African adventure widens horizons

19th November 2010 at 00:00
A life-changing trip to Malawi with VSO was also a step up into the world of school management for one West Lothian primary teacher

"It's changed my life," says West Lothian primary teacher Caroline Ssentamu, looking back at her experience with Voluntary Services Overseas in Malawi.

It is not a surprising statement once you discover she met her future husband, Ugandan Jonathan Ssentamu, on VSO at the same time. But the 30- year-old is also referring to how her teaching has been transformed.

Mrs Ssentamu arrived in Malawi in February 2007, having been encouraged to do so by a far-sighted headteacher, Frances Rosevear, who saw that it could be invaluable for both her school (Winchburgh Primary) and her colleague's continuing professional development.

There was a week's intensive training before going out to work, but as a young classroom teacher from a smallish school of about 150 pupils, taking on the role of CPD facilitator with 11 primary education advisers remained a daunting prospect.

"I was thinking, `I'm just a primary school teacher - I'm not a manager,'" she recalls.

There was little time to wring her hands about the challenge ahead. Miss Pitcairn, as she then was, zigzagged huge distances across the north of Malawi, literally ploughing through rainy-season mud on a motorbike and encountered teachers taking classes of up to 200 pupils.

She had to organise training on setting up school libraries, record- keeping, management styles, special needs and subject-based workshops for maths, science and language.

"Participatory sessions were a totally new experience for a lot of people - they were used to just being talked at," she recalls.

The Malawian government was in the process of introducing a new curriculum, eager to move away from "chalk-and-talk" classes and get teachers sharing practice. Cultural differences soon emerged: Miss Pitcairn discovered that ideas were jealously guarded and teachers were often reluctant to give colleagues the benefit of their expertise.

Then there was the time-keeping. She would arrive sharp for a 9am meeting, but could be kept waiting until noon for others to turn up. She soon learned to relax about start times, as she discovered that tardiness was a sign of differing priorities, not disrespect. Beginning a meeting half-an- hour late became a small triumph.

"Family comes first; the human aspect comes first," she says. "In Scotland, we are a lot more work-orientated."

Sometimes huge classes would be left without a teacher, as staff dropped everything to go to a funeral - a regular occurrence given the scourge of HIVAIDS.

Mrs Ssentamu has become "more chilled" about coming up against the unexpected. The 11 education advisers she worked with later became 50 - a testing experience that left her "a lot more confident about her abilities" and far better at delegating.

She also came back to Scotland less tolerant of throwaway attitudes to paper and other classroom materials: "You see teachers who don't have any resources - that does make you think about how lucky you are."

Since returning in 2008 to Winchburgh Primary, where she is a P2 teacher but organises global education across the age groups, she has not hammered home an image of helpless Africans mired in poverty and disease.

"Pupils already see Africa as somewhere awful where people have no money," says Mrs Ssentamu. So she shows the other side of the story that is not seen in news bulletins and charity campaigns.

She has put her pupils in touch with Malawian children, so that they can see they do not live in abject misery, and they share interests - playground games such as hopscotch transcend continental boundaries.

Nor does she overplay the positive side. Her Scottish pupils try washing clothes with soap bars like the ones used by their Malawian peers, and do not easily forget the rigours of such a task.

The pupils have "totally embraced" learning about and working with pupils in Africa, but the teachers are not always as enthusiastic. Mrs Ssentamu extols the type of experience she had, but finds many are put off by the expectation that Africa is disease-ridden and dangerous.

Learning on the job in such a place has no equivalent in homegrown CPD, she counters, and the experience cannot be conveyed through Powerpoint.

"You can have great stories and the best presentations, but it's only when you've actually been there that you know what people are talking about."


VSO works in education in 19 countries in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Caribbean, and is currently recruiting teachers.

The charity's vision is high-quality primary education for all children. This includes highly-disadvantaged pupils, which can mean girls, those with disabilities, ethnic minorities and children affected by HIV and AIDS.

Volunteers work in teacher-training colleges and help improve teaching methods in groups of schools. They help overcome barriers facing marginalised groups. By improving classroom techniques so lessons are enjoyable, practical and interactive, they hope more children will leave school with skills and knowledge that will help them stay healthy and make a living. There is a strong emphasis on reducing children's vulnerability to HIV and AIDS.

VSO also works with local government offices and ministries of education, in areas such as assessment, strategic planning, national curriculum development, monitoring and evaluation and national quality standards.

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