I’ve been a teacher for almost 22 years and have spent most of my teaching career in Atwatia in the Denkyembour district, which is the main centre for diamond mining in Ghana.
On a typical day, I get up before dawn, at 5am. I make breakfast for my three children and then walk or drive to school, which is just 20 minutes from where I live. Lessons start at 7.15am.
I currently teach home economics to boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 13, but I really prefer working with older students, who are 15 or 16. That’s because this is a very critical age for young people, when they are beginning to question authority and to think more independently. It is a time when a teacher can make a real impact. I always advise them to take their studies seriously, so that they can become responsible adults in future.
I also try to promote subjects like science and maths. In Ghana, there is a belief that these subjects are preserved for the male students, and that they are very difficult for girls to learn. But I want to see more girls enrolling to continue their studies in science and maths.
Prejudice about girls is not the only thing that makes teaching here difficult. One of our biggest problems is the huge number of students per class. There are about 140 children in our school, but there can be as many as 56 in one class.
The school also doesn’t provide us with much equipment, especially when it comes to practical work. When I teach a cooking lesson, the children and I have to find our own tools. We carry things like baking tins, scales and small stoves into school and the pupils contribute money to buy ingredients.
Health is another major problem. This is a mining community and after the miners dig holes, they don’t cover them up again. When it rains, the holes fill with water and the mosquitos breed there. Almost every day someone in the school will fall sick with malaria. Many children are also infected by bilharzia, a kind of parasitic worm that can damage organs including the bladder, kidneys and liver.
We recently had some training to screen our students’ eyesight and give out deworming tablets. It was run by our government along with the charity Sightsavers and Imperial College London’s Partnership for Child Development. Until then, I didn’t realise that some of the students sitting at the back of the classroom couldn’t see the writing on the chalkboard. I noticed they were struggling, but we didn’t know that they had a problem with their vision. Now, after a term with new glasses, these children are learning better.
We have a short break during the day for lunch and school finishes at 3pm. I sometimes have marking to do, so I take the books home. Juggling my time is not easy.
Every now and then, I bump into students who I used to teach. A few of them work at St Dominic’s hospital in Akwatia. Others are teachers, or work in other professional roles. Seeing them succeed makes me feel very happy. It reminds me that I love my job and that I’m proud to be a teacher.
Ellen Sakyiwaa is a home economics teacher at GCD Junior High School in Denkyembour