For my last three weeks in Ghana, I have been, in the words of my brother Kwesi, absolutely chilling out and taking in as much of what this great country has to offer before I leave. One of those incredible places was Cape Coast and Elmina, two towns a few kilometers apart in the Central Region of Ghana, where much of the citrus production takes place. Both are beautiful towns. On his first trip to Africa, Obama came here to speak. The economies revolve around fishing, and fishing towns, in my experience, tend to have a pleasant atmosphere. Cape Coast and Elmina are no exception, though they have a notorious and checkered past. They are home to the notorious slave castles that, for hundreds of years, functioned as the last stop for African slaves before boarding the slave ships for Europe and the Americas. The brutality with which the slaves were treated and the conditions in which they were kept is appalling. It is hard to believe that human beings could treat one another in such a despicable way. It is an important time in history to understand and to never forget.
When I wasn’t seeing the castles, I was either relaxing at my guesthouse, the Stumble Inn, on the beach or wandering around the town, taking in the fishing town atmosphere and digging on the vibes. The guesthouse, a diamond in the rough with cheap rooms and an island feel, is affiliated with a charity that fields short-term volunteers from Europe and the States to work at a local primary and junior secondary school nearby. A British girl arrived the same time as me, and I decided to go along with her one day and volunteer at the school to get a better understanding of the state of public education system in Ghana, and also to mess around with some little kids.
I spent the morning shadowing the math teacher for the school. The school has about 750 kids, from kindergarten to junior secondary (like middle school). The place is overflowing with kids, and teachers walk around with stern looks on their faces carrying long sticks and, every once in a while, caning a few kids along the way. Corporal punishment is pretty standard here, though sometimes, in my opinion, unmerited. For example, if a kid shows up late to school, he/she has to wait behind the school after classes are finished to receive four whacks from the cane. But maybe the reason the kids are late is that they are working selling water on the road or in the market to the morning traffic, or they have to finish cleaning the house before they leave for school. Either way, that’s the way it goes.
I spent a lot of time talking to the teachers about the difficulties of teaching at a public school, and the list is endless. For one thing, teachers are paid very low salaries – almost half that of a police officer, who has less schooling and formal education – so some smart and talented young people use teaching as a way to make some money before moving on to a masters degree or a higher-paying job. So the talent pool is limited.
The class sizes are huge, with 40 or 50 students to a single class. There is a limited amount of time to teach what you need to teach, so there is almost no opportunity for active engagement of the class. A few students answer questions, but mostly they copy what the teacher writes on the board. If they don’t get it, that’s too bad, because the class moves forward without them. The school is under-resourced and the teachers are overworked. During the first class, the math teacher taught simultaneous equations to a class of students crammed into a lecture room. The ages ranged from what looked like about 11/12 to 16/17. And because the class only lasted 40 minutes, the lesson was fast and quick. Some of the students didn’t have pens or a notebook, so they sat and listened as the teacher went through a pair of simultaneous equations step-by-step. He did a good job of breaking it down to understandable components, but, at the end of the day, without a means of copying the work and studying it later, there is no way it can actually sink in.
But even if the public education system were suddenly to become flush with money and resources and teachers were paid well, and the class sizes were cut in half, and each student was given schoolbooks and materials, there are still external factors that influence the ability for teachers to be effective. For one thing, many of the students come to school hungry because their parents don’t have the money to provide breakfast. So their mental capacity is already at a lower level than their more nourished peers. The problem becomes exacerbated as the day goes on. The math teacher I was following kept complaining about how they schedule his classes toward the end of the day (which is around 1 PM), when the students are restless and hungry.
Other students are pulled out of school frequently by their parents, or, at the very least are not made to attend (though most parents who pay school fees for their children to attend school are serious about making it happen). Sometimes they have to work on farms, or sell sachet waters, or something else. Either way, the continuity and structure of the curriculum is broken, making it difficult for students to catch up once they fall behind.
These are only a few of the challenges I heard about. There are many others I’m sure, and I hope to learn more about them in the future.