Living and working overseas can sometimes feel like being on a roller coaster with no harness. With more than 1,000 learners at the school where we also live, many days can feel like stimulation overload. I’m the type of person who loves change and can handle a lack of routine, but at times, life in Namibia has certainly pushed me to my limits. Living abroad in London I did not feel the same way. I think if you’re used to developed world living, the developing world can be a real challenge.
One of the lessons I taught my classes last year was on giving directions. I asked my learners to write down very detailed step-by-step directions for sweeping a room, to act as if you were explaining how to do that task to an alien. Often times when I sit down to blog, I think of explaining life this way because while many things unite humanity, there are certainly things that are very different about life in Namibia. It’s hard to know where to begin. The schools and the education system are certainly no exception.
No education system is perfect, and America has its challenges as well. Namibia is a very young country, both in years and demographics. According to the 2011 Namibia Population and Housing Census Main Report, the median age of people in Namibia is 21, but in Kavango Region the median age is 18, meaning that exactly half of the population is younger than 18 in our region.
Teachers are paid well in Namibia, and it is a highly sought-after job. Due to a teacher shortage, HOD’s (head of department) and principals also have classes to teach, in addition to all their administrative work.
Kids at all schools wear uniforms, public (government) or private. There is no separation of church and state here – prayers and religious songs are common at schools. It’s very uncommon to meet a non-Christian in Namibia.
In many ways it is impressive how far Namibia has come in the 25 years since independence. The infrastructure is more developed than in many African countries with paved roads and clinics and schools.
It’s impossible to explain everything about the school system, but I’ll do my best to highlight the biggest points in this post.
The Ministry of Education sets the curriculum and exams. The school year runs from January to December. There are 195 scheduled days of instruction. We have three breaks: one from mid-April to mid-May, one for two weeks in August and one from early December to mid-January (Namibia’s summer/holiday break).
School begins at 7:10 a.m. and ends at 1 p.m. There is tea break during the school day from 9:50 a.m. – 10:20 a.m.
There are eight classes a day and each class is 40 minutes long. On Wednesdays my school has a 9th period to make up for the assembly we have first period on Mondays. At assemblies there are announcements, prayers, words of wisdom and songs. Double periods are more common among older learners.
The subjects are similar to what we have at home. One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed about math in secondary school is that they teach elements of geometry, algebra and algebra 2 each year in a general math class. Most schools have afternoon study from 2:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. where learners are expected to do their homework and study.
There will always be challenges. Here are some of the good things about the Namibian education system that I’ve noticed:
- Being innovative – Namcol, Namibian College of Open Learning, offers distance learning. This is especially good for people who live far away from town. Technology is making education more available and affordable for people all over the world.
- Free – Education is free for grades 1-7 and grades 8-12 may soon follow. Currently grades 8-12 must pay school fees, but there are programs available for those who can’t. School fees range from $N100-$N400 per year depending on what school you want to attend.
- Diversity – In my school at least, there are kids from tribes all over Namibia. Learning from other students with a totally different background from you can be a real asset.
- Equal – All citizens are allowed to attend school, regardless of color, tribe and economic status.
- High standards – While the syllabus and scheme of work seem too large and overwhelming to me, the goals that are set are good ones. If my learners could master everything on the syllabus, they would be in excellent shape.
- Teacher benefits – In addition to a high salary, teachers get the opportunity to further their education by taking study-leave or attending workshops. Teachers are also eligible to receive mortgage subsidies, free housing and bush stipends (for positions in rural areas). The teacher’s union is also active and strong.
- Variety -I was impressed with how many subjects you can take at school in Namibia. Entrepreneurship, home economics, physical science, math, physics, life skills, business information science, moral and religious education, geography, English, accounting, and many foreign languages! Most Namibians are very good at mastering more than one languages and most of my learners speak at least three. Learners at my school can take Afrikaans and Portuguese.
Here are some of the biggest challenges I’ve faced and noticed as an educator here. I’ve discussed many of these challenges with Namibian and American colleagues:
- An extremely large syllabus to cover – If you take a look at the English syllabus for upper secondary grade levels, you’ll see how lengthy it is. It’s safe to say it’s impossible to cover all this material, in a comprehensive manner, in two terms. The first two terms of school here are meant to cover the syllabus, and then the third term is meant for “revision” or review to prepare learners for the Term 3 exam which counts most.
- An extremely long exam schedule – Exams are the last three weeks of every term. No instruction goes on during that time, at least in Kavango Region, and learners take about one exam each day. Teachers have to invigilate (proctor) exams daily and mark all the exams (no scantrons here). In my opinion the exams aren’t always proofread well and often have mistakes that make answering some questions very confusing, even for native English speakers! Many classes have more than one exam. English has 3 exams- reading and directed writing, listening comprehension and writing. Last year I marked 660 exams each term. English isn’t like marking math and reading essays takes a long time. By the end of the three weeks, we are exhausted and so are the learners. Out of the 39 weeks of school each year, our learners have exams for nine of them. That leaves only 30 weeks for instruction.
- The grade 10 and 12 exams – The goal for all schools and learners is to pass the grade 10 exam. The grade 10 exam is sort of like the SAT except with a lot more bad consequences for failing it. Learners at Namibian schools can choose specialties, or “tracks.” Except that here there aren’t any tracks that don’t involve a future with college academics. For example: one track is for Science and Bio and another track is for Development Studies and History. My American high school was set up for learners who wanted to go to college as well as those who didn’t want to go to college. Shop classes were a track learners could take in my high school. We all aren’t meant to go to college. Consequently, on average at each school at least half of all learners fail the grade 10 exam. If that happens, their option is to then go to Namcol and take the exam again. If they fail again, there are few options left. Those that pass the grade 10 exam then prepare for the grade 12 exam which determines if learners will be accepted to college. The exams are on a point system and more than 25 points is passing. Failing the grade 10 or grade 12 exam here feels like a bit of a death sentence. Even people who hire domestic workers want someone with a grade 12 education. Colleges look almost strictly at your exam points. For a student like me who wasn’t a good test taker and relied on my report card performance, extra-curriculars and good behavior to help me get into a college, it feels unfair. In Namibia, you could miss school all term, show up for the exam, pass highly and pass the grade. Grades in class only factor into the third term grade, not the first two terms.
- Trying to learn while not having basic needs met – One day we went to lunch with the United States chargé d’affaires to Namibia. He asked me what the biggest challenge was for me as a teacher. My response was teaching learners whose basic needs aren’t being met. In a town with more high-income people, there are some learners at my school whose day-to-day needs are met and exceeded. But there are also many who are hungry, who come from unstable families and who must face sad, stressful problems. Many young kids here are forced to raise their younger siblings after a parent dies. Half of the learners of my school are considered OVC (Orphaned and Vulnerable Children) which means they have one or less living parent. Many schools in Namibia are hostel schools and I’ve heard learners complain that the food served there is “not enough.” In addition to schoolwork, most of my learners do all the chores in their family’s house. Learners in the village are expected to herd cattle and perform other chores such as fetching water. It’s hard to maintain my frustration at learners for not being motivated or for not doing homework when I put myself in their shoes. I probably wouldn’t be very motivated either if I was hungry and dealing with many problems. Unlike America where most communities provide multiple recreational resources for kids, in Rundu there’s no good place for young people to go. Most kids don’t have toys here. Being a teenager isn’t easy, and there’s very little ways to blow off steam. Unplanned pregnancy and alcoholism are big problems among teenagers.
- Lack of resources – Learners and teachers alike aren’t guaranteed textbooks, classrooms, chairs to sit in, desks, paper, printer ink or other common education resources. Our classrooms are in desperate need of repair. One of my colleagues has 20 desks and chairs in his classroom when he has an average class size of 50 learners. Learners are responsible for getting their own notebooks and must have a notebook for every class. All their work goes in there (essays, tests, notes) unless you’re lucky and have a copy machine at your school so you can print out separate test sheets. When teachers mark, they have hundreds of these notebooks sitting on their desk. In my classes last year three learners shared one textbook. This year I didn’t even bother to hand textbooks out – it wasn’t worth the hassle. Most schools offer biology and physics but have no equipment to do experiments. This year I didn’t have a register class (homeroom) so every time I had class I had to hunt for an open classroom. There isn’t always one available so then my choices are to teach in the library where there are not enough chairs or to teach under a tree. There are no buses here – Kids walk or taxi to school and many walk over an hour to get here and most haven’t eaten breakfast. It’s very difficult to teach when what you would consider to be basic resources aren’t available.
- Absenteeism – Absenteeism is a problem on both sides – the learners and the teachers. Learners are absent all the time for a variety of reasons. It’s extremely rare to have a day in class when every learner is present. In my grade 11 register class one of my learners was absent 63 days in the school year. That’s an entire term of school that he missed! Teachers can be absent physically or mentally. Teachers are given the opportunity to take “study leave” which means that if they are enrolled for either a teaching diploma (a person can teach if they passed grade 12 without a university degree) or graduate degree, they are permitted to miss school to study. If they are teaching learners in grade 5 or above, their learners sit there with no teacher (substitute teachers sometimes exist here, but only for grades 1-4). The same situation happens when they attend workshops during the school year. Some teachers will try to get other teachers to provide work each day for their classes, and while that is good, there is nothing that can take the place of a real teacher. At many schools teachers will show up but won’t teach. They may be in class marking or doing other things around school or town.
- Paperwork – Being a teacher in Namibia means dealing with a lot of paperwork. Teachers are expected to have three files: a resource file, an administration file and a preparation file. Teachers are expected to have a scheme of work which is like a road map of your lessons for the whole year. Lesson plans are due every Monday for that week of classes. The preparation forms are cumbersome and take a bit of time. It feels overwhelming to fill these out when you’re teaching more than five different classes – that would be 25 forms to hand in each week. I know teachers at home deal with a lot of paperwork as well.
- Different learning levels combined in one class – I have students with learning disabilities in my classes. I have some 18-22 year old 9th graders. I have learners in my class who don’t speak English at all. I have very intelligent learners who must be absolutely bored in my class. Learners are able to fail a grade level twice and then they are usually passed onto the next grade, despite the fact that they haven’t mastered the material. I have learners this year repeating with me from last year and they don’t try very hard – they know the odds that they’ll be held back another year is low. The passing rate in Namibia is 40% for English, and 30% for all other subjects. All classes after grade 5 are taught in English.
- Lack of Discipline and Overcrowded Schools – If you violate a school rule here, it’s not structured as to what the consequences will be, if any. In Namibia it depends on the school and the principal as to what kind of discipline program is in place. Some have standards in place, other schools have none at all. A detention system is difficult to implement if all teachers aren’t on board. My school was built for 400 learners and we have over 1,000. With a school like mine that is well over capacity, keeping all learners in order so teaching can take place is challenging. If you want to separate kids who talk too much in class, it’s nearly impossible because there aren’t enough desks. Kids are sitting on top of desks. Since many kids aren’t disciplined at home that carries over into school. Gender norms here aren’t like America – I struggle most to get my male learners to respect me. There are so many distractions that happen in any given day, in any class. While classes are 40 minutes, it often feels like I get only 20 minutes of instruction.
Learning to be a teacher in a totally different environment with these difficulties has been challenging. I’m lucky I had good colleagues to help me. Now that we are at the end of service, looking back I’m really glad I was a teacher in Namibia. I had never worked with youth as closely before in my life. While my learners challenged me, enraged me, they also really inspired me and some made me a better person. I’m really looking forward to seeing what some of my learners and motivated colleagues will do in Namibia.