Ten years ago, I took my first trip to Ghana. I had been communicating back and forth with a man named Godwin, the headmaster of a primary school in Sega, and due to my training in Elementary Education I was set to be a 4th, 5th and 6th grade teacher at his school. While the school faculty was mostly filled with local Ghanaian teachers, Godwin hosted expats as well, and I excitedly took him up on the position.
When I began teaching in Sega, I quickly became aware of the challenges teachers had to overcome daily. The school building we taught in was a loosely constructed pavilion with a tin roof that had gaping holes. During the rainy season, the sound of rain hitting the roof was deafening. I couldn’t hear myself speak let alone try to explain the concept of division to students. Rain came through holes in the roof in the form of mini waterfalls, and students moved their desks to avoid the water pouring in. We were better off than the classes held under mango trees, however, as their desks were only covered by leaves and branches.
Each teacher had their assigned class and subject, but there were limited textbooks. We therefore spent much of our time copying textbooks on the board for students to then copy into their notebooks. To teach reading, teachers copied entire books on the board, page after page, chapter after chapter, day after day, because there was only one copy of each storybook. Students spent more time copying than reading.
While we could not change those or the many other difficult circumstances, we worked together on what we could control. Some teachers gave me a list of words and we painted reference materials on the walls. Two, three, and four letter words soon decorated the walls of the primary school. We painted multiplication facts with dots to represent the numbers of each problem so that students could visualize the math problems they were learning. We used rocks to demonstrate addition and subtraction. We also had monthly trainings for teachers on topics like classroom management, which helped teachers talk through strategies to control a class of 50 students.
I was not at this school for long, but when I left I had felt like I was a partner in making the school’s learning environment better, if only slightly, for both students and teachers. What I did not yet know, however, was how much more could be accomplished to make sustainable change.
It’s now 10 years later, and I manage the Teacher Support and WASH programs at Pencils of Promise (PoP). I travel to Ghana once or twice each year to support the program team, facilitating discussions about how to improve workshops and how many schools we want to implement programs in next year. I often thought about visiting Sega, but it remained just a thought.
That was until this past January when I was with two PoP staff members visiting a community that has PoP’s Teacher Support and WASH programs. As we were arriving to the community, I felt like the area looked strikingly familiar; the waterways following the road, the lagoons nearby. Curious, I brought up google maps and realized that we were a 20 minutes drive from Sega, where I had taught with Godwin and where I’d had my first introduction to Ghanaian culture. Being so close, I had to see if we could visit. With the permission of my two co-workers, we decided on our way back to make the short detour to Sega.
Teacher turnover is very common in Ghanaian schools so I assumed that none of the teachers I had taught with would still be there. However, I wondered if any changes had been made to the buildings. I wondered if any additional materials were now at the school. For no reason other than my own curiosity, I wanted to visit a place that had sparked my interest in global education and had given me insight into the realities of teaching in this area. There was also a small part of me that thought maybe, just maybe, Godwin, the headmaster of the school, would still be there.
After passing many buildings that reminded me of the days walking to and from the market, we arrived at the primary school in Sega. Walking around slowly, as to not disturb the classes taking place, I arrived at the main office. I was astonished to see Godwin sitting in the corner room. As I walked over to reintroduce myself and explain how I knew him, he stood up and started yelling, “What? KC? WHAT!”. I was shocked. I immediately felt like I was back at the school, teaching and taking advice from him about Ghanaian culture and education. He was always a man who showed great care for the people he worked with and this was one small example of that.
He showed me around and I was amazed at all of the improvements that had been made to the school. There were many new buildings. No classrooms had tin roofs or gaping holes in the ceiling. All structures were sturdy and could withstand the elements. There was a library full of books for students to use and somehow the paintings of two, three, and four letter words remained, albeit a bit dusty and certainly unused.
I was overwhelmed by the changes and what a difference I assumed they made for each and every student and teacher. My colleagues, however, were unphased and unimpressed. The reality is, they did this every day. Each and every single day they were going to communities and working with school staff to make life changing and holistic improvements to schools.
PoP staff spend their days building new school structures, providing teacher training workshops, observing teachers, giving feedback, delivering boxes of books, teaching the importance of handwashing, and helping to explain menstrual hygiene to growing kids. This was their entire job. They were making improvements like I was seeing at this school but in even more holistic ways. Although Godwin now had the books and the school structures, he still needed support with training teachers. There was still so much that could improve and the PoP staff were doing exactly those things.
PoP provides a holistic and sustainable approach to improving literacy. We are not only providing school structures so that students have a dry, protected place to learn, we are providing materials for teaching, and training to support that teaching. One does not work without the other. Teacher training can take place but if the rain is pouring in through the ceiling and there are no storybooks for students to read, it doesn’t matter how well trained a teacher is. If the perfect school system is in place but students are at home sick from preventable waterborne diseases, it doesn’t matter how many books are at the school.
I collaborate with the PoP Ghana team to plan for program expansion yearly so I am acutely aware that just this year, the team supported 108 schools with programming. I know these numbers inside and out. I could tell you how many new schools the Ghana team implemented programming in this year, how many coaches were needed to reach those schools, and the prices of each of the thousands of materials provided. I have seen how the team is constantly considering how to execute programs on a large scale, however, visiting Sega made it come full circle for me. I was overwhelmed thinking about how much has changed in the 108 communities that PoP has partnered with across Ghana. The team is not only providing programs on a large scale, to thousands of students and hundreds of teachers, but they are doing so in a holistic way that makes the programs lasting and sustainable.