Resistance, Contempt, and Snags are The Real Fuels of a Successful Fellowship

Decimon during his fellowship

What you go through as a new fellow is not the hell. The real hell is when you close your mind to the possibilities, innovations, hope, and potential in and outside you.

When society is complacent to 60% teacher absenteeism or the daunting 66% hungry pupils, all channels of breakthroughs are seen as ineffective and a wastage of time by those without strength, skill, and optimism to revert the situation.

These facts are similar to those in different countries where new fellows in all the leadership programs that are held by the partners of Teach For All, especially in the developing world.

And this is your story. I had just finished my summer institute when I got posted in one of the underserved rural St. Kizito Nabutaka primary school in Luweero district.

The rains had not yet come. The banana plantations around were yellowish, trees were weathering. Right Infront of the classroom blocks was the football pitch whose grass had long dried and the roots were protruding onto the surface. The unfunctional borehole was on the extreme corner of the pitch beside the village Chapel. On the righthand side of the main classroom block lay a structure with wobbling rusty iron sheet roof, wide unfitted doors and windows’ spaces, filthy plastered floor with black-sooted brick walls hanging in space on two ends-this was my classroom. Behind this shack were a dilapidated staff latrine and quarters. There I stayed to forget piped water, electricity, and cellphone network.

My first step in the school compound was met with suspicion. The native teachers never wanted to interact with me, the headteacher was not around when I reported to class-he never introduced me. Only four heads in a class interfaced with a stranger, prattling in the English language which wasn’t the medium of instruction anymore- they went mute. Teachers instructed learners in the local language. It boggled me.

Because it was still a reporting week, a few learners had come to school. The first two weeks of the term were traditionally not taught in this school. Teachers came on the first day to sign in the arrival book, hang around for a few hours, and left until the third week- I started witnessing the injustice we had talked about during the summer institute. In the third week, two-thirds of the school had reported but there was no learning. Pupils had to clean the bushy school premises for the whole week.

I scheduled myself to visit families after every end of the school day. I wanted to connect to both the learners and their parents. I ran along with my learners to their homes, waving at every resident on the road, making stopovers to greet passersby and parents until I would reach the designated home or family. Within a month I had visited half of my learners’ families. In my interaction with one parent, I realized the need to double my efforts in all ways.

“Good evening Tata Stella”

“Good evening young man, how are you?”

“I am fine, thank you, sir. My name is Decimon, I am a teacher at St kizito. I have come to visit my pupil who comes from this family.”

“Oh, that is great! I have never seen this in my entire life as a parent in that school! but why have you come? I just paid something two days ago.”

“I want us to work together, to support each other for the good of these children”

“But now master, what support can I give you? our children are not learning, a child in grade six cannot write her name! I want to withdraw my children from that school. You are just interested in money but doing nothing.”

“Tata, we have come, through your support to cause some changes’’

“Young man, there was a teacher who seemed to be good like you, for him he never ran with children like you. We both laughed but he was good. We had started seeing some change but he was again transferred because the headteacher felt threatened. We loved him for the service he had put up.”

“Trust us we will do better than him…’’

Parents revealed a lot of information about the school. They had better ideas of how they wanted to run their school, they loved their children to study from the nearby school but they were not involved. The leaders only worked to collect fees from them and that is the only time they were important-parents hated this way of business.

I shared with the teachers and the headteacher every feedback from the parents on every home visit. I hoped that they would respond to the feedback. However, they only sucked my energy. They said, “teacher you will get tired, we also had that fire, the parents in this community are not easy, they don’t understand even if you do the right things, they don’t appreciate.’’ My spirit was maimed by this response. I saw a very huge rift between the parents and teachers. I thought of it at night on my bed and wondered whether I would be able to put up a better leadership, I wondered whether I was meant to be in this leadership program anyway-fear hung over me. It’s like God heard our conversation and spoke to a parent to dispute their speculation and solace my heart. The next day a parent brought a basketful of ripe sweet bananas.

Life was a miniature of hope and a mammoth of gloom and anxiety. The teachers would sit alone in groups especially in the afternoon to gossip. They hardly went to class after the lunch break to teach. They gossiped about everyone. I got sick of this behavior and after I reflected upon it, I got an idea of interrupting it. I joined the gossipers with either my lesson plan books or materials to make learning aids for my classes. I was able to destroy the gossips. They then relocated to their classes. I kept following them to find out whether they were doing any productive work in the classes. I would ask for their lesson plans to coverup for them while they went to their gardens. We became friends because they liked every opportunity to be outside the class or school. I would freely chip in their classes and we coteach. After some time, we got back to our earlier groups, not to gossip but to lesson plans and make learning materials. Towards the end of the second month of the first term, the headteacher called a staff meeting and asked us to nominate one teacher to the position of the Director of studies, I got an overwhelming majority. This was my aha! Moment.

The next day after the meeting, one of the staff members bluntly said to me “let’s see what you will do”-this was in a bid to mock my experience and leadership…my response to him was, “please get ready” I stepped up my lesson planning, class visuals, learning aids on a daily basis. I started teaching phonemic sounds to boost reading skills, writing to improve the handwriting of my learners. It was exhausting but I promised to hang in. I made my lessons engaging and interactive to the extent that learners from the neighboring classes would run to come and peep at us during our classes. I wove our class goals, mantras, and values in the songs and chants and we sang with energy and hope.

I called a staff meeting to explain the plans I had for the teaching staff, school, parents, and children. A few teachers bought the ideas yet a great number remained skeptical. The arrangement was to bring them very early at school and keep them in school till the end of the school day. This was a dreary advance. It brought open resistance from a section of staff. I increased my working time from the normal by 90 minutes every day and worked through some of the weekends. I requested a meeting with the headteacher to elucidate how he would benefit from this arrangement at a personal level and at an administrative level. I got his full moral support. Within two weeks, late coming and absenteeism had been fixed. They marveled at my determination, quality of work, and sacrifice. It was at this time that they began to ask how much I earned and if I weren’t a government spy… the first term ended.

It’s in the second term of my first year when I fully grounded myself as a teacher-leader. Yet, I had a lot of backlog of untaught lessons of the first term. I had spent poorly my class instruction time. It's true that the learners were behind by three to four classes. Setting a positive classroom culture and connecting with the learners consumed a lot of time. I had no idea how I would have done it better. This was a problem I needed to fix quickly.

As we sat in a semicircle during the preterm weeklong training at New Jerusalem hotel, a question was posed by our leaders, “why didn’t you teach all the syllabus?’’ All of us chorused, “it’s impossible!’’ I remembered how teachers used to say that; it’s impossible to teach all the syllabus and realized how deafeningly I had fallen deep in the pit of impossibilities. In this training, I honed skills in learning materials development, painting, and writing children’s readers from locally available and inexpensive materials. I came back to school fired up and ready to continue lighting more candles of hope among the children, parents, and teachers.

However, the question, why didn’t you finish the syllabus lingered in my mind. I went to the laboratory of the mind (reflection) and decided to mark the boundaries of all my activities. I separated instruction time from counseling, I rehearsed my lessons prior, using a timer, I responded to misbehavior faster and denied attention to distractions in the environment, I chose to be friendly but firm, I aligned my learning aids in time and also delegated learners to bring some whenever I needed them in the next lesson and formed flexible study groups. These improved my instruction and covered both the old and new content in time.

Two weeks into the term we had not met as teaching staff to plan or review the previous term. I felt nervous. I asked the headteacher about the date he would call the meeting but he said he was still busy. I sought permission to call a parents’ meeting for the classes I was teaching to discuss issues revolving around child feeding, parent engagement among others and he agreed. So, I used word of mouth from the learners and a letter. Only 3 out of 30 parents attended the meeting. I got demoralized. The teacher who had confronted me before was the happiest, he said I was wasting my time, “we warned you, I told you” was on their smiley lips. When the headteacher came, he asked me how the meeting went. I told him that the parents’ turnup was not good. He also added salt to an injury, “I told you, these parents are difficult, that’s why I gave up on calling meetings, they don’t understand, they don’t respect me…’’ he emphasized. “You people think that we are doing nothing but at least you have witnessed for yourself,” he added.

I walked feebly back to my quarter my mind in a blur. I wanted to prove otherwise but I lacked ideas at the moment. I picked my notebook and trotted to a secluded place near the chapel and drew a reflective cycle to help assess myself asking why and how questions- this reflection helped me to come up with concrete actionable steps towards calling another meeting.

I decided to write a poem and rhymes which I taught my learners in both classes during games time. They would run home while singing.

I started crafts lessons also done during the games time. After the children had mastered the poem and rhymes together with a few crafts they had made I called for another meeting. This time we didn’t type the letters, we handwrote them. I made a draft on the chalkboard and made sure every parent reads the letter written in her/his child’s handwriting. I wanted them to have the evidence and reason to come to the meeting. In the draft, I said, “don’t miss seeing your child recite poems and sing English rhymes.” Of course, they had not seen any of these activities in the school before… as the meeting drew closer, I sent another handwritten reminder through the children. On Sunday I attended mass together with them and asked the catechist for an opportunity to make some announcements regarding the parents’ meeting. A day before the meeting I rode a bicycle going from one door to another reminding the parents of a meeting on the next day.

Friday 22nd June 2018 afternoon, parents started to arrive at the venue we had set. The former director of studies chaired the meeting after the headteacher had declined to do so, my co-fellow was the secretary and I was a motion-mover my ‘’nemesis’’ was charged with registering the attendance. I used this opportunity to orient them about our class vision, values, learning aids pasted on the walls to familiarize each other. The headteacher and all the staff members present were in attendance. At exactly 2:00 pm the meeting started, 166% of parents in total attended including those who didn’t have pupils in the classes I was teaching….

This meeting was a game-changer… What you go through as a new fellow is not the hell. The real hell is when you close your mind to the possibilities, innovations, hope, and potential in and outside you. The headteacher who had earlier said that he would not speak in the meeting asked for the opportunity to do so. I pleaded that he doesn’t talk about tuition. After this meeting, we debriefed…

It was at this meeting when we sort of signed a memorandum of understanding with the parents. They got involved in every school activity and program whenever they were called on. Sometimes they volunteered to do some activities on their own accord. The feeding program began, a school demonstration garden was started, we continued with the vocational skills training program. The opponents started cooperating gradually after this meeting. The second term ended and early in the third term, the headteacher in a staff meeting announced that he had appointed me an assistant deputy headteacher…

In my second year of fellowship, just as I was growing in leadership at the school, I also grew in leadership in the fellowship. I was on 1st April 2019 appointed a senior fellow a title I held up to 1st September 2019. After breaking new grounds of parent and community engagement a lot of activities unfolded. We hosted the parish priest in march, conducted a study tour for our learners on 5th May, DHL on 18th July 2019, and 29th September 2019 respectively. I realized that resistance, contempt, and snags are the real fuels of a successful fellowship. I am still learning and growing. If this is our story it’s your story. Challenge yourself.

‘’Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company, and reflection must finish him.” - John Locke

Written by: Decimon Wandera (Teach For Uganda alumni, Leadership Development Coach — Mayuge District)

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