Ethiopia: A female school principal defies the odds

Silenat Alem is among the Ethiopian teachers who recently became school principals, thanks to a GPE program that is helping address the gender balance in school leadership positions.

October 08, 2019 by Nooruddin Shah, Global Partnership for Education Secretariat, and Carolina Valenzuela, Global Partnership for Education
4 minutes read
Silenat Alem, principal of the Filiklik Elementary School. Bahar Dar, Ethiopia.
GPE/Kelley Lynch

Since last December, Silenat Alem, has been principal at Filiklik Elementary School located in the rural area of Bahar Dar, in the northeast of Ethiopia.

A former teacher, Silenat is among the Ethiopian women who recently became school principals, as a result of a GPE program that supported the transition of women from teaching to leadership positions.

Silenat shares why she became a teacher: 

When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming a health professional. But without much time to study, I didn’t get the results that would allow me to do that. I felt unhappy about it, but I knew that I needed to feed myself and have my own work, so I decided to become a teacher. I started to like the job, and then eventually I got the push to become a principal.

As a young teacher, Silenat thought that: 

The school principal—who was a man—was not any better than me. In fact, I had more education and I was better at administration than he was, but he was the leader and he was getting a better salary. That was when I decided I wanted to become a principal.

The General Education Quality Improvement Program (GEQIP), a multi-donor fund to which GPE contributes, was established to improve the quality of teaching and learning within Ethiopia’s 40,000 schools. Among the challenges GEQIP sought to address was the low number of women in leadership positions across the country.

In 2014, the share of female principals was only 4% in primary schools and 8% in secondary schools.

Silenat Alem, principal of the Filiklik Elementary School. Bahar Dar, Ethiopia. Credit: GPE/Kelley Lynch
Silenat Alem, principal of the Filiklik Elementary School. Bahar Dar, Ethiopia.
GPE/Kelley Lynch

The importance of women in leadership positions

Traditionally, in Ethiopia, school leadership roles have been male dominated – this means that girls don’t have the opportunity to look up to women as role models and become encouraged to choose careers as leaders and decision-makers.

Women in education leadership positions encourage girls to enroll and stay in school. Additionally, they help reassure parents that schools are a safe and welcoming environment for their children.

Silenat said:

I started to compete for positions, but I wasn’t hired. Then I heard about the GEQIP leadership training and I got the chance. I was trained last summer, and I started as the principal here last December

In an effort to increase equity within the profession and to capitalize on its effect on the school environment, the Teachers and Education Leaders Development (TELD) program was developed with GPE funding.

Silenat attended the TELD program over the summer 2018, during which she acquired skills such as how to best negotiate in the workplace or effective ways to provide feedback to colleagues and subordinates.

The training program consisted of a two-month summer course, bridged by one distance program. This program was available to:

  • Existing primary teachers, primary school directors, and primary school principals with first degrees, making them eligible as supervisors;
  • Existing secondary teachers with a master’s degree making them eligible to become directors;
  • Existing secondary directors making them eligible to become supervisors.

GEQIP funds supported tutorials and examination sessions for the school leadership preparatory program conducted as part of the distance program. 

As a result, between 2014-2017, the share of female principals increased from 4% to 11% in primary school; and the number of additionally appointed trained female primary school principals increased from 3,150 to nearly 5,300.

Challenges remain for female principals

For Silenat, being a principal has presented its own set of challenges:

The main challenge I face is that many of the teachers at this school were teachers when I was still a student. They are senior people, so they are sometimes resistant to accepting my instructions. And me being woman only makes things more challenging. The training has helped me find ways to address this, but it can still be difficult at times.

The female leadership program has helped improve gender balance in school leadership by increasing the number of trained female primary school principals. Now more women in leadership roles serve as an inspiration to young girls and open the path for others to follow in their footsteps.

Silenat added:

There is an attitude in this society that women cannot do things, that women cannot be leaders. It feels good to have disproved that by becoming the leader of this school. This is a positive thing. It also feels good to be able to encourage the girls in the school. Like when one of them is appointed to be a monitor for a classroom and she doesn’t want to accept the position. I use my own story as an example. I tell them ‘Why don’t you be a leader in your class? I am a woman and I am leading this school. See? Women can lead just as well as men.

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Teaching quality
Sub-Saharan Africa: Ethiopia

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