Trainee teachers learn a whole lot on placement in Kenya

Dan Mew

I am fortunate enough to travel frequently to Africa. In 2015, I travelled to Kenya with the University of Southampton’s PGCE group and witnessed first-hand the impact their skills had on the communities we work with.

The Kenya team and I set off really early in the morning to pick up the group from the airport; they are arriving at 6:30am. Without the sun, Kenya is surprisingly cold. Despite the temperature and early start, I am so excited to welcome them to Kenya and help them start this amazing journey they are about to undertake. The group land and go through customs – a slow process – and we wait patiently at the arrivals terminal. All of a sudden, we see a sea of African Adventures t-shirts – they are here! We greet them and everybody gets ready for the 5-hour drive from Nairobi to Nakuru. The group travel in one bus with their luggage in another, and we head north west. The drive is beautiful and nothing like a stretch of motorway in the UK. We pass giraffes, baboons and many other wonderful animals that Kenya has to offer. The sun is getting stronger, replacing the cold mist and making the landscape look lush, vibrant and full of life.

We finally get to Nakuru and have a much-needed hot meal at a hotel. The group are introduced to the rest of the Kenya team and the project co-ordinators who will be supporting them over the next few weeks. After a quick stop-off at the supermarket, we help the group to check into the accommodation and then leave them to settle for the afternoon, as they are exhausted from the long journey. Later on in the evening, some of the Kenyan team and I deliver the evening meal to the group. Meals are cooked off site and delivered to the volunteers either at the accommodation or their projects. A good meal is followed with a much-needed sleep to prepare for the exciting day ahead.

The next day, the group are up bright and early for their induction day. They will be visiting the three schools at which they will be volunteering. In the group are trainees specialising in Primary, Pre-Primary and Secondary, all of which are placed in projects that relate to their qualification. They will also be visiting Hilton slum. As a group, they travel to each school, meeting the staff and children, and having a tour of the grounds.

The trainees are understandably shocked at the obvious difference between the schools in the UK to those in Kenya. The sites are smaller and the structures are single-storey. Although the majority of children are in school uniform, many of their outfits have holes and do not fit properly. Nearly all of the children have shoes, but most are broken and badly worn.

Hilton Dump Site, Nakuru
Hilton Dump Site, Nakuru

Despite all of this, one thing that strikes the trainees is how happy the children are. The boys play football with a mass of plastic bags tied together with string and the girls sing and dance. The children are very keen to get the trainees involved in their playtime, although this seems strange to them at first! After lunch, the group visit Hilton slum. Hilton slum is situated near an area called London in Nakuru (cue lots of jokes about London in the UK and London in Kenya!). This slum is essentially the place where all of the rubbish generated by the town is taken. The unforgiving smell of decaying waste in this heat is the first thing that greets us. Rubbish as far as the eye can see; remains of hair wefts and packaging from numerous items can be seen everywhere. It is heart-breaking to see so many children running around barefoot in the squalor next to pigs, dogs and goats that are scavenging for anything they can eat. Above, large storks circle the piles of waste, waiting for something to catch their eye.

The group head back to their accommodation, after an exhausting day, to relax and get ready for their first day of teaching. Some go swimming, some make the most of the sun and some relax with a book. At dinner, discussions are had about the day and the impact it has had on everyone. One thing that always seems to surprise people is how they are affected by seeing such extreme poverty. Many have actively avoided it in the past as they believe they will be overcome with emotion – in my experience of being in country with groups, it’s quite the opposite, people often surprise themselves with their reaction. It is not uncommon for emotion to show itself the day after or even at the end of someone’s trip. We leave the group with their thoughts and look forward to seeing them tomorrow.

The next day, the volunteers are separated into their groups and set off for their projects. d set off for their projects. I go with the pre-primary group; I know the children will be so excited to see the volunteers again! The trainees are met with excited cries and loud singing as they approach the site. The trainees gather the resources they need and spend the first lesson observing their classes. Children as young as three are accepted at schools situated in the slum area; one reason for this being that many schools have feeding programmes attached to them, which provide some children’s only meal of the day. Another reason they are encouraged to start so young is to learn (clearly lacking) social skills. One thing I noticed from my previous visits is how the teacher would over-use students’ names; when I asked her about this, she explained that many of the younger students wouldn’t know their own name as they would have nicknames at home, so by her keep saying it over and over, they would begin to understand what their name was.

University of Southampton volunteers
University of Southampton volunteers

All children at the school come from slum areas and many have unfortunate home stories. Although it is a taboo subject, some of the parents of these children have social issues, including alcohol or substance abuse. As a result, the children have underdeveloped social skills which can be seen in their interaction with their peers.

Some of the ladies that live on and around the dump site make good use of the rubbish, creating items to sell; one of the many things I adore about Kenya is how resourceful people are. It is a stark reminder of how wasteful we are in the Western world.

The children are very excited to have these visitors from the UK deliver a lesson, with the Kenyan teachers on hand to translate English to Swahili for the younger children. One of the trainees has learnt the days of the week in Swahili, much to the children’s delight! Their faces light up as she recites them; they are quick to correct any mistakes but are clearly impressed she went to the effort to learn them.

PGCE volunteers teaching at The Walk Centre
PGCE volunteers teaching at The Walk Centre

After lunch, I head over to the school where the primary trainees are. They tell me they have enjoyed their morning but are shocked by the lack of interaction in the delivery. The children learn by rote, so some of the trainees’ lesson plans have had to be altered to accommodate this. This is one of the main challenges of teaching here but the trainees are talented and think on their feet, coming up with solutions, even with limited resources. The children respond really well to the different teaching styles and cheer when their peers get questions right. Much of the break time is spent with the children quizzing the trainees on their family, their age, what food they eat and what the weather is like in the UK. As the bell goes off to mark the end of the school day, a small group of giggling girls ask the trainees if they will be back tomorrow as they have enjoyed having them in lessons. The trainees reply and say they will be in school for a few weeks; the girls walk off with beaming smiles on their faces, clearly pleased to hear this!

The next day, I visit the secondary trainees. This school is slightly different; it is a government school but still suffers from a severe lack of resources, due to limited government funding. One thing this school does benefit from is the large plot it is situated on; the physical education trainees easily conduct their lessons outside, (with resources brought over from the UK). This group has ITC, chemistry and geography trainees. The geography trainees deliver a lesson on the UK, and the students ask questions about life in Europe and listen intently to the answers. The images of famous landmarks get passed around and are studied carefully by each student. This appears to give the Kenyan teachers some much-needed time to catch up on their own workload. I watch in awe as the trainees deliver interactive lessons and hold the attention of 60 curious Kenyan teenagers, listening to their every word. At this moment, I feel blessed to have a job that enables me to see this first-hand.

It is amazing to see these trainee teachers doing something that is benefitting the school students as well as developing their own teaching skills; all they are equipped with is a small stub of chalk and a tired-looking blackboard.

Teaching is a skill and, like all skills, it requires patience to learn and practice to perfect. When trainee teachers come to Kenya, they deliver enriching lessons to students whose first language is not English and without the aid of modern technology. This may not be the ‘normal’ way to perfect a skill, but who wants to be normal anyway?

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