Good education depends on a number of factors. These include appropriate infrastructure, like buildings, electricity or benches, and what teaching materials are available. But first and foremost, it depends on highly qualified teachers.
The need for qualified teachers is a major challenge in a number of African countries with rapidly growing populations. Governments must grapple with what it takes to fill that need while not neglecting quality and standards. But, in most cases, high demand seems more urgent than questions of quality.
In Cameroon, local authorities often try to fill vacancies with parents or volunteers. Mostly, it’s up to schools’ parent-teacher associations to fill the gaps with these so called “PTA-teachers”, who have no formal training as teachers. Another approach is to shorten the regular training period for student teachers in Cameroon’s training colleges, so that they are rapidly available for teaching. These two models – completely untrained or under-trained – compromise the quality of teaching.
In a recent study, I explored teacher training in rural Cameroon. The study also aimed to understand what undertrained teachers do to develop the necessary skills once they are in classrooms.
The findings suggest that collaboration between teachers are crucial to boosting existing skills and learning more on the job. Teachers interviewed in the study preferred to learn collaboratively. They often asked colleagues for help, exchanged information about students and teaching, shared teaching materials and supported each other. This is happening informally. It would be valuable for education authorities in the country to look at how the process could be more supported.
Teachers lack support
Many of Cameroon’s teachers are under-trained. It’s difficult to get precise countrywide figures. But in the region I surveyed there were very wide discrepancies depending on the type of school.
For example, 93% of teachers at private schools had received training, 73% at government schools and just below this (72%) at Catholic schools. In the case of Islamic schools 60% of teachers were trained. The number dipped below 50% at Presbyterian schools (49%) and Baptist (36%). Some of those who fell into the untrained category had received no training. Others had enrolled for a year-long course which, given holidays and breaks, amounted to just nine months. After those nine months they were considered trained.
The study was conducted in primary schools in the rural areas of an Anglophone region. There were 171 respondents, ranging from teachers to principals. Additionally, people involved in teacher training, such as NGO employees and state authorities, were interviewed to get a wider perspective on the current state of teacher training in Cameroon.
The findings suggest that many teachers in classrooms in rural Cameroon had only one year of training. They could not afford longer training periods, although primary school teachers are supposed to undergo up to three years of training, according to their level of qualification before college (that is, whether they obtained O-levels or A-levels).
The teachers I interviewed were generally satisfied with training, though many said they would have liked to study for longer. They said that the content of the year-long training programme was narrow. Too many topics were packed into a short space of time rather than delving deeper.
While their lecturers in the colleges were mostly approachable and supportive, the student teachers didn’t receive much support while doing practical teaching in schools as part of their studies. This is a crucial point: it’s in this that student teachers transfer their theoretical knowledge into practical situations; they should be supervised and supported while doing so.
Due to the short training, teachers felt overwhelmed by large classes and ill equipped to manage learning once they entered into the field.
Another challenge they faced was the role of official languages in pupils’ learning process. There are more than 250 local dialects in Cameroon, and a variety of these are spoken as mother tongues in the country’s rural areas. This presents a big challenge for teachers: some only speak the official language at a low level. Pupils also struggle, and this makes successful learning and teaching difficult.
But the teachers weren’t entirely at sea. Many said they learned a great deal by collaborating with their colleagues, sharing ideas and lessons. This suggests that more should be done to strengthen collaborative networks, particularly in rural schools.
Learning from each other
The collaborative way in which the teachers I spoke to carry out their jobs holds great potential for rural primary school teachers in Cameroon. These practices, which happen naturally, could be bolstered to supplement formal teacher training. For instance, mentoring relationships could be developed to support new teachers - and to give them a chance to share innovative impulses and ideas from outside the school.
School principals play an important role here. Their job is to encourage their colleagues’ professional development and integrating new teachers into the system. They could push for mentoring arrangements to complement state-organised training, which tends to address more broad topics.
At a local school or municipal level, mentoring could help address individual concerns and issues. But most principals are not trained to set up such systems, and will need support from education authorities.
The collaborative structures that already exist in rural Cameroon offer great potential to improve teachers’ qualifications when they’re already on the job. This would help to counter the region’s teacher shortage.
The next step would be for these forms of qualification to be formally recognised and supported by state authorities.