Malawi: Auxiliary teachers save the day

GPE and UNICEF joined forces to help the government of Malawi cope with the learning crisis and lack of teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

December 01, 2021 by Arnold Munthali, UNICEF Malawi
4 minutes read
Deborah Chipande outside a tent donated by UNICEF. Credit: UNICEF Malawi/2021/Munthali
Deborah Chipande outside a tent donated by UNICEF.
Credit: UNICEF Malawi/2021/Munthali

Deborah Chipande is determined to become a medical doctor. The 11-year-old is in grade five at Mtsiliza Primary School in Lilongwe Urban. She placed seventh in the term one final examinations, but she candidly acknowledges she could have performed better had she been less playful.

“I hope to do better next time”, she says. One challenge standing in the way of her life ambition, she says, has been the shortage of classrooms, with some students forced to learn outdoors, under the glare of the sun or the sparse shade offered by the few trees at the school.

Holding classes under the trees or in full sun is not an experience that Eness Nkhonjera, a teacher at the school, cherishes. It is a nightmare in the teaching and learning process, she says, as the students’ attention is often drawn to the goings-on around them.

“There’s a huge difference when a class is held in the open compared to a classroom. In the open, students get distracted by what is happening around them instead of focusing on the lessons. Other students who may not be in class at the time come around to disturb fellow pupils who are learning,” Nkhonjera says.

An even bigger challenge facing the school is the high pupil-teacher ratio. Mtsiliza Primary School has an enrollment of 6,442 pupils (3,431 boys and 3,011 girls) and only 28 classrooms and 53 permanent teachers, a situation that Fredrick Chiphaka, the school principal, considers far from ideal, considering the guidelines put in place to reopen schools after the COVID-19 pandemic closures in 2020 and early 2021.

“The coronavirus guidelines on the reopening of schools directed us to have 40 students in each class, but we could increase the pupil-teacher ratio to 60 in the worst-case scenario. But we had too many students against too few teachers and classrooms. We created 116 streams, but even that was not enough,” Chiphaka says.

Eness Nkhonjera, one of the beneficiaries of GPE support © UNICEF Malawi/2021/Munthali
Eness Nkhonjera, one of the beneficiaries of GPE's support.
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Munthali

Nkhonjera, a teacher with 13 years of experience, says the school tried to stagger the classes in shifts to adhere to the COVID-19 guidelines on the reopening of schools, but with a shortage of both classrooms and teachers, it was a bridge too far, especially for students in the senior classes.

GPE and UNICEF stepped in to help address these two challenges.

Thanks to GPE’s support early this year, the Ministry of Education provided 23 auxiliary teachers to deal with the school’s teacher shortage, while UNICEF alleviated the classroom crowding by making available three tents that can each seat 80 students.

The auxiliary teachers were provided under a US$10 million grant awarded to Malawi’s Ministry of Education in response to the country’s application for COVID-19 accelerated funding, which supports GPE partner countries to deliver interventions included in their response plans to COVID-19 that enable learning to continue and education systems to recover from school closures.

In total, the ministry recruited 3,320 auxiliary teachers, of whom 995 are paid for by GPE, while the rest are paid for by the Malawi government.

After schools reopened in 2020, Mtsiliza Primary School created 116 streams to cope with the enrollment and adhere to COVID-19 protocols, but Chiphaka says the recruitment of the auxiliary teachers was tremendous.

Principal Chiphaka in his office. Credit: UNICEF Malawi/2021/Munthali
Principal Chiphaka in his office.
UNICEF Malawi/2021/Munthali

“The auxiliary teachers saved the day, as they filled a critical gap at the school. They took over all the streams that had no teachers. Our work was made easier because of them. Their dedication to duty is beyond doubt and we would have loved to have them around for longer,” Chiphaka says.

The contracts for the auxiliary teachers expired in August 2021 and Chiphaka worries about the effect this will have on congestion in the classrooms.

A crucial aspect of the reopening of schools after the closures was the recognition that some schools lack the physical space to accommodate all students. In an effort to ease the crowding in learning spaces, UNICEF provided tents, among other COVID-19–related supplies, to various schools in the country. Mtsiliza Primary School in Lilongwe Urban was one such beneficiary.

“The UNICEF intervention was huge. We received three tents, which have assisted us to decongest some of the classrooms. There’s a problem of classroom space, with some classes held in the sun because we don’t have trees here to provide shade. So, it was a relief when UNICEF provided us with the tents,” Chiphaka says.

In addition to the tents, UNICEF also provided handwashing facilities, which complement a tap and a borehole that were already available at the school, as one of the initiatives in the fight against COVID-19.

For Nkhonjera and the other teachers, the auxiliary teachers and tents could not have come at a better time.

“One teacher would be required to teach a class of over 200 students, which was not ideal. The recruitment of the auxiliary teachers lessened the burden on us,” Nkhonjera says.

Deborah, too, is grateful, noting that while the tents can be hot and stuffy at times, they provide shelter, which was hard to come by before.

“The tents are beneficial because previously some students were learning under trees while others learnt in the open without shade,” Deborah says.

The GPE grant to the Ministry of Education started on May 15, 2020, and ends on November 30, 2021.

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Malawi

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