“I beg, tell me if this graph makes you happy or sad, and why,” I instruct a group of teachers in my very best Ghanenglish. They’re seated in one of their own classrooms as Alhassan and I present data on staffing, enrolment, and BECE results for their schools for the past five years.
“It makes me sad,” begins one of the teachers, “because it tells me that teachers are not performing.”
It’s a valid answer; the graph clearly shows that the school is overstaffed and that performance is decreasing. His answer is incomplete, though.
“It makes me sad, because it means that parents don’t value education,” suggests another teacher.
It’s good that she’s thinking of potential causes for the data I’ve presented, but still she’s missing something.
“Basically, it means that the stakeholders-government, parents, NGOs-are not taking responsibility,” says a third teacher.
The group buzzes with agreement like a bunch of satisfied bees. I sense that they have accepted this as a complete and final answer deserving of 10/10 on a test. This seriously concerns me and I have trouble controlling my voice as I ask my next question.
“And what of the students?”
The buzzing stops and some of the teachers perk up.
I continue, “this graph makes me sad because it tells me that 60% of students who come through these schools won’t even have a chance at going to high school. It makes me sad when I think of the futures that these kids will have.”
The teachers remain quiet. I hope I’ve had some impact with that statement, but the teacher sleeping in the back tells me otherwise.
I’m starting to realize from my research, both academic and on the ground, that there’s a missing bottom line in Ghanaian education. Alhassan and I have only hit 4 junior high schools with 2/5 presentations so far, but the attitude that we’ve seen is one of a near-complete disregard for the biggest stakeholders in education: the students. I wonder: why?
Is it because donors want to see numbers telling them that 100% of children are enrolled in basic schooling? Or is it because the job market in Ghana is so crappy? Believe me, these things are definitely part of the multifaceted cause of the issue. The first because donor focus dictates policy focus, and focussing strictly on enrolment means that students are in school, but not learning. The second because teaching is a lucrative career that includes a nice steady paycheque and infinite job security. These, and not delivery of good education, are the motivations for many people to become teachers in Ghana.
I don’t know the answer, but I suspect that these things (and more) certainly play a causative role. So, then where is my value-add in all of this? That question filled my head for the rest of the presentation.
It’s something I’m still working on, but getting the teachers’ thoughts has been invaluable in informing me of my potential role. From my interactions with them so far, I can tell that the context in which they work is extremely demotivating. They are used to being blamed for low performance, but don’t have the managerial support they ought to in order to be effective. They see their colleagues treating the job trivially and feel powerless to change that.
At the end of the day, how can I blame them for wanting to wash their hands of a problem that they believe is unsolvable by any action they might be able to take? It would be overwhelming for me to accept responsibility, even in part, if I were in their shoes.
All of these things were swimming through my head as I packed up after the presentation. The demotivation of the teachers had rubbed off on me, I won’t lie, and I was feeling pretty blue.
“Excuse me,” probed a teacher, breaking the concentration I held on packing up the projector. He put out his hand for me to shake and said genuinely, “thank you for this. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and not once have we ever gotten this kind of feedback. I had no idea that my students were doing so poorly. You asked if the presentation had any impact on us. Well, it has impacted me in a way that I can’t even describe. So, thank you.”
His words contained such validation, reinforcement, and–best of all–hope that I couldn’t help but break into a huge smile as I shook his hand.