Thursday, September 24, 2009

Leadership Education Uganda

In the Fall of 2007 George Wythe College sent a representative to Uganda at the request of Christopher Mugimu, the Department Head of Curriculum Studies at Makerere Univeristy in Kampala, to evaluate the possibility of incorporating Leadership Education in Ugandan schools. Since that time Leadership Education Uganda (LEU) has been founded to mentor a generation of teachers who will build statesmen through leadership education. The following is a report submitted by Kira Johnson (BA ’06), an intern for LEU, chronicling some of her and her husband, Brian's (BA '07) experiences sharing Leadership Education in Uganda.

We had been planning our trip to Mukono, Uganda for almost a year now. We were going as volunteers from Help International and George Wythe College to introduce leadership education in local schools. But on the last leg of our flight, a knot formed in my stomach. My excitement and a tiny voice of inadequacy and fear battled it out for a minute. Do I know enough? Who will listen to us, we’re so young? Don’t you feel a little presumptuous to go and instruct teachers on how to do a better job? But with a few reassuring words from my husband Brian, and my excitement building back up, our plane landed. We experienced culture shock. Cold showers, cockroaches, banana trees, dirt roads, and smiling half-clothed children who called out mzungu! Mzungu! (white person) and ran to touch my hands and arms as we walked.

Within a few days we met teachers from nearby schools, and our teacher training courses and many friendships began. We attended some of their classes, sitting on small benches next to the students in classes of anywhere from fifteen to one-hundred-and-forty students. It didn’t take long to see some of the challenges these teachers and others like them face in Uganda. Large class sizes, lack of materials, poor discipline, and an education system which revolves around three national exams.

The most common classroom environment was lecture and dictation, whether the students were eight or fifteen. As the teacher dictates word for word from the class’s one textbook, the students write it down and are expected to memorize the information for upcoming tests. The goal is getting through the material before the term is over and questions are often seen as interruptions. Getting the answer right on the test is seen as more important than understanding the concept. As one girl said, “We cram and cram and sometimes we don’t even know what we’re cramming.”

We taught concepts from A Thomas Jefferson Education by DeMille and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Covey in our classes. We introduced and practiced discussion with our teachers, the importance of asking questions, and encouraging their students to ask questions. We discussed why education is important, that it should continue beyond school, how students learn in different ways and how we can help them.

In Uganda, becoming a teacher isn’t something men and women happily choose. They don’t see teaching as a noble occupation allowing them the opportunity to touch and change young lives. They see it as a low-end job, something they accepted by default because their test scores weren’t quite good enough to get them the government scholarship to be a doctor, a lawyer, or the nurse they had hoped to be. Most students and their families can’t afford the tuition themselves, so they accept the government scholarship to be a teacher.

One of the most exciting and touching parts of our classes was when individual teachers opened their eyes to see that they have an important responsibility; what they do matters. Deborah realized that the child she inspires at school is going to have a better life because of her guidance and instruction. Sembuze understood that education is something more than getting high grades on a test, and should continue through your life. Education is not something to hate and suffer through because memorizing well is the only chance you have to get a better life. It’s not necessarily getting the same answer as everyone else, but finding a better way to do things.

Ronald told us "Before this class I only read to teach the students. The minimum. I didn't like to read. Now, you can always see me with a book, even if it's only for a few minutes in-between classes. And the funny thing is, my students have begun noticing. It spreads. Other teachers take notice now also. They see the difference in us and our classrooms."

By the end of the term we sat in the same classrooms and watched these teachers lead their students in discussion. Instead of shutting down questions, they encouraged them. Instead of saying “wrong answer” they helped their students discover the answer. We watched one class role play historical stories with the entire class laughing and involved. We saw teachers who had found a reason to teach, and a determination to continue their own education.

At first I saw the problems in Uganda, and we wanted to help. We went to teach. To share what we knew and hopefully make a difference. I don’t think we realized how much we would learn and grow from the teachers and other people we worked and spent time with. Brian and I are better teachers, and will be better parents because of our time there. We were impressed with the parents we saw who work so hard and make many sacrifices so they can pay the school fees for their children, and with the teachers who want to be better, and were willing to try new things in their classes, and in turn taught us.

The cold showers and cockroaches I never learned to love, but we quickly came to enjoy and learn from our other experiences, and to love our new friends and adopted family. It was worth it.

Kira Johnson was valedictorian of the 2007 graduating class of George Wythe College. Her commencement address is available for free download at

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