Sky is the Limit mural

Mungere Secondary School

My dream is now my reality. I still keep pinching myself. I live in Tanzania! This country is so beautiful. From the smiling children out herding goats and cows to the amazing students at Mungere Secondary School where I work, to the undulating golden grasses, Acacia trees and the ever-present green backdrop of the Great Rift Valley escarpment. Every day is a wonder.

First Three Weeks

Outside my window, I hear a light fluttering as the wind filters through the corn stalks and lifts the dust into a swirl. I am living in Mto wa Mbu, just 3 degrees south of the Equator and at an elevation of 3,200 ft. I’ve been here just three weeks.

Through my window, I hear the cries of the children, the rustle of the animals; the cows, the goats. The burning of garbage fills my nostrils.

I have much to do here. I have been hired to be the School Director for Mungere Secondary School in rural Tanzania. My task is to help transform the education program. To help the teenagers become critical thinkers. But before that, I must help the teachers believe in alternative ways of teaching that is not rote memorization, to take risks, embrace learning and to be proud of what they know and be open to what they don’t. To stretch themselves. I think that will be one of the biggest challenges. The culture in Tanzania is not that way. Once you have a certificate that says you know a skill, it means you are an expert that does not need further training. Continuous learning is not the norm. So, helping (or convincing) the teachers to seek out better ways to teach on a regular basis will be one of my first tasks.

Sunrise in Mto wa Mbu, Tanzania
Sunrise. Every day it is stunningly dramatic.

School is in Session

I’ve been here five weeks now. On July 8th, the second term began and I have now had a chance to see the teachers and students in action. A typical day starts with morning parade (assembly) and has a bit of a military structure; singing required songs, standing at attention and setting their minds to the day. Then the students clean the classrooms and the compost toilets. Then the learning begins. Mungere Secondary School includes Form I – IV (7th – 10 grade) and the subjects taught are geography, history, English, biology, chemistry, physics, math, and agriculture. As the school presently has only five classrooms, each Form has its own room and the teachers rotate.

Teaching Style

A typical class might consist of the teacher writing on the board all the required notes and the students writing the notes down in their notebooks. Then possibly a short discussion. In the sciences, there is more explanation of processes and procedures, but not extensively. Considering that is the teaching style when the teachers were in school, and how the ‘teachers college’ advises them to teach, they are doing exactly what is expected of them.

Classroom at Mungere Secondary School
Form III, Biology Class.

Changing It Up

But I see more potential than that. It will take patience and a willingness on the part of the teachers to learn new methods, but from what I have observed so far, these teachers are working at Mungere because it is different. Mungere strives to not just do the minimum, but rather to lift these students higher than the requirements.

I am developing a basic teacher training workshop that sheds light on why a student-centered (rather than a teacher-centered) teaching methodology will make a huge difference in how students learn. Learning to be a facilitator, to let the students fumble and work together to find solutions, rather than spoon-feeding the information can be frightening if you’ve never seen nor experienced it – especially when there is a government test your students have to take. Teaching to the test is huge here. So… baby steps – I keep having to remind myself that in order to change a system, small changes and training are key in order to keep everyone coming along with me.

Besides learning through rote memorization, secondary students in Tanzania have an additional challenge – they must learn in English. In primary school, students are taught in Kiswahili. But starting in Form I (7th grade – start of secondary school) they are taught exclusively in English. This is a hurdle that many can not overcome. So at Mungere, the students are given intensive English language classes for three months prior to starting the school year in January. This has proven to give the students more than a fighting chance to succeed.

One of the buildings at Mungere Secondary School
One of the three classroom blocks.

The Mungere students are bright, excited and happy young people. Every day I go to campus and see their shy smiles and hear their laughter. It renews my energy and reminds me why I am here and how much I want to make a positive impact on their lives. While a bit daunting, my plan is to infuse the daily curriculum with activities that promote critical thinking, and inquiry. I want the teachers to fill their lessons with interactive learning. Ultimately, I want to instill in both teachers and students a love for life-long learning.

These kids deserve my best effort.

Student giving campaign speech for student body with Great Rift Valley escarpment in the background.
Candidates giving Student Body campaign speeches – in English!

The Red Sweater Project, the US NGO that founded this school, has done an amazing job at bringing education to an area where so few have a chance to get beyond a 6th grade (Standard VII) education. I feel blessed to have the opportunity to be a catalyst for change here and working with such amazing young people.

Next time I’ll share some of the sites and impressions from around the area.

I hope your summers/winters (depending on which hemisphere you are in) are going great!

~ Gretchen

3 Comments

  • Mary Moss

    Wow! You are an inspiration. Although we haven’t met, I’ve followed in some of your footsteps….AIS in Mandalay, Myanmar. I’m now in Egypt getting ready to start my 4th year. If you’re ever in Cairo , please shout. Best wishes for this adventure!

    • Gretchen M Fogelstrom

      Mary – I bet Egypt is amazing. It is definitely a place I want to visit some day soon.

  • Christine Funk

    thanks so much for writing down what you have been going through and are up too! So excited for your efforts and wishing you, the teachers and students lots of success and trying new methods!!

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