Rebecca Ume Crook, a former school principal and lifelong educator and explorer, traveled 4,000 kilometers by public transport to document learning in four countries in Southern Africa. In today’s story she shares her most memorable snapshots and stories from that journey, and the lessons she learned along the way.
It was the first day of school, the air heavy with anticipation and the dust from children running to class. Like every year, I donned the clothes I had carefully laid out the night before, ate breakfast, and speed-walked to class.
But, for the first time since I entered kindergarten in 1993, I was neither a student, a teacher, nor a school leader. This time, I was an observer. A photographer.
January 13th, 2016. The Head Teacher of Bikita Mines School greeted my fellow storyteller, Zach, and me. He shared challenges of years past, waving his arm in the direction of children learning beneath a tree while construction continued on their classroom nearby. He shared hopes for the future, introducing us to three student teachers under the tutelage of seasoned educator Martha Tazai.
“It is easy to bend a tree when it is still tender,” said Blessing Manex, a student at the local teaching college. “That’s why I want to be a primary school teacher. My dream for my students is that they will go on to achieve their dreams. And I want them to have good ethics and values and always be proud of the society they come from.”
Similar to his students, I thought that Blessing and other young teachers like him were wonderfully tender trees worth investing in and mentoring as leaders who will transform opportunities for their communities through education.
“You can look and the facilities here are not good for school — but the one thing that is encouraging us to send our kids here is the way they teach. The standard of teaching is very good. They monitor. They go for each student. And if a performance is not good, the parent is called, so it shows that the teachers show a lot of interest. They don’t just get the money and go. It’s not just the money — it’s to improve the opportunities for the students.”
Harrington Masula, a parent of three students at Chitsanzo Private Primary School explained his choice to send his children there instead of the free government school down the road. Chitsanzo was founded in 2013 by Raphael Matthias, a former government school teacher.
Raphael’s vision and his teachers’ commitment to the community are undeniable. Yet Chitsanzo’s quality of teaching, while better than the public school, still will not equip students to exercise agency in pursuing their dreams. Most teachers lack training and support to execute the vision they have for facilitating transformative education.
In Mr. Mtambo’s standard 6 science class, laughter and learning go hand in hand. I sat in a lesson for 30 minutes, mesmerized as students learned about respiration. Just as school was ending, I asked the students if they liked their teacher. “Yes!” was the emphatic response.
“He loves teaching. He doesn’t want us to fail,” said Janet.
“He makes everything fun. Like the one time he was teaching us about amphibians and started hopping like a frog.”
“The thing is,” Mr. Mtambo told me, “I learn from them every day too.”
Mr. Mtambo went on to speak about how his relationships with students helped them to learn. Because he knew student backgrounds, family situations, and what motivates them, he said he was able to make science and learning more relevant. I wondered how we could connect teachers like Mr. Mtambo to others, empowering him to share his techniques that marry learning with joy.
“I commit to helping my students fully express themselves through dance, music, and creativity, all while teaching them to master math content,” said Mr. Moyo, a first year math teacher at a network of low-fee private schools. Mr. Moyo also piloted “Innovation Week,” in which students designed and executed a Market Day to serve homeless community members through a human-centered design thinking process.
“If teachers aren’t empowered and respected, than they can’t do their best work,” Mr. Moyo reflected. “I have been pushed and challenged to my maximum, but the people around me believed and supported me always.”
From a shortage of resources about professional development for teachers to corrupt officials siphoning resources meant for learning materials, the myriad barriers to universal high-quality education in Africa are complex. Yet the hundreds of hours I spent in classrooms convinced me that there are educators who have solutions to the challenges many classrooms and education systems across the globe face.
Leaders like Raphael and teachers like Mr. Mtambo and Mrs. Tazai design contextualized solutions. From new approaches to engaging illiterate parents to teaching 70 children in the sand, they do extraordinary work. Local and global communities must recognize their expertise rather than chastise their “laziness” and “incompetency.”
In meeting and speaking with over 100 teachers, my own role in educational equity became more clear. Particularly in a context where I am an outsider, I don’t need to start a school, or lead a classroom. Local heroes with deep contextual understanding, years of practice, and zealous passion exist. My work is to connect, support, and mentor them so they can forge a new reality — one in which all teachers and students (from South Africa to Malawi and beyond) have the tools they need to fulfill their potential.