Better teachers, stronger nation, safer pussycats

Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 12 October 2019:

A teacher is more than an educator. A teacher can play all roles – the role of a friend, counsellor or mentor. A teacher can be the guiding force in our lives, even after we pass through the portals of our school and step into the world that lies ahead to be conquered.

Teaching is the profession that teaches all other professions. One would be forgiven for thinking, based on everyday occurrences these days, that teachers are the scum of the earth. With the spate of examination cheating episodes, led mainly by teachers, sex for grades scandals, open soliciting of money from students and the impartation of knowledge being put to the backburner by teachers, it is little wonder that a profession that was once revered is now the subject of so much derision.

The denigration of the profession is particularly irksome to someone like me with family steeped deep into the profession. My mother was a teacher. My father was a teacher turned pastor. Both my late father in law and mother in law were teachers. I was also a UU (untrained and unqualified) teacher for a year.

But it has not always been like this. Some of us look back with fondness at people in this profession that were our own “flagbearers”, who shaped us into what we are today. It does not matter that, looking back after all these years some of the things they taught us spin our heads. We still do acknowledge the part they played in shaping our young minds.

I have always remembered the song Mrs Ajami taught us in Class 1 in Kenema:

“Don’t do that to the poor pussycat”.

Don’t do that to the poor pussycat
Oh no no no no
Don’t do that to the poor pussycat
For you might be a pussycat yourself one day!

I grew up making sure I treated pussycats and other animals with care. And after all these years, I am now convinced that I will never be a pussycat as I thought in those days. I do appreciate the moral of the story- to be kind to animals or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

I have never been able to fathom, though why John Bull was sent to school just to learn how to spell his name. We sang the children’s song “John Bull” with gusto:

John Bull, John Bull my boy
I sent you to school
To learn how to spell John Bull
John Bull, J-o-h-n, John, B-u-l-l, Bull
and that’s way to spell John Bull

With the way the educational system is going these days, some may sing this song but still not know how to spell John Bull! We did learn some quaint stuff also about nut trees and wished the Queen of Spain’s daughter would visit us, but she never did! My part in a pantomime was to recite- “I had a little nut tree”. Mrs Ajami would announce-Andrew Keili will now recite “I had a little nut tree” and I would step up and do her proud:

I had a little nut tree
Nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear
The King of Spain’s daughter
Came to visit me,
And all for the sake
Of my little nut tree

Over the years, I, like most other people has grown to appreciate my teachers. Lifelong teachers who have shaped the lives of their students look back with satisfaction to see how well their students have done in life and the students do reciprocate by holding them in high esteem.

You only need to have a roll call of famous teachers to realise that some are almost immortal in our eyes-Festus Seiwoh, Uncle Sheik, Lasite, Max Bailor, Father Lambe, Gabriel Amara. No doubt, everyone would have his or her own list. Some of these teachers were so famous their reputation went way beyond their schools.

So many others have cited their teaching idols – Miss Florence Dillsworth, Mrs Bertha Conton etc. I remember SOK, with fondness at CKC who taught me to like Maths. Some people even remember “spare the child and spoil the rod” teachers with fondness even when they might have beaten the hell out of them for no good reason.

Teachers in our school days were well paid and respected in society. They repaid us with their devotion to work. I recall we had teachers coming from countries as far afield as Sri Lanka, India,  Hungary, Canada-not to mention the vast array of Irish Catholic priests. Teaching conditions were so good that many expatriate and local teachers even owned cars.

What then has happened to this noble profession? Why have the exam cheats, doughnut sellers, sex for grade sellers, extortionists, WASCE cheats taken over such a noble profession? What does the future hold for the teaching profession?

The government is spending a whole lot on education as its flagship programme. The realisation has now set in that whatever is done, we should realise that the teacher is key. I listened to an impressive speech on World Teachers’ day by the Chair of the Teaching service Commission, Dr. Staneala Beckley in which she analysed the problems of the profession and proffered the way forward for revamping this noble profession. She lamented the fact that all we hear now about teachers is about scandals and poor student performance. She however reminded us that teaching is the “mother of all professions”.

The theme for this year’s World Teachers’ Day, she said was “Young teachers, the future of our profession”, reminding us about some sobering statistics. Sixty percent of teachers are in fact under forty one years of age but the majority leave after only five years. The teaching force is fragile and lacks dynamism.

Only sixteen percent of teachers stay on in the profession till retirement. “There is need for teachers to nurture young minds and teachers should serve as role models”, she said.  Our clarion call should be “Better teachers, stronger nation”. She further stressed the need for better conditions of service for teachers. Fact is that many people just do not yet recognise it as a profession but regard it as a temporary path to another profession.

Education Minister, Alpha Timbo, himself a teacher realizes the importance of the profession. He has noted that sixty five of teachers, especially in primary schools are not qualified and has touted plans to licence teachers  by having a Teachers licence certificate issued by the TSC. In revamping our educational sector, the TSC as the body spearheading matters relating to teachers needs all the support it can get.

It does have a very wide mandate including serving as an advisory body to the Minister on all matters pertaining to teachers, registering and licencing teachers, recruiting, promoting, posting, transferring  and dismissing teachers, developing and reviewing standards and codes of professional ethics for teachers, looking after the conditions of teachers etc.-a very wide mandate.

I will end by quoting from Awoko newspaper, a statement also made by Dr Staneala Beckley at the recent budget discussion session: “The Chair of the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) Staneala M. Beckley has expressed her disappointment with what she says is going on in Sierra Leone, in that the focus on teachers is not strong as it should be.

“Yes, we say standards of education have fallen…don’t we know why? When you talk about quality education you are also talking about teachers, so all this talk about teachers not performing and teacher malpractice have been out of the radar screen for a long time” she said during the 2020 Budget Discussion.

Madam Beckley said that if as a nation we do not put our house in order by focusing on teachers’ motivation and performance, “we may as well forget about it, because teachers hold the key.”

The teachers who are at the fore front she said are the first deliverers of quality education and they are the ones in the classroom and face over 60 children and sometimes 100 and they are expected to perform miracles. “They will not, unless we start looking at the teaching workforce by reforming it. A major operation is required for education” she added.

How true! Indeed, we need better teachers to build a stronger nation. The learning may have changed considerable from John Bull, nut trees and pussycats, but the objectives still remain the same. Teacher issues must be taken seriously if we are to seriously address our educational quagmire.

Someone wrote-“The teaching profession has a great impact on the overall growth, development and well-being of the students, society and the country. A teacher is a beacon in the darkness and a hope that gives the students courage and strength to lead their life. Students can never repay the valuable contribution of their teachers who arouse their hearts with the light of knowledge by removing all sorts of ignorance.” So true!

I wish we could also refer to our teachers in the way someone referred to teachers in a paper I recently read: “Teachers are amazing because… They have patience. They define multi tasking. They are smart. They always make it work. They are dedicated. They are creative. They never give up. They are selfless. They are caring. They are superheroes. And please, don’t do that to the poor pussycat! Ponder my thoughts.

1 Comment

  1. The free ‘quality’ education, which is the flagship programme of the present ruling SLPP government, was not a well-thought-out idea designed to strengthen and solidify educational values in Sierra Leone. It was a political gimmick, visualized out of the blue, and perceived to derive instant outcomes. In effect, it was a desperate politician’s way of thinking; and not a wholeheartedly desire to improve quality in education.

    This article brings out the salient point of the importance of the TEACHER. Notwithstanding, today, in Sierra Leone the teacher is not regarded as an important element of the educational compound or structure. Even the casual market woman does not see teaching as worthy of a profession for her sons and daughters to undertake. Since that very teacher, would always come knocking at her door for survival.

    For the free ‘quality’ education to succeed and become sustainable, first and foremost, the teacher must be reasonably compensated for their pastoral endeavours. Just like in a market economy, with perfect competition, the price tag signifies quality, and will also act as a magnetic force to attract (or shift) supply and demand of goods or service. In present day Sierra Leone, teaching is not seen as a beneficial profession, but just a mere stop-gap activity. Why? Simply because, the price for teaching is ridiculously not right!

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