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From Bad to Wretched: The agony of the Sierra Leone teacher

From Bad to Wretched: The agony of the Sierra Leone teacher

The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. William Arthur Ward

September historically is the month that the school year starts for millions of children in many parts of the world, and October 5th according to UNESCO is World Teacher’s Day “which represents a significant token of awareness, understanding and appreciation of the vital contribution that teachers make to education and national development.” The aim of celebrating this day is to mobilise support for teachers and to ensure that the needs of future generations will continue to be met.

I am baffled however by the fact that in my native Sierra Leone, despite the undeniable fact that teachers remain at the foundation of every nation’s progress, our great teachers remain wretched, hungry, and unsung heroes. It appears they are sentenced for life to conditions of physical and social wretchedness. Life does not hold many happy days for them. If one may ask, why do they forever have to ponder over where their next meal will come from, a matter that is of the least worry for teachers in many other parts of the world even within Africa?  Why do our teachers have to worry about leaking roofs and leaking pockets all their lives?

We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude and attention. Teaching is the profession that creates all other professions: lawyers, medical doctors, engineers, accountants, architects, the police, and the military to name a few. There is hardly any profession nobler than that of the man entrusted with the awesome responsibility of shaping and instructing the mind of the rising generation. It is common to hear people say, “We cannot sufficiently thank or pay a teacher” and I believe it is because of what could be seen as the incalculable value of the contribution a teacher makes to our lives. With great sacrifice, they make winners out of ordinary people. If you have never thought of the great sacrifice teachers make, consider this by an anonymous writer, “a good teacher is like a candle that burns itself to light the way of others.”

It is not too late to recognise the value of teachers in Sierra Leone. Everyone: children, parents and our leaders should say thank you to our remarkable teachers as a new school year rolls in. Our appreciation should however not end there. Teachers are human beings. They have flesh and blood and thus need a better standard of living to improve their conditions, raise their self-esteem and sustain their enthusiasm for the job.

Police and military officers and other civil servants are provided with government accommodation, and many others enjoy healthy rent subsidies. Food subsidies are also provided for the police and military in the form of bags of rice. Except if things changed a few days ago in the country’s police and military forces, it used to be, “the higher the rank, the more bags of rice you received at the end of the month.”  Some senior officers could end up with five or six bags of rice a month. The police and military also had canteens where they bought many household items at a much reduced cost and most times at hire purchase. These are just some of the visible benefits. The invisible ones abound. While I am not advocating that these benefits are discontinued for those who now enjoy them, it is my wish to say that, it is only but fair that other key professionals in the state such as teachers are considered for these benefits. While a chosen few professions are “blessed” with what is commonly referred to as “sweets of office”, teachers are “cursed” with what I will call the “acids of office”. It is as if their tongues are designed to taste only vinegar and not sugar and honey.

Without doubt, better pay, subsidised housing and other benefits, in short a better standard of living for our teachers will entail high costs. If however our policy makers fail to raise the standard of living of teachers because of the financial implications, the quality of teaching will only take a further nose dive, but our leaders will agree with the saying, “a good teacher is costly, but a bad teacher costs more.”

Unfortunate outcomes

Low wages and the lack of opportunities lead to a number of unfortunate outcomes for our teachers. Many landlords hardly rent their properties to teachers for obvious reasons. The doors to membership of certain High Society clubs are closed to teachers due to their incapacity to pay subscriptions or match the lifestyles of those who belong to such clubs. Some of our women say it is bad luck if a teacher makes love advances towards them. Teachers have to establish contacts with second hand clothes and shoe retailers in order to avoid facing the killing prices of brand new items.

The story is different in many other parts of the world even in the little West African country of The Gambia where teachers do not have to perform magic to live in a two bedroom reasonably furnished flat. Many well organised teachers in The Gambia have reasonably good bank accounts and a good number possess private cars and travel abroad on holidays. Good food, clothing, tap water, electricity and easy means of travelling to and from work are not yet in the list of the worries of the teacher in The Gambia. No wonder that Gambians who come to the West for Studies or conferences rush to return home immediately they finish the business they have come for. How do they manage to achieve this in The Gambia? Do we need to send our leaders there to learn some lessons in Governance?

Greener pastures and where the lights are brighter

Given the humiliating situation of the Sierra Leone teacher, the exodus of a highly intelligent and experienced crop of teachers becomes inevitable as they seek careers abroad that will secure for them a better quality of life. Golden opportunities that other lands offer by way of remuneration and comfort are too attractive to ignore for people living in poverty no matter their love for the job and their country. Teaching for the love of it is admirable and desirable, but better conditions of service can serve as a vehicle for achieving high professional standards and high quality education. On this issue of the African Brain Drain, Nelson Mandela is reported as having commented recently that, “we continue to lose the best because the lights in the developed world shine brighter.” How true!

I visited The Gambia (a developing country) in June this year and you will be shocked that even years after the end of our civil war, I still met with dozens of Sierra Leonean teachers working there. It would be unfair to accuse them of being unpatriotic for obvious reasons

Vicious cycle of corruption

Aristotle wrote, “The mother of revolution and crime is poverty,” and on the same issue of poverty, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Poverty often deprives a man of all spirit and virtue: it is hard for an empty bag to stand upright.” Having reached the end of his tether, the Sierra Leone teacher who cannot leave the shores of the country has been forced to embrace a petty type of corruption. While the top government executive can carry passengers in his government vehicle for a fee or send his office messenger to work on his private farm or business, the teacher has virtually nothing to convert to his personal use.

Petty traders in teacher’s clothing

I visited Sierra Leone in December 2008 and what I saw as a common practice was that many teachers carried two bags to school. For the male teachers, one of the bags contained the teaching materials and the other contained packets of cigarettes which are for sale to teacher colleagues. Periodically, teaching is interrupted by colleagues who come to the classroom of the teacher-trader to buy a stick or two of cigarettes. Imagine five or six colleagues coming to buy cigarettes during a single lesson. The second bag of the female teachers contained various food stuffs for sale to the students and though they do not have to pronounce consequences for those who do not buy their food, the students know they have to buy from their teachers. Meanwhile, the actual food sellers outside have to wait until the teachers’ food is all bought before they sell their food to the children whose choice becomes limited for fear that their teachers will deduct marks or become punitive. No matter how petty this may seem, this is corruption. However, it must be noted that normally, corruption emerges from a mindset based on greed, but while the poor, such as teachers could also be corrupt, their corruption is born out of the need to survive. Survival Corruption you might call it. 

The death of creativity and craftsmanship in our schools

Years ago, as a primary school pupil, we enjoyed a subject called Art and Crafts. At the end of the school term or year, for our assessment, we were required to bring to school, items we had crafted, though sometimes with some help from our elders. We brought along many items made out of local materials such as sticks, wood, clay “raffia” and we felt proud that we had a chance to show that we could be creative especially when we had very good items displayed in our classrooms. Today a child will be doomed to bring to class any item that does not have good money value to the teacher. It is common then to see children take to school items such as soap, vaseline, chains, cups of rice, perfumes, etc. The more expensive the item, the higher the mark awarded. What a way of stifling talent! In an era when the significance of middle level manpower is becoming more and more apparent, the foundation for that is being killed by the teachers’ needs. Again you can call it survival corruption, but you can’t deny that corruption of any type does not support positive human development outcomes.

Negative role modelling

Teachers are entrusted with the all important role of shaping the minds of the growing up generation that will in time be steering the Wheel of State. On a daily basis, our children witness the ills that their role models carry out in the name of survival. Their teachers travel to neighbouring Guinea and Gambia during term time to buy business goods and miss one or two weeks of teaching with impunity simply because the head teacher or principal receives a valuable gift from his/her teacher each time that teacher returns from the business trip. Dishonesty breeds dishonesty. If a child grows up in a culture of dishonest adults, he should be expected to practise and conform to the only norms he knows-those of dishonesty and we perpetuate that well known vicious cycle of corruption or dishonesty. When will Sierra Leoneans talk of any virtuous cycle?

Conclusion

The role of the teacher in shaping the minds of our future nation builders is immense. To watch them rot in misery that leads them to the road of corruption is criminal because at the end of the day, the impact of any misdemeanours they commit comes to all of us as a nation. To our leaders and policy makers, I wish to acknowledge that the task of reversing the trend for our teachers is monumental, but not impossible.

Our teachers need higher wages that can match the high speed of inflation. They do not ask for luxurious lifestyles but only a chance to be able to meet life’s basic needs: decent housing, food, clothing, access to health care for them and their families. Meet these needs in order to make good and dedicated teachers. Good and dedicated teachers open windows and doors of opportunities for our children. Ignore the plight of our teachers and make room for the creation of hungry, disgruntled, uncommitted and bad teachers. Bad teachers can only open prison doors for our children. Remember the saying of Bob Talbert, “A good teacher is costly, but a bad teacher costs more.”

Edward Tedson Sesay, London, UK

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