Teaching in Africa

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The global charity VSO runs placements for UK teachers to work in any one of 33 developing countries to help improve standards of education. We asked two recent volunteers ― who worked in Ghana and Ethiopia ― to describe their experiences.

International development charity VSO is calling for secondary school teachers to consider volunteering to help improve the quality of education in developing countries, including Ethiopia, Tanzania and Ghana.

Volunteers will be working with colleagues in these countries to improve education standards for poor and disadvantaged children by developing the language skills of teachers and delivering training programmes.

SecEd asked two volunteers to discuss their experiences. Anthony Lovat, 31, is a science teacher from Croydon who undertook a two-year placement in Ghana, while Susan Smith, 60, from Warwickshire, took on a year-long placement in Ethiopia.

Anthony Lovat

Just over a year has passed since I finished my two-year placement working as a teacher support officer in the small town of Bolgatanga in North East Ghana. I applied, thinking I would simply be a science teacher, but I soon realised my role as a VSO volunteer was actually to build a district of effective science teachers.

Ghana is heralded as one of the few African countries expected to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty rates. In spite of an emerging oil and gas industry and rapid growth, huge economic and social gaps still exist between regions. More often than not, it is children of school age who remain trapped in the cycle of poverty – particularly so in northern Ghana where I was based. 

Unlike the UK, many children do not go to secondary school in Ghana – and even though most go to primary school, only 10 per cent of children can actually read or write after completing their early education. 

School drop-out rates are high, and teaching standards need improvement; so I concentrated on encouraging the application of scientific knowledge in the classroom.

Working closely with teachers, I witnessed how science is taught as a body of knowledge that has to be learnt. As a science teacher in the UK, it is common to encourage creativity in the classroom and the application of science, rather than the regurgitation of information. 

As I settled into Bolgatanga, I began to share simple solutions to help bring science to life and capture the imagination of students. I used rubber from a local market to create a Newton meter to measure forces and friction, and uncooked beans to build electronic configurations of atoms. 

But resources in themselves were not the problem – in fact I found school cupboards full of unused science equipment donated in the 1990s; teachers had not opened the boxes because no-one knew how to use any of it.

Most of my two years was spent running workshops for qualified and unqualified science teachers at secondary level. I trained some of the local teachers to deliver training sessions themselves, so the work has continued.

Getting to know the teachers and headteachers individually was really important – there was a Ghana Association of Science Teachers with a network of contacts throughout the region which I harnessed to organise training workshops around the region.

It is tough being a teacher in Ghana because it is an underpaid profession. I met some teachers who wanted to be drivers because they felt they would earn more. Also, career progression is not related to merit, often your position is more about family connections.

I loved living alongside Ghanaian people and even joined a local band. I would definitely recommend the experience to others – I ended up training hundreds of science teachers over two years, something I would probably never do in the UK.

One of the highlights was getting the Ghana Association of Science Teachers to bring its conference to the Upper East region of Ghana for the first time in 25 years. The conference always happens in the more developed cities of the south, but it is the north that really benefits from such things.

It meant that several hundred science teachers all came to our town, which was also a good boost to the local economy. Such experiences show how enriching the experience of volunteering can be.

Susan Smith

As I approach the end of my one-year placement training education lecturers in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, I am hopeful that the future teachers of this district will feel more able and confident to turn up for classes than they did previously. A box of chalk and a board rubber will be a thing of the past.

In a country where 2.7 million children do not go to school, VSO has been working through the government to engage pupils in learning and improve the quality of education they receive. My main work has been to train lecturers and student teachers at a teacher training college in the Shamboo district of the Ethiopian highlands. 

Back in 2003, VSO volunteers worked collaboratively with the Ministry of Education to devise a one-year national course called the Higher Diploma Programme and since its inception, it has exceeded targets and more than 6,000 lecturers have been trained. These trained Ethiopian lecturers have continued to filter skills such as lesson planning, continuous assessment, active learning methods and action research through the education system. 

For the past nine months, I have been sharing my skills in these areas, which are common practice in the UK but new in Ethiopia, and helping lecturers devise ways to pass them on to their students. To ensure the training is put into practice, I have also been visiting schools and supporting existing teachers with their professional development so they keep learning on the job. 

Lesson plans are not commonplace here; when I first began sessions at the teacher training college I would ask “where are your lesson plans?” and get looks of concern from a room full of blank faces. 

Since then, my colleagues have begun to understand the importance of lesson plans and how much they can contribute to the students’ learning experience. There is also the constant challenge of very limited resources, so while I am trying to promote active learning and using classroom displays, there are often very basic materials with which to be creative – but we get by!

Different faculties often worked together on projects in my former secondary school back in the UK, but that does not seem to happen much here. Teachers tend to work in isolation – rather than being collaborative they can be competitive, so sharing ideas is something I have really been trying to encourage.

I have come across some bizarre rules during my time here. For example, many regions enforce a height regulation that states teachers need to be tall enough to reach the blackboard. While I can’t change many such things, I believe some of my work will lead to long-term change.

Classes are very large and as a result learning students’ names can be a challenge. I have encouraged teachers to try and learn the names of their pupils as it helps to build relationships. 

Often exams can be written to simply elicit “yes or no” answers, and I have guided teachers to set papers that demand students offer a more thoughtful response to really test their understanding.

Before doing VSO, I had worked in the same school in the UK for 36 years. I had always had VSO at the back of my mind, so I applied as a way of giving something back. Aside from my work, I have also enjoyed many aspects of life here, which for me, is quite evocative of 1950s England.

Back in the UK, we have moved on at such a pace but here there is a strong sense of family and community; and even though many live with far fewer comforts and luxuries, they are not dissatisfied. I have learned just how resourceful my Ethiopian colleagues are and it has been a great honour and privilege to work with them.

Further information
Since coming back to the UK and returning to work in Croydon, Anthony has written about his experiences and published a book about his time in Ghana. Entitled Stories from Two Years in Ghana, it is available via Amazon. 
 
CAPTION: (From top) A child at school in Ethiopia; Anthony Lovat at the Ghana Association of Science Teachers conference; Susan Smith spent a year training education lecturers in Oromia region.


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