Sydney Chiunda, 30, is a teacher at Mdyaka II Primary School in Nkhata Bay District.
The school is located over 30 kilometres from Nkhata Bay Boma but less than two kilometres from Lake Malawi.
It is common seeing fishermen passing by the school carrying their daily catch. The school has a combination of old and new structures, with the recent additions being child friendly classrooms, an administration block and a library.
Sydney always admired his teachers when he was a child. Their influence was so strong that he decided to become a teacher himself.
It was no surprise that when an opportunity arose for him to train as a teacher, he grabbed it. Sydney graduated from Karonga Teacher Training College (TTC) in 2011.
As a young and energetic teacher, Sydney was ready to thrive in the teaching profession. But when he arrived at Mdyaka II Primary School, he found it in a bad shape.
There are 574 students but just five teachers; including the head teacher (a sixth teacher is on maternity leave).
Due to the shortage of teachers, Sydney teaches two classes—a Standard 7 class of 47 learners and a Standard 3 one of 120 learners.
“During my training, we were warned of the desperate situation of the teaching industry, especially if we planned on teaching in government schools,” Sydney says. “However, at no point did I think that I would have to juggle two classes.”
As he talks, Sydney keeps looking through the library window which is centrally located, giving him an opportunity to check if his Standard 3 learners are still doing the work he has given them, while the Standard 7 learners are copying notes.
Passion amidst limited resources
Talking to Sydney reveals a young and passionate teacher whose present circumstances are hindering him from delivering his best.
“I start my day as early as 5am, reading through all nine subjects for my Standard 7 class,” he says.
Sydney’s first class runs from 7:30 to 2pm. He has two and a half hours with this class until 10am, when his Standard 3 class begins.
Between 10am and 2pm, when the first class finishes, Sydney moves from one class to another, teaching one class while the other is doing written exercises. He has no time for a lunch break.
“The overlap from 10am to 2pm is the most difficult time for me as a teacher because I know I am supposed to be with the learners, supporting them if they do not understand.
“But I do not have that luxury,” he says. “By the time I reach the second lesson in my Standard 3 class, I am usually tired from standing and teaching.”
Sydney spends his day standing and teaching until 4pm when his second class dismisses. He then goes back to the routine of lesson planning for both classes and reading the materials to enable him teach competently the following day.
“I am confident to teach science subjects as this is my specialty,” he says. “But due to the situation, I have to teach all subjects including some I am less experienced in.”
Despite all these challenges, Sydney’s students are doing reasonably well.
“I have learnt a lot from my teacher and I am ready to sit for my primary leaving exams,” says 13-year-old Wells II, a Standard 8 student at the school.
Advocating for change
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) is working to keep children in school, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. The organisation is advocating with government to address class sizes and teacher shortages by increasing the rural teachers’ allowance in hard to reach areas.
Unicef is also calling for free basic education to be extended by two years to age 15, and for full implementation of national school standards, including identifying and working with the families of vulnerable children to prevent school dropout.
“Sydney’s case highlights the extraordinary pressures that rural teachers go through in Malawi. If we are to recruit and retain the best teachers, they need more support.
“This should include an additional hardship allowance in the hardest to reach areas, accommodation support, and more teachers, including volunteer teaching assistants, to reduce class sizes,” Unicef education specialist Kimanzi Muthengi says.
For Sydney, these changes cannot come soon enough. His day does not even end with his second class.
Since he teaches in a rural area, Sydney was previously paid a K5 000 hardship allowance on top of his salary. But he says he no longer receives the allowance.
To make things worse, teachers’ salaries come very late, a situation which forces them to borrow from the local community.
“I still love teaching, but in the current situation it is difficult to achieve quality education. Juggling two classes makes me feel I am not delivering my best. I know my capacity as a teacher but I worry that I am short changing the learners in both classes,” says Sydney. n