At the latest EI EFAIDS African regional meeting, 28 teacher unionists from across the continent tackled the perennial issue of securing access to education for all children while guaranteeing quality teaching, and shared their experiences of lending support to colleagues living with HIV and promoting behaviour change for HIV prevention.
Visiting one of the local public primary schools in Grand Bassam in south-eastern Côte d’Ivoire, its stark classrooms filled with rows of pupils on crude wooden benches, provided an opportunity to hear from teachers about the effects of staff shortages, overcrowded classes and under-resourced schools. Long days in class, beginning before 8:00 and continuing until 5:00 in the evening, take a toll on teachers and students alike. “While we teachers might well be tired, the students find it hard to pay attention after a certain time,” said a teacher who is in charge of 50 pupils. With as many as 13 subjects to be covered and an evolving course and teaching framework, another teacher with 13 years experience said: “We have so many things to do, increasingly the extra-curricular duties are mixed in with our teaching responsibilities, and the work can get overwhelming.” A colleague voiced his frustration that the objective was no longer educating, but merely finishing the course. “I came to teaching as my vocation. I came because of a strong wish to work to educate children. Today my motivation has been a little blunted by difficulties within the curriculum, financial conditions, and by the bureaucracy of the education system.” Marie Josée Mangle, the area Inspector for Pre-primary and Primary Education, oversees 41 schools with 12,500 pupils and over 300 teachers. She lamented that class sizes can exceed 75 pupils. “With such a level of overcrowding it becomes impossible for the teacher to work well with the class.” With trained teachers seeking employment, Mangle advocates that the authorities should open more primary schools and expand pre-primary facilities. Promoting respect Teachers applauded the move away from traditional forms of corporal punishment, especially given the legacy of the civil war, but said discipline is an ongoing challenge as they struggle to find incentives for children to attend regularly and complete assignments. A teacher responsible for the Child Rights Commission detailed moves toward a child-centred approach that highlights rights and responsibilities. “Once children are aware of their responsibilities, we can go about promoting them and thereby improve general behaviour leading to a new approach in communication between teachers and students, between students themselves, and between students and their parents,” he said. Another colleague stressed the importance of respect within the broader context. “Our employer, the government, has not shown us any respect, the way they speak about us, makes it difficult for parents to respect us.” Union action All of the teachers felt their unions were doing what they could to improve teaching conditions, especially since national expenditure on education continues to fall short of the 7% of GNP pledged by West African governments a decade ago. Paul Gnelou, Secretary General of the primary teachers’ union SYNEPPCI, declared: “My work is to represent teachers’ issues, and we are working on many issues at once.” In 2009, the Ivorian unions spearheaded the establishment of regional committees to address the teacher shortage in Bondoukou and San Pedro. During the first half of 2010, the Ivoirian teacher unions will be training more than 150 teachers in promoting non-violence in schools, and will be conducting research on learning conditions in Port Bouet schools, with the goal of improving school facilities. By Julie Kavanagh.