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More than just a good story, teacher narratives possess a power to invite us to reflect and act. When we look to teachers from around the world, we’re not only given an opportunity to appreciate our unique differences, but also to recognize what we share in common. That moment of recognition can be transformative in the effort to strengthen our rural schools and towns.
In this spirit, this month’s episode of the I Am A Rural Teacher podcast features Fredrick Mugalula, an elementary teacher from southern Uganda.
Fredrick is a founding partner of a new program at RSC aiming to facilitate teacher-to-teacher conversations and learning at the international level--Rural Educators Across Borders:
“The rural educators across borders program; so this program I loved it and I liked it...I saw it as it's going to be available to [initiate] networking of teachers to share skills [and] knowledge to one another from different countries...It will...bring teachers from Wales, Spain...USA, so you come and join the ideas. So if...I'm from Uganda, I can copy some updated techniques [and] skills on how teaching is being done [on] the other side. I can also bring it out here to help my learners. And then teaching becomes...enjoyable, and you see all the other children being lively and they actually they're enjoying [themselves]...and they don't want to leave school. So, when you copy the techniques from the other side [and] bring them here, it becomes very wonderful and so sweet to the learners.”
“When you copy the techniques from the other side [and] bring them here, it becomes very wonderful and so sweet to the learners.”
The hope of this new group is that by listening to the lived experiences and pedagogical insights of teachers from around the world, participants have an opportunity to further enrich their schools and communities.
For Fredrick, this journey begins by sharing about his experiences in rural, southern Uganda. The education system in Uganda, he explains, is starkly divided between public and private schools. Fredrick is a primary five teacher, working with students aged 9 to 10 years old, at a public school of about 500 children. Since many languages are spoken in different communities across Uganda, he underscores how being multilingual is a necessity:
“I do speak four languages. One is international and the other ones are local community language...I can speak English, also another language called Luganda is spoken here by most tribes here in the rural settings...the major language that's supposed to be used for communication here is English, and...I do borrow some local language as I'm teaching English.”
Realizing that he wanted to become an educator himself in 2014, Fredrick remembers talking with his father, who was also a teacher, about his decision:
“He told me, ‘You know what, for our area to evolve we need to touch the lives of young people here in the village,’ so he gave me a lot of counseling [and] guidance so that we could help out.”
“"For our area to evolve we need to touch the lives of young people here in the village."”
The area in which Fredrick now teaches has a heavy reliance on subsistence agriculture, which often requires children to remain at home to farm. Knowing the choice between family and school to be especially difficult for students, he encourages his students, who he refers to as “learners,” to value education. One of his favorite memories came from a student choosing to attend school rather than help out at home:
“The parents had asked the boy not to come [to] school, [and] to remain home and give the animals water...That boy did not do that, [he] ran from home and came to school. So this is what happened: the parent came with a stick, [peeked] through the windows to see if this boy was inside, and the parent came in with a stick…[they did] not get that permission from the teacher, he just entered into the classroom. The other children stared at him, so the child ran out very fast. There was a lot of chaos in the classroom....I followed up [with] this parent, and I went to their home...I talked with [the parent and] I told him that, ‘You know, this child should not have been handled like this. You should have come to [the] office; you [should] have called the teacher who is responsible for the child…’ I gained a very strong relationship with [the child’s] family, their parents, so their family began believing in me...that's a very wonderful memory that always sticks in my brain. Always, I think about it and whenever I do meet this chief, this child, the parent, I feel very happy and I keep on smiling because this child was helped and the parent had to change the mindset towards the child.”
One aspect of his career that Fredrick loves is seeing the progress students make in the classroom. To help students achieve that personal growth, he often asks questions that make students think beyond the classroom. Once, he shares, this exercise helped transform one young girl’s academic career:
“The answers for that question [were] very beautiful...this motivated myself, and also motivated these others, because when you look at these children you ask some simple question[s], [but] they're very shy. There's a child who I never expected to give me the answer. Actually, she became the brightest amongst all others in the classroom.”
Another way in which Fredrick encourages his students to grow academically is by providing them opportunities to engage with their place in order to learn.
“We look at the nature of our area, the topography. We look at it [and] we have a lot of hills. We have a lot of local environment. We can move around with the learners. Actually, what they started from the classroom is practiced outside, so...it connects the classroom environment to the outside environment. The children pick up the concepts very fast. They talk about vegetation. You take them out [and] they see trees, they see grass, they see all that sort...which you have taught in class, so the environment around us enables us to do the teaching in the classroom.”
While he accomplishes much during his time in school with his learners, Fredrick recognizes that his role as a teacher also extends beyond the school as a local leader:
“When they get to know that you are a teacher, they consider you as a very useful and important person...so whenever they need someone who can interpret official documents, they bring you out. When a visitor, someone from the government, has come to the area, they will invite you to welcome him [or] to give a speech. So definitely they are taking the role of being a leader in the community. The old people come out to ask you before they make some decisions...Others can involve you in their activities, so you come out as an advisor to them which they like because they take you as a custodian of knowledge.”
“When they get to know that you are a teacher, they consider you as a very useful and important person...they take you as a custodian of knowledge.”
Though he happily shares the joys and benefits of being a rural teacher, Fredrick explains that rural schools have long struggled with a number of persistent challenges:
“The shortage of teachers in the schools [is] because most of the teachers run out from rural teaching, and they end up [going] to the urban cities where the schools have got improved facilities...We end up also having more children coming from the neighboring villages to come to the school, but the space compared to the numbers is so small...We also have inadequate teaching materials like textbooks...around like 10 children are sharing two textbooks.”
More than just issues at school, Fredrick also describes how the lack of critical infrastructure in his community, including access to broadband, inhibits the educational process:
“We don't have wi-fi here...we have telecom companies, so you subscribe, but internet is very expensive...most of the service providers put much emphasis, and energy, [and] economic resources into the town settings, so...rural settings...are left out and you see them being vulnerable.”
Along with internet access, another area of difficulty that the school and local communities struggle with daily is finding a reliable source of clean water:
“In the rural settings, parents depend on collection of water from deep wells...when drought comes out, the children spend less time in lessons and most of the time is taken looking for water...So, if these children could have storage tanks for water, then less time would be taken [from their studies] and the hygiene of the school would be so clean, so welcome.”
Given the day-to-day challenges faced by rural towns and schools, Fredrick says that teachers step in to help however they can:
“Most of the families here are so vulnerable, so,...because the teacher wants this young learner to also achieve something in the future, the teacher may [take] from his [own] pocket and maybe...buy shoes for the child, maybe a dress, because some parents are very poor, they can't afford providing these basic needs to their learners--to their children.”
“Most of the families here are so vulnerable...they can't afford providing these basic needs to their learners--to their children.”
This community of care has been able to support families in need to allow their learners to receive an education. However, this network has been challenged anew by the global pandemic:
“When you look at the impact of COVID here, it is terrible, and horrible...Most of the children here, they were supposed to be in school,...but due to COVID they have spent three years without being at school...I was sharing with a certain child and she told me that, ‘You know what teacher, if at all I feel that next year COVID can come back still, I'm really quitting education.’ So, I felt so touched for this young child who could consider dropping out of school due to COVID...We feel that these children are going to lose focus, and in the end they may become a big problem to the country...because they have failed to attain education due to this pandemic.”
Nevertheless, Fredrick underscores how rural teachers have acted swiftly to innovate and ensure the continued education of their students:
“Teachers brought an initiative [where] they do home learning,...most especially those in the rural settings...We have some public community radios in the area, so they take out information to be broadcast in the area so the parents receive the information and learners [can] converge in certain places, and then teachers meet them to give them some home activities and also do some revision work with them.”
Filled with engaged learners and staffed by a passionate cohort of educators, Fredrick remains committed to the advantages he sees in rural schools:
“Learners join up [with] some other schools...to participate in athletics...You see some children taking part in running, which brings about unity to these young kids. Then you look at our music,...for us here we call it music, dance and drama, so different children come out to compete to see who performs in such an activity better than the other...Then also parents [are engaged] to see whether their children are doing some developmental activities in the school. On top of that, we also have debates, so children will bring about innovative topics to be talks...In the end they are inspired through these debates to become a very concerned and very important people.”
With a deep love for his profession, and growing support at home and abroad, Fredrick remains optimistic about the future of his school and community:
“I feel that through connections and government intervention at least I have some hope and a vision that I see a big cooperation here in my village, that most of the learners go to school and keep in school...When you educate the whole community, you have done a very big percentage of developing transformation.”
“I'm Fredrick Mugalula, a rural teacher here in Uganda.”
Thank you for joining us for this installment of the I Am A Rural Teacher Podcast. We’d like to thank our partners at the National Rural Education Association for collaborating with us on this episode. The I Am a Rural Teacher campaign is made possible by a grant from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.