Teaching is never easy… but for so many different reasons

Teaching is never easy… but for so many different reasons

Teaching is never easy… but for so many different reasons

Let's begin by dispelling the myth that teaching is easier for some than others. There is no easy context to be a teacher in. 

This is because the expectations tend to match the context. Those who teach in the challenging circumstances frequently found in primary and secondary schools in low income countries may have to cope with large classes, a lack of teaching and learning resources, and often an over-ambitious curriculum that outpaces the needs of all but the fastest learners. And those who work in more privileged conditions (with smaller classes of well-motivated learners in well-resourced schools) frequently have very high expectations placed on them. I know primary and secondary teachers in both Africa and Europe who regularly work 14-hour days.

However, while those working in middle- and high-income countries have a wealth of support from the publishing industry (including methodological guides, high quality textbooks, and websites where they can download resources and lesson plans), those working in low-income countries often tend to be neglected by many of the larger publishers. This tends to leave the teachers with some of the greatest needs in the world with perhaps the least support. This is especially true of the English language teaching (ELT) sector, where international publishers often sell the same products, courses and methodological guides to teachers all around the world.

The primary reason for this apparent neglect of teachers in low-income countries is self-evident - such teachers have little expendable income to buy books or get online, meaning that there is much less money in publishing resources for them. While aid agencies and NGOs often provide some support to fill this gap, it is often based on specific agendas that the agencies themselves have identified and targeted, and doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of the teachers in question.

The importance of local publishing for education in Africa

It’s for this reason that an African-based commercial publishing industry is potentially of great use to education in Africa, where shared socio-economic circumstances (rather than culture) often lead to unique conditions that require unique solutions. Because such a locally-focused industry is more attuned to the challenges and needs of teachers, it is potentially capable of providing for these needs, and by doing so such publishers can generate revenue (important for their own growth and ability to support customers) and keep it in Africa. What’s more, by keeping development and production largely in the continent, retail prices can be kept low without necessarily compromising on the quality of writing.

The importance of local expertise in education

Through my work over the last 20 years as a teacher, trainer and consultant, especially in Africa (Eritrea, Rwanda, Malawi, Kenya, Algeria), I have often seen evidence of imported methodology failing to work in African classrooms. The store cupboards in so many schools and ministries of education, where textbooks, teacher’s guides and teaching resources fade and gather dust, are testament to this story. I’ve learnt through trial and much error that perhaps the most sustainable way to improve quality in education is to share the practices, experience and expertise of the best teachers, rather than to attempt to change them. After all, if every teacher in a country could teach as well as the best teachers in that country, the quality of education would improve significantly.

It is this sharing of local expertise that I have tried to capture in my recent book Teaching English in Africa, a practical guide to English language teaching for teachers working in primary and secondary schools, especially those who find themselves in the most challenging contexts on the continent, where classes are large, resources are few and learners face significant challenges just getting to school and focusing on the lesson. Many of the example lesson plans included were taught by African teachers and teacher trainers I’ve worked with, and the models promoted for child-centred learning, phonics, initial literacy and pronunciation have all been developed through close collaboration with African teachers in their own classrooms. This ‘bottom up’ approach to developing the materials meant that I often encountered reservation and uncertainty when discussing the project with western publishers, at least one of whom turned it down, I suspect, due to a lack of familiarity with African teachers and their needs.

EAEP step in

Fortunately, I had no such difficulty when I first made contact with East African Educational Publishers (EAEP), based in Nairobi, Kenya. They were enthusiastic about publishing Teaching English in Africa from our first discussion, recognising the market niche, the needs of the teachers, and the content. Kiarie Kamau, CEO of the company was quick to commission the book, and it was published last year. In June 2016 the book won the British Council ‘ELTON’ award for Local Innovation, an award that recognises the highest level of innovation in the ELT publishing industry. The success of the book was undoubtedly partly thanks to the vision and expertise at EAEP, especially the critical and linguistic support of the content and copy editors respectively, Dr. Lillian Kaviti and Benson Shiholo. If it weren’t for the EAEP team, this award-winning book might never have been published, and it almost certainly wouldn’t have reached so many of the intended end users that it is now benefiting – African primary and secondary teachers of English.

Only a first step

Teaching English in Africa is only an initial attempt to provide support for African primary and secondary teachers, who have been largely neglected by the outside English language teaching world. While the book is capable of addressing some of the shared challenges that many teachers in Africa currently face, a book written for a continent where there is so much diversity in culture, language and history can only ever be a first step to helping teacher trainers to develop locally appropriate methodology that works for them and their teachers.

Read about how the book was developed here.