Margaret, Schools in Poor Regions

25 Mar

Poverty does affect learning levels. In country after country the data shows that the poor are being left behind in terms of learning outcomes. Strangely, this is not always a function of investments in the education infrastructure – though of course it helps. In India, a six year longitudinal study just concluded by Prof. Karthik Muralidharan has concluded that learning outcomes across government and private sector schools were similar (though both rather low) though the private sector did manage to achieve these at one third of the cost. 

Margaret teaches in a school in Kibera, one of the largest slums in Africa. Around 60% or 70% of the children in her school can read and write when they leave school, but according to her, “it’s a challenge teaching kids from poorer sections of the society. Teaching individual children is not easy; you have to teach in groups instead. The difficulty also lies in diversity among the kids. In her own words, ‘we have children of all abilities. We are quite supportive and responsive to the needs of children. We struggle sometimes – it takes longer – you have to have extra time for teaching”. But is this a disincentive to the teachers? Margaret would disagree, according to her that is what actually makes you want to be a teacher. She says, that in a slum we try to give quality but we cannot give the best because of the numbers. Because of the shortage of teachers, the school allow volunteers to come. We give them $80-90 per month that is all. Not enough, but they love teaching and that is all. She adds, “I have so many memorable students. Oh my goodness! There is a very big number of children who have done well. I’m so excited about all the children in my head! That is my joy”.

Teachers like Margaret also help the new teachers adapt to teaching under such challenging circumstances. The new teachers are trained on how to handle large groups. Especially, when you have a mixture or students of different learning levels, she says, give more work to fast learners and more attention to slow learners. Most of these children are first generation learners and hence one of the reasons some of the students who live in poverty aren’t learning is because their parents did not learn. The slum is made up of parents who are illiterate. In the slum community I think the literate make up maybe 20%. There are 80% who did not go to school or if they did they did not have a very good education. They don’t see the value of education so they don’t follow up. What stands out is that these teachers come from the same community as the children or have similar backgrounds. Some other challenges these teachers face are lack of parental participation because they believe the government should give everything for the child’s education and they don’t need to do anything extra, there are kids who are doing odd jobs at home – carrying water for people, going looking for papers to sell – doing odd jobs in the slum over the weekend, fending for themselves, some children that can’t do their homework at home because there’s no electricity or space at home etc. Then, what is the cause of such high levels of sustained motivation among these poorly-paid and under-resourced teachers who teach children with such diverse challenges? What stands out is that these teachers come from the same community as the children or have similar backgrounds. Margaret says that she grew up in a setting almost like slum and give herself to them as an example. In her words, “When you come from a slum, because my father was very poor, I know what it means to be sleeping hungry, struggling with education. It was our ambition that with school you can better yourself because that is how we became teachers, so we tell them that everything is possible with an education”.

On the issue of teacher training Margret says that there is no training for how to teach in slum schools! We’re given training to teach anywhere where there are children – not even in a school! Even if there is no school but there are children, you teach under a tree! But they do have in service courses, workshops and seminars, on new trends in education in addition to the peer-support from senior teachers.  

The government policy provides free education to all but more than just being a policy there is an active societal participation towards leveraging this provision. For example, children go out campaigning to get other children to come to school. We don’t turn away any child. The leaders, the chief, government officials will look for children in the slum to bring them to school, especially those who have special needs. And the local leaders around here try to bring the children to school too. But even with governmental support there are other micro level issues that needs to be addressed. For example, the government spends money for exercise books. But the books get filled up before the government can give more so the parents chip in. If they can’t chip in, it’s a challenge. We have identified those who are extremely poor. When they run out, we order extra for them and give those books. We provide sanitary for the girls because the school population is poor and because we want girls to come. Because of their maturity, the government gives sanitary towels every month. But sometimes their parents and older siblings take them from them. There are now even higher numbers of girls than boys in my school! 

Beyond all the challenges facing the provision of quality education to the poor, motivated teachers like Margret educate kids from poor backgrounds overcoming a spectrum of challenges. At the end of the day, it leads us to question the wisdom of spending more money on physical inputs to school than identify and provide the right incentives to teachers. Are there incentives that can create motivated and aspirational teachers like Margret and her colleagues at scale? Should we stop spending money on buildings and more on capacity building within the school ecosystem? These are the questions that Margret leaves us with when she says, “I am a mother of four. Apparently they didn’t want to become teachers (laughs). I shall be the last teacher in the family! I carry my bag, this work it keeps you busy, no, but it’s what I love”. 

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