By Dr Mesharch Katusiimeh Rwebiita
Warm Christian Greetings Mama Janet Museveni! Let me first thank you for your selfless determination and cool headedness as you provide political leadership to the Ugandan Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES). The vital education reforms including teacher reform, programs and projects you have spearheaded so far speak volumes of your determination to transform the education sector. Your placement at the helm of education ministry would not have come at a better time given the many issues and challenges to tackle. Thank you so much for the measures put in place to keep children and their parents busy throughout this COVID-19 break. Your addresses to the nation regarding the progress of the education sector during this lockdown have always been timely, educative and comforting. We thank God.
I am one of those who call you Maama by choice because you really love teachers and the teaching profession. During your time at the helm of the education ministry, you have prioritized formulation and implementation of teacher reforms with the intention of boosting the professions near lost respect so it becomes a profession of first choice instead of entering it as a last resort. This unfortunately may count to nothing if the teaching profession is not given the attention it deserves during this COVID-19 crisis. I cannot over emphasize the importance of teachers and the role they play. Generally, knowledge and education are the basis for all things that can be accomplished in life and teachers play a vital role in that.
However, the COVID-19 outbreak in Uganda has not only put the lives of teachers especially in private schools at risk but it has also damaged their reputation and future. For most of these teachers, even though they appreciate the restriction from government as well-intentioned, the hardship it has brought on their lives and those of their dependents is unbearable and has put them in desperate situations. The situation has disrupted their planned projects for the year. Some were saving to build houses or go for further studies in line with teacher reforms that were widely publicized last year or even start other income generating projects to supplement their meager salaries. With the disruption to their income, they have had no option other than to dip their hands into their savings – essentially, meaning their plans have been put on hold till further notice. Others have been frustrated and opted for early marriages especially for ladies which they may regret as they had not prepared for it. Others have joined politics and are aspiring to be local councilors at different local government levels etc. When schools resume, school proprietors will struggle to stabilize schools because good teachers may be in short supply. What makes the situation more dispiriting for these private school teachers is that most of them survived on salaries on average less than UGX 300,000 (about US$100) monthly. There may be other small benefits at school they get to cushion their small salaries like extra time teaching allowances but it is not much. The pandemic and its impact on their livelihoods have got them thinking lately as to whether their future lies with a teaching job. Like many of their colleagues in the private sector, they will quickly, without thinking twice, jump at any opportunity in other sectors that may come their way.
According to the Ministry of Education and Sports records, the numbers of teachers in private schools far outnumber those in public schools. It is also known that private schools perform better than public schools at least going by academic performance of the students and the schools they ply their trade. Ironically, during this crisis period, whereas teachers in public schools have their salaries guaranteed, the same cannot be said of teachers in private schools who nurture our treasured children very well. Since private schools are often labeled as profit-making machines, it is considered by many, including government, that they should have continued paying teachers’ salaries. For the well-established schools that charge exorbitant fees, it has been a disappointment that they couldn’t pay their private teachers for at least 3 months after government instituted the lock down. But the reality is that other than a few well-established schools in the country, most of the private schools are depending on low amount of fees they charge parents in order to pay salaries, utility bills and other school necessities. For others they even pay monthly rent. The statement signed by the Permanent Secretary MOES that private schools must pay their teachers during the COVID-19 break was ill advised and showed he was not in touch with reality. It is as if government was trying to hide its failure and inability to devise a COVID-19 strategy for schools by a deliberate attempt to create a rift between teachers and private school proprietors.
The government has been talking of relief packages but no such relief package has been announced for the teachers. As you probably know, the pressure to reopen schools is so strong especially from teachers who are struggling for survival. Even though government has invested in virtual education and newspaper handouts, it’s now clear that without their teachers’ care and support it’s hard for many young people to stay well and focused. Parents are fast coming to appreciate everything their teachers do. It’s hard enough when parents have four or six children at home all day now. Many realize just how hard it must be to have 40 to 50 or more in a class. A teacher organizing home lessons in an effort to get money for survival is punishable by government. While schools were still open, parents showered the teachers with surprise gifts ranging from money to foodstuffs. The kind gestures from the parents have ceased. The teachers need the gestures at this critical and trying time to flatten the curve of hunger.
I urge government not to lose sight of the vulnerable disposition of teachers especially those in private schools whose livelihood are currently being threatened. I suggest government understand the support needed by teachers and the challenges they face, both now and when schools re-open. Strategy consultations should solicit input from diverse groups of teachers to represent their circumstances and those of their students. While national strategy development may only involve a small portion of teachers, school and district planning offer opportunities to involve more teachers. Government should come to the aid of private school teachers by providing soft loans for them which will be repaid when the schools resume. This can be done by collecting the data of private schools and the number of teachers to make it easier. Better still; the heads of all the private schools registered with Ministry of Education should be invited for discussion on how the government could help their teachers. Government could also encourage the well-to-do parents to come to the aid of their teachers. Now is the perfect and exact time to exhibit how much they appreciate their efforts in instilling knowledge to their children. Stretching of helping hands to the teachers would go a long way in ameliorating the starvation they are currently facing.
President Museveni has so far done so well to contain COVID-19 and the world applauds him but let us pull everyone along. I know Uganda does not have the fiscal space to bail out teachers in big amounts but any amount to keep body and soul together in this trying time will be very much appreciated otherwise, it will be difficult for them to rise again even after the schools are reopened. We cannot leave our teachers just like that but if government is not opening schools so soon, let that be clear so teachers can see what to do. They can do a self-assessment and think of strategies for survival but that means those who will succeed in finding alternative survival mechanisms may quit their profession forever which is more scaring. To avoid irreparable losses in the learning of students and a significant increase in the gaps between children from different socioeconomic backgrounds, it is crucial that teachers are considered essential because their well-being is crucial as the future of this nation lies in their hands.
Lastly, we are privileged as a nation you in the position of First Lady who doubles as a Minister of Education and Sports. This shows the seriousness and importance the President of Uganda attaches to the education sector. You are the only hope for the teachers of this nation and education stakeholders generally to save the teaching profession from collapse. May God bless you and give you wisdom to effectively and efficiently steer the Education Ministry through this difficult time.
The writer is Dean Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences & Associate Professor at Kabale University. Email email@example.com Tel 0772620852 Twitter @Rwebiita
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