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.
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?
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.
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.