By Doreen Matonga, UNICEF Malawi
Sydney Chiunda, 30, is a teacher at a rural school in Nkhatabay District. The school is located over 30 kilometres from Nkhatabay Boma but less than two kilometres from Lake Malawi. It is common seeing fishermen passing by the school carrying their daily catch. The school has a combination of old and new structures, with the recent additions being the newly built Child Friendly classrooms, an administration block and a library.
Sydney always admired the teachers who taught him when he was a child. Their influence was so strong that he decided to become one himself. It was no surprise that when an opportunity arose for him to train as a teacher, he grabbed it with both hands. Sydney graduated from Karonga Teacher Training College in 2011 and now teaches at Mdyaka 11 Primary School in Nkhatabay District.
As a young and energetic teacher, Sydney was ready to thrive in the teaching profession. But when he arrived at Mdyaka 11 Primary School, he found it in a bad shape. There are 574 students but just five teachers including the Headmaster (a sixth teacher is on maternity leave). Due to the shortage of teachers, Sydney found himself teaching two classes: a Standard 7 class of 47 children and a Standard 3 class with a staggering 120 learners.
“During my training, we were warned of the desperate situation of the teaching industry in Malawi, especially if we planned on teaching in government schools,” Sydney says. “However at no point did I ever think that I would have to juggle two classes.”
As he talks, Sydney keeps looking through the Library window which is centrally located, giving him an opportunity to check if his Standard 3 class is still doing the work he has given them, while his Standard 7 class are copying notes from the board.
Passion amidst limited resources
Talking to Sydney reveals a young and passionate teacher whose present circumstances are hindering him from delivering his best to the students. “I start my day as early as 5am, reading through all nine subjects for my Standard 7 class,” he says.
Sydney’s first class runs from 7:30 to 2pm. He has two and a half hours with this class until 10am, when his Standard 3 class begins. Between 10am and 2pm, when the first class finishes, Sydney moves from one class to another, teaching one class while the other is doing written exercises. He has no time for a lunch break.
“The overlap from 10 to 2 is the most difficult time for me as a teacher, because I know I am supposed to be with the learners, supporting them if they don’t understand. But I do not have that luxury,” he says. “By the time I reach the second lesson in my Standard 3 class, I am usually tired from standing and teaching since morning.”
Sydney spends his day standing and teaching until 4pm when his second class dismisses. He then goes back to the routine of lesson planning for both classes and reading the materials to enable him teach competently the following day.
“I am confident to teach science subjects as this is my speciality,” he says. “But due to the situation in Mdyaka 11, I have to teach all subjects including some I am less experienced in.”
Despite all these challenges, Sydney’s students are doing reasonably well. “I have learnt a lot from my teacher and I am ready to sit for my primary leaving exams this year,” says 13-year-old Wells Chirwa, a Standard 8 student at the school.
Advocating for change
UNICEF is working to keep children in schools, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. The children’s organisation is advocating with the Malawi Government to address class sizes and teacher shortages by increasing the rural teachers’ allowance in hard to reach areas. UNICEF is also calling for free basic education to be extended by two years to age 15, and for full implementation of national school standards, including identifying and working with the families of vulnerable children to prevent school dropout.
“Sydney’s case highlights the extraordinary pressures that rural teachers are under in Malawi,” UNICEF Education Specialist Kimanzi Muthengi says. “If we are to recruit and retain the best teachers, they need more support. This should include an additional hardship allowance in the hardest to reach areas, support with accommodation, and more teachers, including volunteer teaching assistants, to reduce class sizes.”
For Sydney, these changes cannot come soon enough. His day does not even end with his second class. Besides being a teacher and Sports Master at the school, he is also the school Librarian. His duties include clearing and recording books for dispatch from the cluster library (a centrally located library shared with three other nearby schools) and supporting students who use the library three times a week, including on Saturdays.
“I was one of the teachers who got very excited at the idea of having the cluster library,” he says. “But due to the shortage of teachers, we have to ask interested learners to come on Saturdays, as they can only read two times during the week.”
Since he teaches in a rural area, Sydney was previously paid a 5,000 kwacha (less than $7 USD) hardship allowance on top of his salary, which he says he is no longer receiving. To make things worse, teachers’ salaries come very late, with many teachers receiving their pay in the middle of the following month, forcing them to borrow from the local community.
“I still love teaching but in the current situation it is difficult to achieve quality education,” Sydney says. “Juggling two classes at the same time makes me feel I am not delivering my best. I know my capacity as a teacher but I worry that I am short changing the learners in both classes.”