Memoirs of a Kenyan Teacher

A Critique of the Kenyan State Schooling System

August 10, 2013  |  By Gabriella Mulligan, UK

Memoirs of a Kenyan Teacher

Kenyan state schooling has a real challenge to face: a lack of resources, an outdated curriculum, and archaic teaching practices (including illegal caning). However, the children depending on this school system are now brighter than ever, and filled with hope and determination for the future. After four months in a Kenyan school, this article raises questions about the road ahead for Kenyan education – and hopes above all, for change and answers.

Walking into school on my first day as a teacher in Kenya, I was armed with only an old textbook. The classroom boasts a blackboard, but there is no chalk available. This would have been a daunting enough experience in itself. However, to add to the nerves, I was the only mzungu (white person) in school. So on my first day, it was before a sea of curious and apprehensive eyes that I walked out, and announced that class was starting.

Having been told by the head teacher that I am "master of my own classroom", my first decision was to remove all sticks and canes from view. While caning is illegal in Kenya, both the threat of, and actual use of the cane remain everyday in Kenyan schools. It was with some irritation that I repeatedly explained to other teachers that I do not need a cane to maintain authority over my class. I became resigned to the fact that I would be the nonconformist European teacher in their eyes for the entirety of my stay.

My teaching experiences since that first day highlighted to me a very worrying and terribly sad schism in the Kenyan school system: the quality of the curriculum and of teaching is deficient, while the intelligence and drive of the students is extraordinarily high. This is the tension that I wish to draw attention to, in a hope that it may one day in the near future be adequately resolved.

The school where I taught is by no means the worst-off of schools in Nairobi. It has received significant funding from a private trust. Desolate students may attend the school by way of sponsorship from the local community. Thus in my class of 10-12 year olds, I had the children of doctors, pilots, street vendors, and some orphans. Uniforms disguise the financial backgrounds of the children. However, what unites them is their sheer hunger for knowledge, their self-imposed discipline, and their insatiably good mood.

At the end of my first class, the bell boy wandered out to ring the bell to signal break time had begun. Not knowing any better, I finished off my lesson, told the class it was dismissed, and began packing up my things. Not a twitch. The class patiently sat there, before eventually a particularly brave boy came up and whispered to me "Sorry Teacher, we can’t go to break before we pray, and Teacher always has to leave the classroom before we can move." I have to admit I was stunned. Thinking back to my own primary school days in the suburbs of Nottingham, I am sure there are not many 10 year old English school children who would remain seated during break time of their own accord, due to lack of prayer and respect for the teacher. One thing is for certain, the family oriented set-up of Kenyan society has instilled a very strong sense of discipline in all of the young generation.

Furthermore, the children are very much aware of the need for a good education if they are to progress in life and move away from the corruption, violence and underachievement that plague African youth.

The curriculum taught to Kenyan children, as outlined by the Ministry of Education, is equally frustrating. In Social Studies, the children learn to recite the sections of the Constitution, and memorise the amendments. Yet when I brought up the topic of hygiene- not a single child had heard of bacteria, viruses, or parasites. Nor could a number of my younger class read fluently.

I questioned the logic of forcing children to recite pieces of complex law, as opposed to placing the emphasis on teaching them to read, or teaching them basic biology. The repost from the teachers came, that these children are mostly pulled from school aged 14, as their families require them to go to work. Most will never receive any further education. As such, the Kenyan system attempts to instil in the children as many scraps of information as possible – including their legal rights within society. Clearly, the concept of "what are important life skills" is a very subjective one.

Following the final exams in December, it was with some pride that I discovered that the majority of my students had achieved a score of above 40 out of a possible 50 points. One boy even scored an amazing 48 points out of 50. Clearly, there are some extremely clever and dedicated children in this country. However, this evidence also caused in me a feeling of dismay.

Rather than preparing the future generation for success, the Kenyan curriculum accepts as the norm that children in state schools will not proceed much past 14 years of age with their education. Rather than teaching them material equivalent to that taught in private schools, the Kenyan state curriculum arms children with skills for a lifetime of labour and unemployment. Surely this inherently undermines the intelligence, determination and future opportunities of those children?

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