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“I love teaching – but it is so difficult”

Grace Chigwechokha, 41, is a dedicated Standard 2 teacher at Chiuzimbi Primary School in Lilongwe, Malawi. She loves teaching – but struggles with the impossible task of educating a class of 84 children ranging in age from six to 14 years old.  She is frustrated by the challenge of trying to deliver quality education in a context of huge class sizes, scant resources and rampant absenteeism.

Grace explains what it’s really like to work as a teacher in Malawi, and her experiences since becoming involved in VSO’s Unlocking Talent project. She is responsible for the running of a solar-powered learning centre, equipped with special digital education software, provided as part of the scheme.

When I was at school my favourite teacher was Mrs Mmangeni. I remember it was easy to learn with her and that she wore very beautiful clothes. She was like a role model for me. Now that is what I try to be for my learners.

I love teaching. I do this work because I want to build up Malawian children to be all they can be, but it’s difficult because I have so many learners in the class. Last term I had 84 in standard 2, ranging in age from six to 14 years old.

Sometimes as you are trying to teach some children are beating each other, others are standing, or moving around.  It’s a tough job. The children all have different abilities. Being the only teacher in the class is a very big problem, because I can’t give every child individual help.

I am trying my best. For example, I have one boy in the class with hearing difficulties. I try to keep him at the front of the class so he has a better chance of hearing and seeing everything. But I know that not every child is receiving the best education – I don’t feel good about that. I want my learners to do well.

Many children repeat class because they do not do well in exams. To progress to the next grade, they have to get at least 50% of the marks on an exam. Last time only 49 out of 84 got enough questions right to continue. The rest are back in my class again this year.

There is also the problem of absenteeism in the school. Some parents keep their older children at home when they go away on business, asking them to stay behind to take care of their sisters and brothers. Teachers too are sometimes missing. When teachers are sick or absent, there is no one to take over their class while they are away.

That’s why I’m so happy about being part of Unlocking Talent. I can see my learners are able to read and write, and the absenteeism has also been reduced – they don’t want to miss the classes. Even those with troublesome behaviour have changed.

As Unlocking Talent co-ordinator it’s my responsibility to look after the maintenance of the learning centres [purpose-built rooms equipped with tablet computers with special digital education software]. I make sure they are kept clean and tidy, that the children use it correctly and that the materials are well looked after.

It is good to learn from VSO volunteers. To be a teacher I had two years of training. One year in a teacher training college and a year of theory – that was in 1994 and I haven’t had training since. Though I have been teaching for more than 20 years I am still on the first grade of being a teacher. The salary for my grade is 79,000 Kwacha (£81) per month. It is not a lot of money – living in Lilongwe is expensive. It can cost 50,000 kwacha to rent a house.

Of course I would like to be promoted to the next grade and earn more. Since 2015 I am the head of the theology department. That should qualify me for the next grade, but I would need to complete my education to degree-level first. The fees for that are 350,000 Kwacha (£364).

I am married and have three children of my own, aged 21, 17 and 14. My youngest is now in Senior Form 2. I am sending him to a private school. I want my children to have the best. School fees are 90,000 Kwacha (£93) per term, the uniform is another 40,000 (£41), and there are registration fees. So you see my salary does not go very far. As I am trying to do what’s best for my children, I decided it is better to fund their education and stop mine.

My first born is now a journalist. She has completed a diploma and is doing a work placement with a multimedia organisation. She has not yet completed a degree – again fees are a challenge. I am proud of her.

I love the children in my class. It is my role to talk to them, to encourage them to work extra hard so they can become better people. I’m proud of that.

I encourage each and every person to become a teacher, or to support us in our work. This is a good job. We build up children to be important people so they can go work in companies, organisations and government. It is a big role.

This story in published in partnership with VSO International. This story was originally published on VSO International's website