GOAL-SETTING 101 CONTINUED…
I arrived in Zambia equipped with a suitcase full of toiletries and a handful of expectations. I expected poverty and hunger, poor healthcare and inequality.
I completely neglected to consider the reason I was there: education.
Of all of the issues that affect the developing world, I had previously given the least thought to the role that education plays in a country’s progress. I have since come to understand it as one of the most important factors that contribute to the continued cycle of poverty in Zambia, and perhaps the rest of the world.
Many of the children at the Primary School struggled with their work, and there wasn’t any support system in play to help them improve. Many failed to move from one grade to the next because of poor exam results, and the school administration didn’t seem to notice the growing age gap between pupils of the same grade. There were a few exceptional students who knew all the answers and could provide thoughtful responses to challenging questions, and nobody was available to nurture their talents. Essentially, children were not helped to get by if they were struggling or enabled to flourish if they were not.
The key is the teaching staff.
There was, apparently, a nationwide shortage of teachers. At the school, there were six full-time teachers to educate nine grades (about 500 pupils). As you can imagine the staff had to work very hard to keep up with their responsibilities. They often had to take a day off to travel to the town to pick up their paychecks, and the children would be sent home early as there was nobody to watch them.
What’s more, those six teachers were not particularly inspired. They had a tough job, and I can understand their dwindling enthusiasm, but the fact is that they did not teach because they believed in educating the rural poor or saw it as a fundamental part of moving their nation forward. They taught because it was a good source of income with guaranteed employment. And because they had been lucky enough to take part in higher education.
The bright sparks of the classroom, the ones who would make excellent teachers, often don’t have the opportunity to realise their potential as educators: they either can’t afford it or have a responsibility to work for their family’s business. Sometimes they don’t finish school due to teenage pregnancy or early marriage. The bright sparks that do become teachers understandably use the opportunity to work in larger towns and cities, not in rural communities without electricity or running water.
In short, children in rural communities are rarely receiving as complete an education as they should be.
My understanding of the complex issues at play grew enormously during my placement, and yet I’m sure there’s still so much that I missed. There are, of course, numerous other factors that contribute to the education of the community’s youth. Most children have responsibilities at home that render homework a waste of time. Many parents value domestic help and practical skills above academic intellect (which is fair enough, when those qualities are more likely to secure a job in the surrounding area). Although primary education is free, the uniform and the workbooks and the pens and pencils are not. When the students reach Grade 8 they must start paying tuition fees, which is why so many drop out after Grade 7.
Not one of these problems is easily solved. I believe that the quality of teaching staff, however, can be improved and is therefore a good place to start.
If teaching was publicised as a more prestigious career and taking it up was somehow incentivised, there would be greater demand for places on teaching courses, which could in turn become more competitive and therefore churn out better, more qualified teachers.
If newly qualified teachers were required to complete a two-year stint, for example, in a rural community, the rural communities might benefit from increasingly well-rounded and dedicated teaching staff.
There isn’t a lot to see in the little town where I spent those three months. There is a market and a primary school and a clinic in the neighbouring town and a handful of churches belonging to different Christian faiths but that is about it.
Like children of the developed world, children in these communities grow up knowing what they can see. Whereas my peers and I have grown up with television and radio and the internet, these children have not. From a young age I have been exposed to the myriad different careers possible in the urban West. These children know how to become a farmer or a market stall owner or a health worker or a teacher.
Unsurprisingly, there were several students participating in my goal-setting exercise who declared their goal as becoming a teacher. As far as they can see, teachers are provided a house and a guaranteed job with a reasonable and secure income. They have plenty of time off work and their main task seems to be that of writing endless questions on a chalkboard. They are educated, and therefore hold a higher position in the local community than the majority of the farmers and market stall owners.
In a class of 28, at least 6 claimed to be aspiring educators.
I hope that they finish school. I hope that they are able to go to college or university. I hope that they choose to believe in the power of education, rather than the salary it provides them. I hope their dreams and talents turn into inspiration and passion. I hope that they become teachers.