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“I love teaching – but it is so difficult”

Struggling teacher in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Grace Chigwechokha, 41, has 84 children in her class at Chiuzimbi Primary School in Malawi ranging in age from six to 14 years old. She explains how she's seeing her learners overcome these challenging conditions through a VSO project.

I love teaching. I do this work because I want to build up Malawian children to be all they can be, but it’s difficult because I have so many learners in the class. 

Sometimes as you are trying to teach some children are beating each other, others are standing, or moving around.  It’s a tough job. The children all have different abilities. Being the only teacher in the class is a very big problem, because I can’t give every child individual help. 

Falling short

Teacher Grace Chigwechokha in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Teacher Grace struggles to deliver a quality education for all of the 84 learners in her class

I am trying my best. For example, I have one boy in the class with hearing difficulties. I try to keep him at the front of the class so he has a better chance of hearing and seeing everything. But I know that not every child is receiving the best education – I don’t feel good about that. I want my learners to do well. 

Many children repeat class because they do not do well in exams. To progress to the next grade, they have to get at least 50% of the marks on an exam. Last time only 49 out of 84 got enough questions right to continue. The rest are back in my class again this year.

There is also the problem of absenteeism in the school. Some parents keep their older children at home when they go away on business, asking them to stay behind to take care of their sisters and brothers. Teachers too are sometimes missing. When teachers are sick or absent, there is no one to take over their class while they are away. 

Unlocking Talent

That’s why I’m so happy about being part of the Unlocking Talent project.  I can see my learners are able to read and write, and the absenteeism has also been reduced – they don’t want to miss the classes. Even those with troublesome behaviour have changed.

Teacher Grace monitors children using Unlocking Talent digital education technology ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Teacher Grace monitors children using the Unlocking Talent learning centre

As Unlocking Talent co-ordinator it’s my responsibility to look after the maintenance of the learning centres [purpose-built rooms equipped with tablet computers with special digital education software]. I make sure they are kept clean and tidy, that the children use it correctly and that the materials are well looked after.

It is good to learn from VSO volunteers. To be a teacher I had two years of training. One year in a teacher training college and a year of theory – that was in 1994 and I haven’t had training since.

Though I have been teaching for more than 20 years I am still on the first grade of being a teacher. The salary for my grade is 79,000 Kwacha (£81) per month. It is not a lot of money – living in Lilongwe is expensive. It can cost 50,000 kwacha to rent a house.

Teacher motivation

Of course I would like to be promoted to the next grade and earn more. Since 2015 I am the head of the theology department. That should qualify me for the next grade, but I would need to complete my education to degree-level first. The fees for that are 350,000 Kwacha (£364).

I am married and have three children of my own, aged 21, 17 and 14. I want my children to have the best. School fees are 90,000 Kwacha (£93) per term, the uniform is another 40,000 (£41), and there are registration fees. So you see my salary does not go very far. As I am trying to do what’s best for my children, I decided it is better to fund their education and stop mine.

Proud teacher

Teacher Grace with a pupil in Malawi ©VSO/Amos Gumulira

Teacher Grace is motivated by trying to bring out the best in the children she teaches

I love the children in my class. It is my role to talk to them, to encourage them to work extra hard so they can become better people. I’m proud of that.

I encourage each and every person to become a teacher, or to support us in our work. This is a good job. We build up children to be important people so they can go work in companies, organisations and government. It is a big role.

About the project

Over 50,000 children in Malawi are benefiting from VSO's Unlocking Talent project, which provides tablet computers, powered by solar panels, to schoolchildren.  A randomised controlled trial carried out in 2013 by the University of Nottingham showed that the tablet apps significantly improved mathematical ability compared to normal classroom practice.

The Learning Centres – called ‘oneclasses’ - are either a renovated classroom or a new sustainably-built classroom in a participating primary school. Our partner on the project is social enterprise onebillion.

We are working with the Malawian Government with the aim that the project will be fully integrated and owned by the government over the next three years.

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