So why choose to volunteer with children?
And yet I keep coming back. Despite all the issues I have with the concept, and despite the difficulties, I clearly enjoy volunteering with children when I travel.
Obviously it’s because I love kids. But it’s something more than that; I want to understand the mentalities of the people who look after them, too. The auntie of an orphanage who decided to send an eight year old back to a home she knew was abusive; the nuns who shout when a crying baby is being placated by a foreigner; the teenagers who shrug when ten year olds, supposedly under their care, are smoking in the bushes.
And ultimately, I’m just like the rest. I love the idea that I could be making a difference, however small, in a child’s life. And there are moments when I really believe that’s happening; like giving a class full of Thai childrentheir phonetically-spelled English names; like making a Nepali eight year old understand that stealing is irrevocably wrong; and like watching an Ecuadorian teen’s eyes light up when she gets a grip on this foreign language of mine.
Working with children in Kenya, Lithuania, Thailand, Nepal and now Ecuador has undoubtedly changed my life. It’s made me more appreciative of my own childhood and upbringing. It’s made me overtly aware of children’s rights and the importance of providing children everywhere with the option of a bright future.
It’s made me humble, and grateful, and happy, sad, angry, joyful and a myriad of all the emotions in between. So I’ll keep on volunteering, despite the difficulties and in light of the problems. Because volunteering your time to help others is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do with your travels.
Hypotheticals – What would you do?
Directions: You will most likely find yourself in some unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations while in Ghana. What will you do?
1. A group of young men continue to make inappropriate comments to a girl in our group. They comment on her looks; they ask for her hand in marriage; the make catcalls and noises. The girl is getting clearly frustrated. This happens a few days in a row.
2. Despite your best wishes to be recognized as an individual, you are only known as “Obruni” (white person). It is getting annoying. Everywhere you go, people yell, “Obruni.”
3. You go to buy some groceries for lunch in the local market. You go to buy from a mother that you know. She charges you twice as much as what you know the price to be. This is because you are American.
4. Someone in our group is dressed in a way that some Ghanaians might find offensive. You think they look nice.
5. A person offers you food that you think looks disgusting. It might, you think, even make you sick. They, however, are very proud of their meal. They spent hours preparing it for you. They eagerly sit and wait for you to try it.
6. Students get beat over bad grades. Bad grades were because they had to work at home. It’s not fair.
Lesson 4 – The Power of Education
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. ~Nelson Mandela
Read: “The Cost of Poor Education Policies in Ghana” by Kwesi Attah-Krufi
Read: “The Challenges for Public Education in Ghana” a 2011 blog
Read: “Education and the Developing World” by Center for Global Development;
Task: Speak to three people in Twi today. Record their responses.
Reflect: Reflect on the education of Ghana. What were your impressions of Wisdom Academy? What are some questions you have?
Discuss: Tonight: Education + The Anti-Complaining Campaign!
The Cost of Poor Educational Policies in Ghana
Kwesi Atta-Krufi Hayford
Published On: August 16, 2012, 00:30 GMT
In Ghana while inflation, interest rates, and GDP growth are being touted by the government as some economic success, what is lost on them is the fact that literacy rate is dropping since independence. In 1960 the literacy rate was70%. That means 7 out of 10 people of Ghanaians then were educated to an appreciable level. I watched a BBC documentary on Ghana’s independence in which one of the visitors (a white guy) said what fascinated him about the then Ghana was that “everyone read the newspaper, even taxi drivers took time out of their schedule to read newspapers.”
The story after 55 years is however different. In today’s Ghana the literacy rate has slipped to 50%. The reasons for this slip are not very difficult to fathom. It is the result of years of neglect by successive governments, the unnecessary politicization of education, including cheap punch interference for short term political gains, the gestation period of basic education in Ghana and finally the curriculum being taught (even in the short time basic education) not geared towards giving the students employable skills.
To move education forward and to push for the 70% we inherited from the colonial government and even break that glass ceiling, certain positive actions must be taken. The first is that schooling must end with adequate literacy. That means every child who goes to school must only exit when they can read with understanding, write with fluency, and gain one employable skill. This can only be done if we redefine basic education and raise the threshold of basic education to at least Senior High School level. The longer they stay in school, the better the chances of being able to read write and gain the employable skill.
The second is to revisit the curriculum content -what we refer to in Ghana as the “syllabus.” Not all children will be able to access science and arts aimed at higher level education. Those who do not have that academic acumen or interest must be given the tools to exit as SHS level or a college with a vocational skill. Technical and Vocational subjects, including ICT must be taught with the same vigour as the sciences and the arts subjects. The third and perhaps the most important action is the importance of the teacher to the whole literacy drive. We need to put the teacher at the heart and at the centre of the whole action plan. The training facilities, their conditions of service (including their medical wellbeing) must be looked at within the context of sustainability. A bottom up teacher training, including their continuous professional development must be created to ensure that that the teacher is well equipped, and well motivated to educate the students. This is a must and cannot be emphasised enough.
The fourth action and the biggest one for parents is the cost of education. The Vice President, Mr. John Mahama, recently seemed to imply that the problem of education in Ghana is not affordability but that of accessibility. This means the problem is where to find schools to attend and not the cost of school fees. I beg to differ strongly on that point. While governments must continue to build schools to meet the growing population, we must never lose sight of the fact that most students who drop out of school do so because of parents’ inability to fund their schooling. With high rate of poverty levels across the country, affordability is perhaps the biggest problem facing education in Ghana. With government absorbing school fees up to JHS with the Capitation Grant, the next step will be for the government to absorb school fees up to SHS, if it is to be made part of basic education. If we strip this argument of all political biases, it is an incontrovertible fact positive government action ought to go this way. School fees must be free across the country in all public schools and it is the least that we can do for the children of today as a testimony to the fact that we now produce and sell crude oil in commercial quantity.
With about 500 public SHSs in Ghana with an average school population of 1000, it will not be beyond us as a nation to prioritize resources to cater for free secondary education. On accessibility and freeing up school places, we may need to rethink boarding schools in the future and begin to gear our energies towards day secondary education in Ghana. Again in order not to open up our education to cheap shot political punches as we have found in this “3-year then 4y-year and back to 3-year SHS political football”, any free education policy must be backed or ring-fenced by an Act of Parliament. In 2000 the percentage of our GDP spent on education was 4.4. By 2008 it had risen to 9.17%. In 2011 the percentage on education has slipped back to 7.57. This fluctuation has been possible because each government has spent on education based on its own priority. The cost of education is so important that we should not leave it to governments to decide. It is our collective public and civic responsibility to ensure that it becomes a priority. The only way to do this is to ring-fence the percentage of our GDP to be spent on education with law i.e. Act of Parliament.
At the moment, the political tittle-tattle of how many schools have been removed from under trees, or how many trees have been removed from schools, who is wearing the better Ghana school uniforms and how many have been distributed, all reduce education policy to cheap political shots. Whether school feeding serves a better purpose at Hamile or Half-Assini is nothing more than political point scoring. They do not go to the root of the policy problems we have in education. I will end with the famous quote by Derek Bok “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance”.
The Challenges for Public Education in Ghana (Blog) – May, 2011
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.
Education and the Developing World
Lesson 5 – The Power of Positive
“We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” ― Abraham Lincoln
Read: “So Poor, But So Happy” by Christian Educators Journal
Read: “Why Are So Many People Unhappy” by Eduard Ezeanu;
Read: Happiness Index Charts