Last week the Malawi graduate students were struggling in class with the question, “what do we need to do in Malawi to improve the acquisition of reading skills for our youngest learners?” In a vigorous class discussion, they talked about how teaching has changed in the many years since they were student teachers themselves. For one thing, when they were learning to be teachers, tests involved essay questions that required written answers. Now, too much testing is left to multiple choice questioning, which as one person said, “is not really a test of true knowledge.” In an effort to move more people more quickly into the profession of teaching, according to the M.Ed. students, standards in Malawi have been lowered. But, as recent reading assessments reveal, less-skilled teachers don’t do children much good. And so, we come back to the question: what can be done?
Meet Elias Ambitious Jonas Lyson
Elias was born in Zomba in the southern part of Malawi, and he lives now in the capital, Lilongwe, where he is in his fifth year of employ at the Teaching Training College (TTC) there. His wife teaches primary school and they have four children: three girls ages eighteen, fourteen, and twelve and a boy, nine.
In his first weeks in the graduate program at Lakeland, what Elias has found most surprising is the emphasis on time management. He shared, “Teachers here are serious with time. That is the first thing I want to emulate when I go home. If class starts at eight, it starts at eight.” He was also delighted to see classrooms at Valders elementary school that were rich with print materials everywhere he looked. “The environment is very conducive to learning,” he said. “Classroom set-up, desk set-up...all these things are so important.” He also found it amazing that even kindergarten-age children are able to use technology as part of a normal school day.
Like his colleagues in the Lakeland Master’s program, when Elias saw the advertisement to come to Wisconsin, it was the focus on “early grade reading instruction” that particularly caught his eye. His first thought at the time was, “If I can go for this opportunity at Lakeland, I can assist the learners in Malawi.”
Elias wanted to make clear to me that the strategies being discussed in class are often known to teachers in Malawi, but sometimes it is a matter of resources or the teacher’s individual creative energy that impacts the ability to follow through on them. The best strategies do nothing if they are not implemented. With 100 students in an average classroom, there are many challenges a teacher faces.
When I spoke to Elias and Margaret Mulaga (his colleague at the TTC in Lilongwe) together one afternoon recently, they echoed something that Elias had first shared with me on his own: Classrooms need to be made secure and lockable so that teachers can put up educational materials—making a “print-rich” learning environment—and leave the materials there, knowing the resources will be safe until the next class. As it is right now, teachers have to carry their materials to class, put them up and take them down each time they teach. This is inconvenient and exhausting in a situation that is already stressful with so many children to teach at one time.
Elias also taught me the acronym, TALULAR, which stands for “Teaching and Learning Using Locally Available Resources.” So, if the teacher doesn’t even have a classroom, what can the teacher do to put up print resources? Can they be hung on a rope? Can they be tacked to a tree? Yes and yes. But, all these things require ingenuity, creativity and physical energy. Elias hopes to instill these qualities in his student teachers when he goes home.
You will notice that Elias has two middle names. One is Jonas, the name of his grandfather. The other is Ambitious. This is a name that Elias gave himself after high school, because he felt it represented his desire to be a better teacher. It strikes me that by making the commitment to gain his M.Ed. degree from Lakeland College, Elias is on the path to fulfilling his destiny.