Valuing teachers: How much is a good teacher worth?

Aristotle, the famous philosopher, had it that:“Those who educate children well are more to be honoured than parents, for these only gave life, those the art of living well.” The truth universally acknowledged is that many of us have had, at some point in our lives, a wonderful teacher: one whose value, in retrospect, seems inestimable. Are such teachers worth the meager rewards they get?

The life-transforming effects that good teachers can have on particular students cannot be overemphasized, yet the plight of teachers has been down trodden or, politely put, under looked. A lot of responsibilities have been delegated to teachers at all levels of education; one should think the reward would be as huge! If the society expects excellence, it should device ways of motivating teachers.

Positively, Rwanda may be applauded among its neighbours for trying in terms of teacher reward. Though our salaries are still not high by Western (or African) standards, incentives are provided for teachers to improve their living conditions, including easing access to loans through Umwalimu Savings and Credit Cooperatives. This, sure, deserves ovation! However, research into what the average teacher in Rwanda in the state-run schools actually gets is still quite shocking. At the end of the day, what is a free computer to a teacher who is going to class naked, unsheltered or hungry?

At the moment, the average teacher’s pay is at par with that of a security personnel or bartender – not to demean these jobs – the point is that teachers make (on average) 14 per cent less than professionals in other occupations that require similar levels of education. In real terms, the average starting salary for a primary teacher with 37 lessons a week is Rwf40,000; the average ending salary — after 25 years in the profession — is Rwf60,000. A secondary teacher with a degree equally takes home peanuts. This makes raising a family on one salary near impossible. The effect is simply devastating.

So how do teachers cope? Most of them work outside the classroom to make ends meet. Others jump from one school to another seeking to improve their income base. Some run small businesses to make ends meet. Others try loan rotations which is not getting extra income, because everyone seems to be in some sort of debt all the time. For college graduates who have other options, this kind of pressure, for such low pay, doesn’t make much sense. The bottom line is- quality goes down the drain!

Nevertheless, we can reverse course. In the next 20 years, over half of the nation’s public school teachers will become eligible for retirement. Who will replace them? How can we attract and keep the best minds in the profession? There is no silver bullet that will fix every last school in Rwanda, but until we solve the problem of teacher motivation, we don’t have a chance.

Firstly, develop trust in the teachers. They should be rightly looked upon as the solution, not the problem, and when improvement is needed, schools should receive support and development, not punishment.

If we are committed to “winning the future,” we should increase teachers’ earnings. If any administration is capable of tackling this, it’s the current one. Our leaders understand the centrality of teachers and have said that improving our education system begins and ends with great teachers. But world-class education costs money!

Also, they should be incentivised more. Provide a kilogramme of sugar, salt, rice or flour monthly. It may be small but the impact will be massive.

When all is said and done, how much is a good teacher worth? He/she is priceless to the development of a nation. He/she should therefore be properly motivated, and acknowledged. Any impediment in a source of knowledge would be like poisoning a tree at its roots and expecting fruits. If we do not want the caterpillars, we should not crave butterflies.

The writer is a lecturer at The Adventist University of Central Africa