Summer in Ghana
A teacher's lessons at the chalkface
By Niki Jackson
When I told people I was spending my summer holiday volunteering in Ghana with my 17-year-old son, the reactions varied from, “Wow, how incredible!” to “Are you completely mad? This is your summer holiday!”
I can confirm that it was one of my life’s most fulfilling, humbling and enriching experiences, both as an educator and as a parent.
My son Zak and I were volunteering with Tzedek, a charity whose vision is to encourage the Jewish community to become involved in the reduction of extreme poverty. We were part of their volunteer team in the northern region of Ghana, in a town called Tamale.
Zak and I were both given volunteer jobs in education. I was training teachers and Zak was teaching PE and coaching football. However, Ghana is a disorganised place and we quickly learnt that time-keeping did not exist and flexibility was the best quality you could have.
On Zak’s first day, he strolled into school ready to teach PE to small groups and ended up teaching maths and science to a class of 60 children from ages nine to 16. He has no teaching experience and hasn’t even finished school himself, but when thrown into the situation he rose to the challenge and managed admirably. I was immensely proud of his confidence, resilience and flexibility.
Zak is a very keen footballer, and in the afternoons he coached a group of teenagers to be football coaches. Tzedek is keen to set up volunteering opportunities where skills can be passed on and used once volunteers leave. While football may not be the obvious top priority in the midst of poverty, it was fantastic for the youngsters to be offered a coaching opportunity by a British coach. This taught them a sense of responsibility and leadership.
I was working with primary school teachers, and had created teacher-training seminars. I spent a couple of days travelling around different schools to learn about their current systems, structures and methods. While I was keen to share my knowledge and experience with them, I was acutely aware that their needs were vastly different from those in the British system. Most teachers had 50 to 60 children in each class. While each classroom had a blackboard and a curriculum book, there were no other resources and many children did not have their own text or exercise books.
When I chatted to teachers about the challenges they faced, they talked about high levels of truancy, unwieldy classes, their students’ ongoing serious health concerns and the way in which many children are unable to progress because of poverty-related issues.
The problems they faced were very real and raw – some teachers even talked about threats of violence from parents – and I was concerned that they would find my teaching irrelevant to their needs. However, having spent a couple of days dipping into different classes and teaching a few lessons, I recognised that, while I couldn’t address their basic needs, my teaching experience and creative, hands-on teaching methods were appealing and relevant to children everywhere.
The lessons I witnessed the Ghanaian teachers giving were lecture-style, where teachers taught by rote and children copied off the board. There were no thinking skills, no questioning opportunities and very little active learning or pupil engagement. However, like teachers everywhere, they cared deeply about their pupils’ wellbeing and education, and many classes had a warm and humorous vibe with children who wanted to learn and progress.
I was warmly received everywhere I went, but was often shocked by things I witnessed. The classroom environment was a sparse space, separated from the next room by pieces of corrugated iron; when it rained, which it frequently did, it was impossible to hear anything. Caning, although outlawed by the Ghanaian government, was still common practice in schools. One private school I visited had no toilet facilities; children were drinking the washing-up water from a bowl and were clearly malnourished.
It was difficult to witness some of these scenes and not to be able to intervene. We were visitors in their country, there to learn and support and contribute where we could, but not to judge and not to try to change things. When we saw troubling scenes, such as extreme poverty, or things that challenged our own moral code, it was at times hard to walk away and move on. We tried to understand from their perspective, to look at the circumstances and the background and to remind ourselves to recognise our own limitations. There was some comfort in one of the texts we had shared as a group in our orientation seminar, which was one of Tzedek’s guiding principles from Pirkei Avot: it was not our job to finish the work, but just to contribute a little of our time and energy.
Many people have asked me about our experience: whether their skills are transferable and if I would recommend the trip. I would say a wholehearted, unreserved “yes”. There are challenges, and you have to be prepared for tricky situations that will feel uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. But, if you go into it with an open mind, then there are great opportunities for learning, fulfilment and growth. I would, of course, be more than happy to chat to people who are considering doing something similar. And, on a personal note, I would say that going with Zak was one of my parenting highlights, which I will treasure for many years to come.
Niki Jackson is Director of Education at New North London Synagogue