April 2, 2015


I was thinking about perspective last night.

It’s easy to forget that in the great scheme of things, teachers and students in the United States don’t have it so bad.  On a day to day basis, it often can feel like teachers work under very negative conditions. But despite the inordinate amount of testing, the lack of respect accorded teachers, the lack of sufficient materials such as textbooks and copy paper, the low salaries...American teachers don’t have much to complain about compared to what teachers and students in other countries have to contend with.

I was reminded of that while reading an Easter message from the President of Sierra Leone, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, to the nation.  Pupils in that country have been out of school for about a year because of the Ebola outbreak there.  School is scheduled to resume on April 14.  In President Koroma’s message that was broadcast to the people of Sierra Leone, he discussed the measures the country was taking to get children back to school.
Ebola and teaching: musings about perspective
Map of Sierra Leone; source: The World Factbook
Before I quote from his message, I’d like to comment on my experience with teachers and schools in Sierra Leone when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer there in the 1980s, before the civil war and long before Ebola.  In the first village I lived in there was a school for children in the equivalent of first through fifth grades.
Ebola and teaching: musings about perspective
Screenshot from a video of the school in The ESL Nexus' village in Sierra Leone
After that, kids had to go to elsewhere to continue their education.  Two teachers were stationed in the village but neither of them had actual teaching certificates, as far as I recall.  Students were supposed to wear uniforms and had to pay fees to attend school, plus they had to pay for their textbooks. 
Ebola and teaching: musings about perspective
Screenshot of Sierra Leonean kids in front of the school in The ESL Nexus' village
Needless to say, these requirements meant that many children did not attend school.  Not only that, but after primary school, the language of education in Sierra Leone is English (the official language of the country), which meant that virtually all students in secondary school were learning in a second or even third language because their first language was that of the ethnic group to which they belonged, such as Mende or Temne, and their second might have been the lingua franca, Krio.  Providing instruction in English was hard for many teachers, too, since it wasn't their primary language, either.

Fast forward a few decades and conditions have improved, with more children in primary school and more continuing on to junior secondary and senior secondary school.  More girls are in school, too.  But the literacy level is still less than 60%, according to the World Bank and the UN.  And there are still school fees to pay and teacher salaries are still not always paid on time.  From reading blogs by Peace Corps Volunteers who were teaching in Sierra Leone between 2009-2012, it’s clear that student attendance was a huge issue as was the lack of basic materials that we in the U.S. take for granted.  Scores on standardized tests given throughout Anglophone West Africa to students at the end of senior secondary school are very low, with a high failure rate.

In light of that, the comments by President Koroma on March 31 are revealing.  He said, “No tuition fees will be paid in public schools for the next two years, and a national schools feeding program will be implemented in due course. We are also paying NPSE* fees for all pupils in public and private schools; and BECE** and WASSCE*** fees for all students in public schools. Government is also providing learning materials including free exercise books for public schools.”  More needs to be done but this is a good start and I sincerely hope all children in Sierra Leone will be able to receive the kind of education they deserve.

So whenever we think teachers in the U.S. labor under poor working conditions and that American students have issues, let’s remember that public education in America is tuition-free, breakfast and lunch are provided for those who qualify, and teachers receive their salaries on a regular schedule.  It’s all a matter of perspective.  And let’s take a moment to consider our colleagues in Sierra Leone and their students, and wish them well as they do their best to emerge from the devastation of Ebola.

*NPSE = National Primary School Examination
**BECE = Basic Education Certificate Examinatio
***WASSCE =  West Africa Senior School Certificate Examination