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First Do No Harm: Teaching and Learning in Uganda

By Chris Smith

Chris is a trustee of the Uganda Humanist Schools Trust. She is a retired teacher, and teacher of teachers. In this article she describes how she got into teaching in Uganda and her experiences as a voluntary overseas worker.

It was, probably, a dark and stormy night, certainly a Friday, and the Times Educational Supplement had no inviting jobs advertised, even for a well-qualified and very experienced maths teacher. With a few years to go before retirement a thought came to me, “When I do retire I will apply for VSO”. VSO? Voluntary Service Overseas. And I started to tell people that was my plan.

After a few more years I did retire, applied for VSO, was selected and trained, and offered a two-year placement in South West Uganda. Fortuitous! I knew there were Humanist Schools in Uganda. The placement was to help train primary teachers, and make sure no young women failed to qualify because they failed the tough maths course. It was mostly the young women who failed maths. I was to be a female role model.

Chris teaching in Uganda

The Training College was welcoming. Teaching was ‘talking and chalking’, which had worked for me through eleven years learning in the UK system of the 1950s and 60s. I watched other tutors’ lessons. The first was an English lesson, given by the Sister, an Anglican nun, a close neighbour and reliable source of advice on local matters. She told the class about the important difference between note making and note taking and emphasised that the difference should never be forgotten. She wrote on the chalk board and the students copied. The rules about note making and note taking were chanted. There was little interaction between tutor and students and it went on for an hour. To this day I have no idea what the difference is, nor why it is so important. Surely I could introduce variety, using the resources available?

Maths teaching does work when notes are copied from the board, but that need not be all. As a “safe pair of hands” I had a good range of techniques in my head which could be adapted to basic resources and large groups. There were 50 young people in each class at the college. There were 5 classes in each year. I taught the curriculum and I planned lessons that could demonstrate the freedom to be inventive as primary teachers.

These potential teachers would have classes that could number a hundred, but few resources beyond their knowledge and wits. So we went out of the teaching rooms, we drew in the dust, we used sticks and stones for numbers and shapes and data collection. Out-of-date test results with many names marked "failed" were displayed in class. I gave praise and encouragement instead. We had short tests, with no names and self-marked. These were to inform me, not to assess them.

If a student fell asleep (not unusual in the heat of the afternoon, after a very early start to the day and a carb-heavy lunch) I would ask their neighbour to make sure they got the notes. I did not wake and berate them. When, rarely, I needed to exert a little discipline, it was a quiet word, never a public shaming and almost never 'time out'.

Departmental Meetings did not happen because they were not funded, but I funded maths department meetings myself, paying for a meal of local food at the nearby guesthouse. On one occasion, I dealt out slips of paper with test marks on, inviting comments. Even for 95% results there was no praise. It was "keep reading", meaning "keep working". For a 15% result, "read more". In fact, reading was the main way students were expected to learn, memorising notes that were sometimes jumbled or plain wrong. I suggested that for a 95% result the response could be "Well done, see me if you want to get some more advanced work" and for a 15% result, "Find me after class to get some help".

Most tutors were not lazy. Naris in particular, my admirable (male) Head of Department, was desperate to improve the maths results. But tutors were paid the same as my VSO local allowance, often paid late, or not at all. I was only responsible for myself, with no family to feed, no garden, smallholding, or small business to run. I had my UK pension income and my own transport. I understood why many did the bare minimum.

Naris ran “tutorials” in the evenings as exams approached. I joined him in a room packed with students. Some of the practice exam questions proved impossible because they had misprints, and for some questions, my method differed from his. We worked from either end of the wide chalk board, met in the middle, stood back, and invariably laughed as we each defended our chosen approach. The students “appreciated” us.

I introduced a screening test designed to be marked quickly. With 250 papers coming in, that was essential. I used the results to make genuinely mixed-ability classes, with named students being the maths leaders. I started two evening tutorials of my own, by invitation only, for those with Advanced level potential, and for those at risk of failing completely.

For teaching practice, our trainee teachers went to primary schools in the area. They took their own mattresses, as they would be sleeping on the floors of classrooms, with their jerry cans of water, fuel for cooking and staple food. They took reams of lesson plans, based on a certain template, which were tedious beyond belief. Other tutors marked these. They had worked late into the night to make educational charts and other display materials. These would be marked as part of their assessment, but rarely featured in classrooms once they had qualified.

The Sister was my mentor when I started supervising school practice. I soon came to the same overall mark as she did. After that, I worked alone and saw mostly slow-paced but well-organised lessons. Some clearly gifted teachers had good communication skills, humour and energy. And in time, I team-taught in two local primary schools. Team teaching offered variety, with some successes and some failures.

Meanwhile, I became the organiser of a VSO-funded day-long workshop called 'Guidance not Violence'. This was a highly participatory day, to sensitise teachers and parents to the negative outcomes of corporal punishment, threats of violence, physical punishment short of beating, which were already illegal but commonplace and favoured by some parents. An example of this was making a pupil carry a brick above their head around and around the school, being deprived of food. There was shaming, sometimes by the 'Shame, Shame, Shame' song sung by the whole school at a single pupil on the stage. We offered ideas for positive discipline. These workshops happened across the district, prioritising schools with special needs units. With other funds, we reached further afield, including the Humanist schools.

In my final term, I rewarded students who were punctual with opportunities to make teaching aids and experience learning through practical activities. In two and a half busy years I gained at least as much as I gave. My patience was occasionally stretched but, hopefully, I lived by the maxim "First, do no harm".

Having taught in Uganda, Chris has been back several times as a Uganda Humanist Schools trustee, checking on the progress of the schools..

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