The Biggest Stakeholders

“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.

Alhassan delivers the results of a survey on teachers' perceptions of data use, student performance, and their influence on student performance.

“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.

Teachers give us feedback on what they can do to improve the quality of their teaching.

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.

-C

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8 responses to “The Biggest Stakeholders

  1. This is one of the best posts I’ve seen, Christian. Kudos to you for piping up with the comment on students.

  2. Inspiring blog post Chris!

    While I was reading your analysis of the lack of focus on the ultimate stakeholder – the students, I was thinking to myself; “but surely, there are teachers in Ghana who are passionate about teaching!”
    I’m glad to see that you met one of them at the end of the presentation, and my question now is, how do we support these teachers to lead by example and revolutionize the education systems in Ghana?

    • Thanks, Mina!
      That’s an excellent question to focus my thoughts forward. Right now, I’m not too sure how I would answer it. I can think of many different possible ways to support teachers, but I don’t know if any of them are viable. However, I met a really awesome teacher during my school stay, so at the very least I’m committed to finding out what he has to say. So far, he has suggested a holistic approach targeting management, parents, teachers, and the government at once. Seems overwhelming, but my conversations with him are definitely not over and I will certainly keep my readers posted as far as his other insights.

  3. So can I just start by saying that you are basically the most amazing person that I have ever met?
    Because you are.
    This post is so important! While I was reading it, I was thinking to myself, wow, these are super important observations. That you were able to pick out that the issue is the students is just astounding. Obviously no one had mentioned that side of things to these teachers before. I find it super interesting that they were so quick to blame outside factors for the low pass rate, rather than think about the welfare of the students. Clearly a major paradigm shift is necessary in order for hangs to occur in any real way. You may have started one off.
    I’m super excited to hear about what insights you gain from your time in the high school this week. I wish you luck, and I’m thinking of you 🙂

  4. I know this wasn’t the main thrust of the post, but I was struck by something here that I’ve been reading elsewhere – the ease of use of ‘NGO-speak’ among beneficiaries (eurgh, I hate that word) or partners. Having worked with and seen so many organizations and taken part in so many workshops and presentations, people are very familiar with both the terminology/jargon (“stakeholders,” ownership, etc.) and the general things these groups are trying to do (improve performance, increase local ownership, etc.). People and community groups that can speak this language are able to appeal to NGOs and donors more effectively, and so this is the language that’s most often used because it gets results and people know that’s what “we” want to hear (not that there’s any kind of ‘gaming the system,’ per se, more like a donor bias). It seems from this account like a lot of that has become ingrained – these individuals knew what you were there for, could see that data, and were able to extrapolate the lessons they figured they were “supposed” to get from it (maybe because of the capacity-building fatigue they all go through, as you’ve mentioned before) instead of connecting to it emotionally and seeing it at the most basic level – students not getting opportunities.

    Also, I just read this article about STEM (science, tech, eng, & math) teachers in North America – the US loses about 30 000 per year – and the fatigue of working in a system that doesn’t support you, and just what ‘support’ can look like in order to improve retention of teachers and quality of teaching.

    • Ugh, NGO-speak! Everyone I’ve met in Ghanaian education is well-versed in it and it’s very frustrating to have to translate the doublespeak all the time. In this case, though, I specifically used it to my advantage. I suspected that the teachers knew the NGO-speak meaning of “stakeholder”, and that was the meaning that I wanted to convey to them about students.

      Thank you so much for the article! That kind of thing is super helpful to me, so if you ever want to send more, feel free!

  5. DO NOT TEMPT ME, FRODO BAGGINS.

    (Because seriously, all I do is read and share amazing articles about development on the interwebs all day. Such is my job. Be careful what you wish for…)

    P.S. RELATED: All the winners of Google’s Youth Science Fair this year were girls! YAY 😀 😀

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