My primary assignment as a Project Overseas participant in Uganda was to facilitate, with my Ugandan co-tutor, a series of workshops in early literacy for Ugandan teachers. I faced two challenges. How could I make the workshops relevant and practical, given the unique difficulties confronting Ugandan teachers? How could I make North American teaching styles and techniques work within their context?
My preparations included background research, consultation with former Project Overseas participants and early literacy specialists, and training provided by CTF. The team going to Uganda did considerable planning by email and teleconference. We also connected with Ugandan co-tutors by email to discuss the needs of participants, workshop ideas, and areas on which to focus.
Understanding local challenges
Despite all this we were not prepared for the extreme poverty and the difficult situations Ugandans face. Soon after arriving, we discovered an elementary school in a sad state of disrepair. Slogans like “Sex can wait” and “Respect yourself” were painted on narrow pieces of wood nailed to trees. We concluded the school had been abandoned for some time. Imagine our surprise to find a teacher sitting in a corner of one of the rooms, marking exercise books. We struck up a conversation, and had the first of many lessons on the reality of teaching in rural Uganda. We learned, for instance, that the slogans were part of a campaign mandated by the country’s president and were meant to discourage sexual activity, because there is such a high incidence of HIV-AIDS. Disease, HIV-AIDS, malnutrition, and conflict contribute to making Uganda, with a median age of 14, the country with the world’s youngest population.
Visiting schools provided a valuable context to help us understand what teachers deal with every day. Up to 80 students were crowded into one classroom, sitting on benches at narrow tables. Worn blackboards, cracked and difficult to write on, were the main instructional tool. Often the only resources in sight were some faded handmade posters on the walls. On the plus side, the teachers had better classroom management than many Canadian classes I have visited. The students were attentive, respectful, focused, and hard-working. Ugandans place a high value on education. We were constantly amazed at the positive spirit and resilience of the people we met, both in and out of the school setting.
Addressing a wide range of needs
It was soon evident that among the teachers in my early literacy class there was a considerable range in the level of training, experience, and grades taught (Primary 1 to teachers college). My Ugandan co-tutor, Sam Gasta is an educator at one of the teachers colleges and his knowledge was a valuable resource in addressing the participants' needs. Each day he and I spent time debriefing