teachers.” Part of her teaching experience means that she has taught as many as 230 primary school children (seven and eight year olds) under a tree at a village school. While reading Esnart’s story I was dismayed that I was not shocked by her narrative. Her’s is an experience that is not shocking for people who know what is happening in schools where there are insufficient resources and learning is plagued by large numbers and insufficient teachers. But this narrative can and must change.
Esnart's picture
The failures in education (such as the one revealed in Esnart’s story and the Education for All Global Monitoring Report) reveal that something is amiss in how we have organised our society. The organisation of an education system (whether it works or not) reveals how value is placed on people in society. In Esnart’s society, children’s education does not matter because they do not have the basic resources they need in order to be part of a globalising world. Teachers do not matter because they are seen as uneducated and therefore deserve to be in jobs that do not affirm them. Does quality teaching and learning happen in the conditions described by Esnart?
School in Malawi
Esnart’s story also confirms that because our society is organised based on the contrasts between how the rich and the poor live, we effectively have education systems across the world that either entrench one further into poverty or extend one’s privilege. And the question remains: How can education be used to get out of the poverty trap that it has created for others? Poor schools often (not always) produce low results; poor students often come from poor families and communities and if they are not afforded an education that is an alternative to the poverty around them, their education sends them into an adulthood of poverty as well.
Esnart’s description of her approach to teaching reveals that quality teaching does not happen effectively: “The teaching style I use, we ask children to match words and pictures, real objects, letters and objects. They write on the sand and on paper and on slate. But they can’t keep anything when they write on sand so they have no record. In most cases, they use paper and pencil, but those who can’t afford use slate. The slates are purchased by the government.” Esnart’s students are in a world where they have to compete with middle-class children who are using technology and preparing them for a globalised future. If we contrast Esnart’s teaching style with a teacher in a developed country, we will see that the children in Malawi are lagging behind and they will play “catch up” for the rest of their lives because of the kind of education they received. When conditions are not conducive to quality teaching (as we see in Malawi and other countries in sub-Saharan Africa) we see that a culture of teacher-bashing has developed. Many teachers are leaving the profession and new teachers are not joining at the same rate.
According to the Education for All Global Monitoring Report, sub-Saharan Africa has been the hardest hit where teacher recruitment is lagging behind. And in West Africa, Nigeria has been flagged as the country with high teacher pupil ratios. If the report is correct, the future of education (mostly in countries in Africa) is bleak. In the context of lack and poverty, how can we recruit more graduates to become teachers? I ask this as someone who opted to become a teacher and remain in South Africa (rather than teach English in Asia) because I recognised the huge teacher backlog we face not only in South Africa but across the continent. I have met and interacted with teachers who have taught the same grade for longer than I have been alive. If we want to recruit young graduates into the profession, they need to see teaching as a viable option that will ensure their growth in the profession rather than teaching in the same grade for 30 years with no prospect of change and development. Recruiting young graduates into teaching means that governments have to reckon with the “brain drain” that takes place across the continent. Graduates have better options on other continents and therefore it makes sense for them to leave and pursue postgraduate studies elsewhere or seek employment in another country rather than consider teaching.
So where does this leave the teaching profession? The need for more teachers in schools facing dire conditions is undeniable. How do we convince young graduates to join the profession if they will face the conditions Esnart has faced? I became a teacher in the face of much criticism. I was told “you’ll be poor for the rest of your life” and the most shocking “why would you study at a university only to become a teacher” and my favourite, “you’re too smart to be a teacher”. All these comments reveal the pejorative attitude people have towards teaching. It seems we need to do more than ask governments and the private sector to prioritise education but we also need to change people’s ideas about what it means to be a teacher.