Mentored for change in education
Quality teachers for quality education
Scores of standard five at Chimwansongwe Primary School listen attentively as their teacher Grace Phiri reads a case study about conflict resolution in a Life Skills lesson.
Once she is done with the reading, a question-and-answer session ensues between the teacher and learners as Phiri fires the questions, and enthusiastic hands go up every time to provide the answers.
Phiri instructs her class to applaud each response depending on how good it is; a passable answer gets one clap, a good one gets two, a better response receives metaphorical flowers, then there’s the royal handclap (m’manja mwa amfumu), and, the pinnacle, clapping without malice (mopanda kaduka).
Kennedy Kadewere is one learner who receives the applause without malice, and the glow on his faces as he basks in the adulation of his peers is unmissable.
“I started this after enrolling in the mentorship programme because I was seeking ways to motivate my learners to participate in class,” Phiri explains.
The mentorship programme occurs under the ‘Accelerating Evidence-Based Equitable and Inclusive Education Delivery in Malawi’ initiative, which, while recognising the progress made in increasing primary school enrolment, observes that children are not learning properly, as evidenced by high repetition rates and low learning outcomes.
To improve the efficiency of the education system and address these challenges, a mentorship programme is being implemented at a pilot level to motivate and retain teachers.
With financial support from the Royal Norwegian Embassy, UNICEF Malawi has partnered with EDUKANS Foundation to establish and pilot the teacher mentorship programme in Dedza, Dowa, Lilongwe, Machinga, Mangochi, Nsanje, Salima and Thyolo.
UNICEF Malawi Education Specialist Milandu Mwale explains that the mentorship programme aims to create opportunities for teachers to do peer-to-peer learning and learn from master trainers who have been trained as mentors to address challenges in the education sector, such as professional isolation.
“Teachers are trained, given all the capacities, and are deployed. They get into a school where they encounter old teachers who have been doing things their way. At the end of the day, because this teacher is isolated, everything they learned in college disappears. And before you know it, they’ve picked all the bad habits of the other teachers,” Mwale says.
One of the mentors is Margaret Nkhoma, who notes that the mentorship framework is about sharing ideas where mentors counsel others to maintain discipline in schools and improve the quality of education.
Nkhoma, also the deputy head-teacher at Chimwansongwe Primary School in Malikha Zone in Lilongwe, observes that even though most teachers consider themselves chalk-and-board individuals, they could scale Mount Everest if motivated enough.
Despite a myriad of challenges confronting the school, such as high enrolment (2,500 learners against 52 teachers operating double shifts), shortage of teaching and learning materials, and absenteeism and late coming of teachers and learners, the active participation of teachers (five are mentors and 25 are mentees) in the mentorship programme offers cause for optimism that they can turn the corner.
She says that one significant change brought about by the mentorship programme has been improved punctuality and absenteeism among teachers and learners.
“Teachers have changed. Before a teacher signs in the time book, they must show their lesson plans. They’re sent back to do so if they haven't prepared one before signing in. If they don’t sign in, they're absent from work. And no one wants to be absent from work, so they prepare the lesson plans in advance,” she says.
Learners, too, she says, have benefitted from the mentorship programme: “The learners are behaving better since we started mentoring them together with the teachers. We discuss it with them whenever they are not doing well in class.”
Issues of preparation of lesson plans and schemes of work are not restricted to Chimwansongwe Primary School, with a similar challenge observed at Nankhonde Primary School in the same zone.
But Edith Nyirenda, a mentor and a teacher of nine years at Nankhonde, says much has changed within the last few months owing to the programme.
“For instance, teachers would go to class without lesson plans or schemes of work. But once we note such teachers, we call them aside to understand their problems. In the course of doing that, teachers change.
On the part of learners, when they misbehave, we sit them down and tell them about the benefits of education, and we see them change.
“There is no limit to the support we provide in the mentorship. Mentorship is all about approaches. Sometimes we use peer-to-peer mentoring if it works better,” Nyirenda says.
For Phiri, the standard five teachers at Chimwansongwe, the mentorship programme enables the teachers to learn continuously, which benefits learners.
“Continuous learning enables us to explain content better to learners. Children's performance is better, and their class participation is better. We can tell the difference between the levels of their participation in the first term and this third term,” she says.
Another teacher who has benefitted from the mentorship programme is Nebridius Amos Mfune, who teaches at Nankhonde Primary School.
“As a teacher, the mentorship programme helps us prepare lesson plans and schemes of work. As a result, the quality of education is improved because, as a teacher, you're prepared for work,” he says.
Damalece Mlongoti, the head teacher at the school, is a veteran of the profession, having been a teacher since 1997. She concedes that one of the challenges she faced at the school was a general expression of indiscipline among staff and students.
But one of the changes she has overseen with the mentorship programmes has been active community participation and an improved teacher and learner attitude towards education.
“There is room for improvement, such as intensified mentorship programme through the online platform,” she says.
She adds that the school also conducts regular mentorship programmes with learners as one way of strengthening the mentorship skills of the teachers, which is one of the areas covered under the Accelerating Evidence-Based Equitable and Inclusive Education Delivery in Malawi initiative.
“We have gone out of the way to invite people outside this area. We brought in a nurse who stays in Area 25 in Lilongwe and a carpenter to inspire artisanal skills in our learners,” she says.
Among the learners who have benefitted from these initiatives are Lusungu Gumbo, who aspires to become a nurse, and her cousin, Milika Gumbo, who wants to be a teacher.
“I have chosen this profession after being mentored by our teacher. I like this profession because I want to help people when they're sick, thereby reducing the high death rate in Malawi,” says Lusungu, who has just sat for the 2023 Primary School Leaving Certificate Examinations.
On the other hand, Milika says she wants “to teach the next generation in Malawi”.
It may take a while to see what Mwale calls revolutionary results, but the first seed towards improving the quality of education has been sown, not only in teachers but also in learners.
“We are hoping to start seeing some results or change of attitudes. But it will take a while for us to see revolutionary results, where teachers are motivated and interested in staying in the profession and pursuing their career growth,” Mwale says.