Zambian teachers break barriers – Experiences and ideas of inclusion

In an online workshop hosted by Taksvärkki and our partner Barefeet Theatre, Mirriam Manda, Alice Mutoleka and Soneni Zulu shared their everyday experiences as teachers in Zambia. The workshop was organised with the intention to share experiences of teaching diverse learners with Taksvärkki’s global education specialists and Finnish educators. Coming from different backgrounds and environments, the three Zambian teachers were vocal about the changes necessary to make learning and teaching in schools more accessible and inclusive.

Managing many students

Zambia offers free education for its youth that make up about half the population. The groups of students are often large, especially in densely populated areas like Zambia’s capital Lusaka. The size of the class impacts how different needs of learners can be met in the classrooms.

“We have classes of about 50 kids, so you can imagine 50 children coming from different backgrounds and you have to deal with them in a different way.” says Mirriam Manda, who works as a primary school teacher in Livingstone. “It’s a different day each day, interesting. You expect anything at any time. So, as you get into class preparation matters, you have to know what you’re going to teach that particular day.”

Soneni Zulu, a civic education teacher from Lusaka, also shows a long list of names in her registry. “Sure, it’s supposed to be about one teacher to 40 learners, but in my class I have more than 150 learners.” As a subject teacher, Soneni has only two 40-minute lessons in a week. “So at least it gives me room to breathe, despite having a huge number of books to mark!”

Soneni feels the quality of education is compromised when you are not able to hand out a lot of learning material. “Sometimes you don’t even give the learners homework because you’re scared of making all those books.”

A female teacher in a knee-length dress stands in front of a class in a classroom. There is a blackboard behind her. In a lower corner there is a pupil sitting at a desk facing the teacher.

Mirriam Manda, Teacher at Holy Cross Primary School in Southern Province, Livingstone.

Inclusive practices and knowledge

In Mirriam’s experience the number of learners with disabilities has increased in the last 10 years. “I think this time around a lot of people have been enlightened about disability. People are coming in and supporting the children with disabilities.”

The Zambian school system is guided by policies that support the inclusion of everyone in the same schools. In Mirriam’s school there is a special unit with hearing impaired learners. With the help of another teacher who is interpreting in sign language, these students learn with Mirriam’s class. In the evenings, the teachers who know sign language have also taught it to their colleagues.

Mirriam would like to influence teacher education so that every teacher can learn more about special education. “Now the policy is that every teacher should do a course on special education at college or university. But once the course is done, it ends there.” She believes the detailed knowledge about special needs could be implemented in but also spread beyond schools. “It’s not only in schools that will come across people with disabilities. So, if I’m able to teach people here, I think I will do the same in the community.”

A growing need for more special teachers

Alice Mutoleka, a special teacher from Kaoma, works in a school that used to be only for students with special needs. Since the government introduced the policy of inclusion, now 70% of the students in her school get special education.

Working as a special teacher can be hectic, and every day is different. Alice is the only teacher out of three special teachers who is holistic and handles all the disabilities. She teaches about 40 students in different grades with different kinds of disabilities, and the workdays are long. “I don’t rest when I finish with this class, I go to the other class. It’s like that for up to 16 hours.”

Despite the fact that there are more learners with disabilities entering schools, there are still few special teachers in Zambia. “Maybe it’s our workload or maybe the type of children we handle. Some people are not willing to work with such people”, says Alice. “You need to have that heart to teach those people.”

In the communities, persons with disabilities still face unfair treatment despite the emphasis on disability inclusion in Zambia at large, says Alice. “Our lawmakers can make policies, for instance awareness programmes or activities on disability inclusion. Policies making sure that everybody has the same opportunities to participate in every aspect of life to the best of their abilities and desires.”

A female teacher in a white dress writes on a blackboard and faces the classroom.

Alice Mutoleka, a teacher at Kaoma School for Special Needs in Western Province Kaoma District.

Improvising with scarce resources

Many schools Alice has visited in Zambia don’t have adequate rooms for teaching children with special needs. “For example, they don’t have ramps, or the teacher has to lift a child who is using a wheelchair to the classroom.”

Scarce funding and natural phenomena such as earthquakes can cause the lack of teaching and learning materials in schools, which is noticeable especially for learners with disabilities. There might not be for example braille paper or hearing aids available, which makes the jobs of special teachers more difficult. “We have to just improvise. When you are teaching subjects like science, social studies… it’s not easy to teach.”, says Alice.

The poor economic situation in Zambia also shows up in schools and affects the learning outcomes. “Some children come to school with empty stomachs”, says Alice. “They don’t concentrate, so sometimes what we do as teachers, we just get money from our pockets and buy food for children.”

Teaching with a disability

Soneni uses a wheelchair for mobility. She points out that the classrooms are very small for working while using a wheelchair. “Such that when you are passing, you cannot even go down to see how the learners in the back are behaving”, Soneni explains. “Some learners are making noise and also you have to shout. There are no mics.”

When Soneni started as a teacher in her school, some colleagues were curious about how she is able to handle the class, especially the more troublesome learners. “Each time I went to class, there were some teachers who were coming to peep through the window. But they were surprised.” Soneni tells us the teachers soon noticed she has her own way of teaching. “When God gives you something He will also give you a way on how you’re going to handle it.”

In a classroom without a projector, Soneni has to write notes on the board. “Giving handouts does not work in government schools, because these guys need serious enforcement for them to write notes in their books.”

Soneni doesn’t have a personal assistant to help out in the school, but she tells us that her fellow teachers are encouraging and supporting her everyday work. Also, the students help out Soneni in class. “There’s this one thing I’ve come to learn about life as a person with a disability. It requires us to be more social to people, because most of the time we depend on other people for help. Being social, I think it has really helped me to reach this far.”

A female teacher in a white dress and black jacket sits in a wheelchair between two rows of desks in a classroom. She is talking with a student. There are 19 adolescent students sitting at the desks and writing on papers.

Soneni Zulu, Teacher at Tiyende Pamodzi Primary School in Lusaka Capital City.

Breaking barriers in schools and communities

Soneni roots for more allowances for special teachers and teachers with special needs. For instance, teachers without special needs get the same amount of allowances for transportation. “For us, especially with disabilities, to do most of the things we depend on our personal assistance. Like going for work, you pay for two people, going back for work, you pay for two people.”

In school, Soneni has had to talk to the management to make her teaching life more accessible. As a disability advocate she has helped the school to be very conscious about special needs.

For example, she discovered that learners with disabilities were not captured in the school’s data about learners. As a result, these learners were deprived of their rights: for example, their disabilities had not been considered in the examinations. Soneni has also been advocating for an accessible toilet in her school. “I believe that one day I’ll leave, but there will still be a teacher in my condition who will come.”

Taksvärkki and Barefeet Theatre’s workshop offered new perspectives to everyone present, but also inspired concrete changes towards disability inclusion. Influenced by Soneni’s example, Alice had contacted her school management with a plan to build an accessible toilet for the school, to prepare for an enrolling student who uses a wheelchair.

Written by Sanni Palomäki
Photos by Mirriam Manda, Alice Mutoleka, Soneni Zulu