It took about two minutes to realize that I was in the presence of a good teacher. To keep their attention, she asked the children questions about the story she was reading, pointing out details of the illustrations. She spoke the local language Tonga, so I couldn’t understand her, but her face was alight, animated, engaging. These Zambian second graders hardly noticed the Americans standing in their Mwandi Community School classroom.
Children vied for the chance to practice the lower case “c” at the chalkboard. Then she asked them to make it backwards and eventually combined them to make the letter “s.” The lesson was part science, part art. Lavis Nzabula, young and inexperienced, is a volunteer teacher in this rural community school. In villages too far from public schools for their children to walk, parents in rural Zambia took action about 15 years ago and started their own schools. Now there are about 4,000 of them.
Mwandi was launched under a tree, but with donor support it now has rudimentary classrooms. Community school teachers usually have about six years of primary school education. If they’re lucky, the local parent group can afford to give them a hut, but more likely they’re paid with a bag or two of maize meal each month. In contrast, public school teachers in Zambia make a modest $300-$400 a month.
Since 2010 when USAID committed to getting 100 million more children reading and learning — 1 million in Zambia — we’ve helped the Zambian Ministry of Education provide the community volunteer teachers with in-service training in the 5-step process of teaching reading. In some cases the community schools are out-performing the public schools.
Wick Powers, USAID Zambia’s Education Officer, attributes this to “motivation, attitude, time-on-task and more effective pedagogical approaches to teaching reading through a child-centered learning environment as opposed to teacher ‘chalk and talk’ lecturing.”
When finances allow, the ministry has started to send trained head teachers — about 800 last year — to community schools to provide support and build capacity among the local teacher corps.
Private partners are sponsoring boxes of supplemental reading materials for children to check out and take home just like they do for the public schools. Education officials increasingly listen to the PTA’s who manage the community schools and monitor the teachers. Many community schools in Zambia upgrade their operational standards to meet the established criteria to convert or be mainstreamed as public schools in order to receive ministry-trained teachers, funding, and other benefits.
In some cases, the communities don’t want that. The volunteer teachers are friends and neighbors, young people who have potential but no access to further education. They have a vested interest in teaching the village kids to read. With the help of weekend trainings, watching experienced teachers via cell phone videos, and coaching by head teachers, these novice teachers are improving. Some of them will earn the credentials that will qualify them for salaried positions.
In Twabuka, another nearby school, a young man, Akapelwa Muimui, is doing his best to teach the children gathered around him how to read in the local language of Tonga even though he is a native Bemba speaker. The two languages aren’t that different, and he’s doing a credible job according to the experts who are with me. The closer I move to his chair at the front of the room, the easier it is to see his hands shaking, but the children don’t notice. A visit to such schools from foreigners is rare, enervating, and perhaps even exhilarating for both teachers and children alike. Later when I ask a few of them to read words from their notebooks, they sound them out phonetically just as their teacher has taught them.
The intense teacher training and curriculum changes (Zambia rolled out an entirely new national curriculum in 2014) were largely triggered by simple comprehensive tests that USAID has helped develop and administer in countries around the world. The Early Grade Reading Assessment (EGRA) has shown that children in grades 1-3 have not been learning to read. The evidence has forced government officials in many countries, including Zambia (which has some of the lowest scores in Africa) to take a hard look at the curriculum, the materials, training for principals and teachers, and their management and assessment systems.
The Zambian Government made a significant commitment to substantial changes that include switching to teaching reading in the seven local languages that children are born to and grow up hearing in their neighborhoods. The change has caused some controversy and a healthy public debate, but the evidence shows that children learn to read best in their first language. Once they master the process of reading, it’s easier to learn other languages including English. The government is investing in a USAID-supported public outreach campaign, Let’s Read Zambia, to educate parents and communities about the new reading curriculum, and they’re gaining the support of many parents who can more easily help their children practice reading at home or monitor their progress by checking homework on a daily basis.
As a veteran teacher myself, it’s encouraging to see the investment in teacher education — helping experienced teachers understand the need to change their tactics and helping teachers with no formal education to understand the step-by-step process of learning to read so children can eventually read to learn.
It may take a few years for the exam scores to reflect the changes and the commitment of the Zambian people and their government to their children, but the informal evaluations that teachers are taught to deliver along the way are proof enough for now that children are learning.Their parents recognize it too, and parent workshops are teaching them to take a more active role. As a parent said to me, “I used to get angry when the teacher sent homework and expected me to help. I thought she wanted me to do her job. Now I know I’m also my child’s teacher.”