An Update about St. John’s Primary School in Uganda, written by Laurie Kagay with approval of Lawrence Ssemakula and Josephine Nakimuli
This week I was able to visit St. John’s Primary school and spend time with Josephine and Lawrence Ssemakula, two of the school’s teaching staff. Lawrence and Josephine help lead in our organization’s efforts to help lift the school out of its original status: the worst school in the Wakiso district, judged by performance, sight, and its reputation with parents in the surrounding area. While the externals of the campus may not show much aesthetic improvement, the school is improving--as they say in Africa “slowly by slowly”--from the inside out.
Our work has been to invest in the teachers at the school, to listen to their concerns about the most necessary things and pray together with them for God’s help. I can say with full confidence that the good things happening at St. Johns are a result of that process.
A repeated refrain I heard throughout my time there is that St. John’s has become “a competitor.” This is in contrast to its original situation, when the school was only considered a viable option for kids who couldn’t perform up to par at the other private primary schools in the area. Children who attend St. John’s are now being accepted into quality private high schools in their area right alongside any other school -- something that has never happened before.
Schools in Uganda are often run like businesses: in a perpetual chase to get ahead of one another. Because of this, competition is high. Most schools compete on the number of children in attendance. It’s one of the reasons you’ll see so many students crammed into classrooms - they feel good appealing to donors when their resources are fully tapped. When we began instituting changes at St. John’s, the numbers increased. The school began with about 250 students and was quickly at 450 just two years later. After some older primary students graduated, we respectfully asked St. John’s to consider a cap on student enrollment. According to Lawrence Ssemakula, this was in an effort to ensure consistency in our help.
With around 400 students, teachers have been faithfully working at the school, experimenting with some new ideas and growing in their own belief in the school. Knowing Uganda’s struggle with teacher truancy rates (on any given day, 27% of teachers may not show up, the second highest of any country according to Transparency International), I asked Lawrence and Josephine how often their teachers were absent. They laughed. “Never! Teachers are here on time, every day, and if they are late, they call to tell us what has happened and when they will arrive.”
As I recounted to a visiting group of Americans the reasons why teachers would fail to arrive at school - their own health or health of their families, transportation problems, or mere lack of motivation, Lawrence added the issue of pay—a reason many are on strike from teaching altogether. He said over the 15 years he’s been teaching, he’s missed eleven months of pay. As for his wife Josephine, she has missed three years worth of compensation. They commented on the excuses they hear when they’ve tried to press the issue with government officials: “Lawrence ... do you spell your name a W or a U?” “It’s always been with a W.” “Oh, I think maybe they did a U instead, that’s why you weren’t getting it. It should come next month.” For Josephine, it was worse: “Why don’t you just forget about that three years of pay and let us start from scratch?”
This issue has not been solved at St. John’s. As a public school, teachers are still dependent on a broken system for their income and yet, they are coming to school every day. Many teachers faithfully show up across the country, a sign of the precious hearts of teachers who choose not to make children suffer more because of a broken system. But at St. John’s, there is some extra motivation, camaraderie, and unity that’s been established with the staff in order for truancy rates to be solved!
The teaching and administrative staff is coming up with creative solutions to improve their school. Seeing how much serving lunch helped the children to concentrate in class, the teachers began strategizing how to utilize more and more of the compound for food production. Because convention and uniformity reigns in Uganda schools, this is no small thing. The central “playground” (what they call a grassy field) and the stretches of grass that lined each walkway in the center of the school has now been replaced with food production plots. So while G.O.D. has shared a large portion of the produce grown on their land with the school, the school has not failed to utilize what space they have to assist in the project. Lawrence reflected, “No one had ever thought of doing this, but now all of the teachers are very excited about it. We are growing pumpkins, cassava, onions and more. The people wonder how we are feeding these children. If schools want to feed children, they need at least 10 acres.” (St. John’s has about one, and the G.O.D. agriculture plots add four more.) “We don’t have 10, or anywhere close, but we have decided to use all of what we have to help the cause, and God is blessing it.”
This aspect of the school has drawn the attention of the community and of neighboring schools, who are now offering food programs simply in the name of competing with St. Johns. Surrounding headmasters are stretching themselves and their budgets to compete, often going to other people’s homes and telling them they will receive lunch at their school too, or another St. John’s practice: providing uniforms for children who can’t afford them!
At the end of last year St. John’s offered their very first “field day.” They intentionally created games and teams (“mango” “jackfruit” “papaya” instead of the common names of politicians typical in competitions). Teachers and administrators attended, also dressed in the team colors and ready to cheer or coach their team to victory. It was a beautiful showcase of the kind of excitement and pride being restored at St. John’s. The schools down the street also decided they’d better do a field day as well. They have to compete after all!
Many needs still exist. A vital one is the boys' pit latrines, which are full. The school has been asking the government to repair the facilities for more than a year, and they’ve been promised they will come to deal with it. But it continues to sit, a health hazard that will lead to “much bigger issues than we have right now,” according to Lawrence.
Yet, there is hope and a sense of aliveness on campus. While we were visiting, two teachers from the Academy for G.O.D. (Hollie Benoit and Stephen Ownby) offered a new installment in an ongoing teachers seminar series, this time on incentivizing students. Teachers’ eyes lit up as they jotted down ways they could incentivize good behavior and not just focus on the negative “do not-s”. They were encouraged to think not about spending financial resources to reward students, but how they could creatively reward positive behavior through things like sitting at the teachers’ desk, extra recess time, a classroom dance party or the chance to “play teacher” and review the material in front of the class. They added this to their repertoire of new ideas their deputy headmaster pledged to enact in the classroom, knowing the power of helping kids feel seen and celebrated.
Perhaps the biggest change that has occurred, according to Josephine, has come as a result of teachers visiting students’ homes. She says that understanding where a child comes from affects everything about the way she teaches them, including how she grades. She said it can be very tempting for teachers to grade harshly -- after all, they have upwards of 50 students per subject, limited electricity or help from modern appliances, and often, no pay. Yet, Josephine believes that her students are deserving of her attention and compassion, so she takes extra steps to “think like them, trying to imagine what prompted them to answer in that way.” Josephine often visits her students at home, choosing to speak to parents face to face about their children’s schooling. She says:
“Sometimes, the parents have just given up hope. They don’t know what the use is of sending them to school, and often don’t know what their children are capable of. When I go visit, I look them in the eyes and tell them how important it is for their child to come to school each day, and the specific ways they are improving. I’ve seen situations completely turn around simply because I visited the family. Because I believed the child was worth it, they began to believe too.”
St. John’s is turning around in thanks to teachers choosing to believe God and work together to create an environment where kids love school. Josephine reflects “They should feel safe here, they should want to come here. We can’t control all parts of their life, but we can make this part a piece where they feel celebrated and loved and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Change is coming from the inside out. St. John’s has become a force to be reckoned within the competition, in all the best ways, and we couldn’t be prouder of the teachers putting in the effort to establish a new standard in a very difficult environment where most have given up. The teachers are demonstrating the biblical standard of love: bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things (1 Cor. 13:7), for their students. For this, I say they’re definitely winning the competition.