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Malawian Wins Prestigious Africa Continental Best Teacher Award

Op-Ed: Nisha and Quentin Wodon

Nisha is the Director, a.i. of the UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa (UNESCO ROSA) based in Harare. Quentin Wodon is the Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (UNESCO IICBA) based in Addis Ababa.

Mr. James Zimba, a lecturer at Karonga Teacher Training College in Malawi, won the African Union’s Continental Best Teacher Award. Together with seven other outstanding teachers from Ghana, Kenya, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Nigeria, and South Africa, he will be recognized at an event for World Teachers’ Day (on October 5) organized by the African Union Commission and UNESCO IICBA.

Best Teacher Awards are a great way to recognize outstanding teachers. The awards can raise the appreciation of teachers in society while demonstrating that hard work and innovation can make a difference for learners. The African Union Commission instituted the Continental Best Teacher Award in 2019. Winners receive cash gifts and are celebrated. As argued by IICBA in a report led by Steve Nwokeocha and Aminata Sessay in the IICBA Studies series entitled “West Africa – Investing in Teachers and School Leaders: Professional Standards, Teacher Education, and Working Conditions,” teacher awards are important to celebrate the unique contribution that teachers make to their students, their communities, and societies.

In an interview with IICBA posted on IICBA’s website, Mr. Zimba was asked if looking back, he would do anything differently. He answered: “I would have put even more emphasis on (i) Getting to know my students… understanding their individual learning styles, needs, and interests. I can use this information to create more effective and engaging lessons; (ii) Using a variety of teaching methods. Students learn in different ways, so it is important to use a variety of teaching methods to reach all learners. This could include lectures, discussions, group work, hands-on activities, projects, and any additional new methods; (iii) Providing opportunities for feedback. Students need to know how they are doing to improve. I would provide feedback through written comments, one-on-one meetings, and class discussions; (iv) Creating a positive learning environment. Students are more likely to learn in a classroom where they feel safe and respected. I would try to create a positive learning environment by being supportive, encouraging, and respectful of all students; and (v) Using technology to enhance learning. There are many ways to use technology to enhance learning, such as using educational apps and websites, creating online learning experiences, and using technology to facilitate collaboration and communication. This opportunity is coming late in my professional life.”

Teaching is a demanding profession. It is also one of the most important professions for society’s development. In economic terms, the changing wealth of a nation is the set of assets that enables it to produce future income. At the World Bank, this wealth can be measured as the sum of natural capital (such as oil, forests, or land), produced capital (investments in roads, factories, etc.), and human capital (the value today of the future earnings of the labor force), plus a residual category called net foreign assets. Globally, human capital wealth, i.e., people account for two-thirds of wealth, a much larger share than natural and produced capital. In Malawi, the share is quite a bit lower, at 39 percent, but still large. In turn, education accounts for a large share of human capital wealth. Investing in education is one of the best investments that countries can make.

But for investments in education to bear fruit, we need great teachers. Unfortunately, globally and again in Malawi, we face a shortage of qualified teachers. This year, the theme for World Teachers’ Day is “The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage.” Estimates suggest that African nations will need to recruit millions of teachers to respond to rising educational attainment and population growth, not to speak of the teachers needed to achieve targets set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals. This will not be easy in a context where teaching may not be seen as an attractive profession and many teachers already lack the qualifications they need.

What can be done to reduce teacher shortages and ensure that teachers can excel? There is no panacea, but priorities should include improving teachers’ working conditions, ensuring quality pre-service education, providing continuous professional development, and establishing clear career paths and related competencies. As noted in IICBA’s study on investing in teachers in West Africa, most countries still have a long way to go. The same is true for Malawi.

Much remains to be done, as too many children still do not learn enough in school. At the end of the interview, Mr. Zimba was asked to share something personal about himself. He responded: “I am from a poor family background. I attended my primary school in a rural setting with no possible motivating exposure to role models apart from my teachers and other civil servants working in my home area. No wonder I am a teacher! I went to a school that was critically understaffed almost all the years I went to primary school. I never made it to a secondary school. Instead, I joined a correspondence school where I got my Junior Secondary School Certificate and Senior Secondary School Certificates. I again never made it to university. I joined teaching and I thought of upgrading as a teacher... When I joined the college, I had a lot of fear knowing that my secondary school background was not good as compared to those who went to conventional secondary schools. By the time we were completing the first year, I realized that our performance was equally the same. From this time, I built my courage. By the time I finished the course, I was one of the five students who got their degrees with credit. When I joined Teacher Education, I had one thing in focus. This was to ensure that my students benefit from my experience of a poor background but make it possible to achieve higher education. My teaching practices mostly focus on helping my students to realize their potential.”

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