The Role of the Teacher in the Education and Support of the Girl Child: Our Collective Commitment

This talk by the Director of Jaslika Consulting Limited was originally presented in her capacity as UNICEF Uganda’s Chief of Education at a panel discussion commemorating International Teachers Day in 2006. The event was organised by the Uganda National Teachers Union (UNATU) and the Royal Netherlands Embassy in Kampala.

* The talk has been slightly modified for the digital platform.


A Tribute to Teachers

I am delighted to be here today. For me in particular, as a woman, an educationist and a former teacher, I identify very strongly with the topic under discussion. I am what I am today because of all the influences in my life: my mother and father, who were my first teachers and then all those wonderful people who saw me through my formative years at school—my teachers. I guess I was lucky that the values of peace, equality, justice and universality of humankind that I acquired from my Muslim parents were reinforced in school by my mainly Catholic teachers. There was no disconnect or contradiction between my Islamic home environment and my Christian missionary-run school.

I was lucky also that I received a sound academic education that stood me in good stead when, at the age of 15, I was internally displaced because of armed conflict in my country. But because of the good foundation that I had, I was able to adapt and excel in my education despite a break in my schooling for over seven months, and a curriculum that was very different from what I had been earlier exposed to. And for this, I have my teachers to thank---teachers who were inspiring, committed, kind and understanding. Teachers who were strong, and firm, and believed in me; teachers who mentored me. And because they are not here with us today, I would like to thank all of you who have been working with great dedication and fervour, year after year often under very unfriendly and difficult circumstances. And I would like to salute those of you, in particular, who have been risking your lives in the midst of conflict so that children in the northern Uganda may be educated.

There are children in this country coming from homes where formal education is valued; where both girls and boys have equal chances of enrolling into and completing school; where they are expected to achieve equally. But there are those others who are not so fortunate. Many girls in this country, as in many other countries of Africa and Asia, belong to this latter group. They are either completely excluded from acquiring formal education, or even when they manage to enroll, they are pushed out by a combination of in-school and out of-school factors. The Population Census of Uganda 2002 indicates that about 23% of children of school-going age have never attended school. The majority of those who have never attended resides in the North and are disproportionately girls.

Universal Primary Education (UPE) introduced in Uganda in 1997 did result in impressive increases in the primary school. It also resulted in gender parity in enrollment in lower primary. But these impressive gains have not been sustained in terms of retention in upper primary, completion, achievement, transition to upper levels and career outcomes. In higher education, even with affirmative action, we still find an imbalance in numbers with girls concentrating in the humanities. In the hard sciences, and in BTVET, females are relatively few. The question before us today is: How can we as teachers change the situation? How can we as teachers eliminate the gender gaps in education? Is it possible at all given that teachers are but one cog in the wheel? My answer to this is an emphatic YES.


The Transformative Power of the Teacher

The teacher, in my view, is a very powerful person. We have the potential to transform the thinking of the learner positively, or cripple it. However, we are not always aware of this potential, this power that we have to change the world for the better, to contribute to the creation of a fairer, just society. Would we not rather be remembered for the good that we do than the damage that we can cause? In the context of girls’ education, the damage may be reflected in the exclusion of the girls psychologically and/or physically from the school.


The Hidden Curriculum, Gender Biases and Exclusion

In discussing the role of the teacher in providing support for the education of the girl-child, I would like to focus on the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum, by one definition is all the unintended consequences of learning within the school setting which is not necessarily related to the formal curriculum, the hidden message that children internalise. The consequences are often, though not always, negative. For example, I remember asking a little girl in a remote village in neighbouring Kenya, what she would want to be in the future. She unhesitatingly replied, much to my delight: “I want to be a teacher”. On being asked why she would choose the teaching profession, she responded: “So that I can cane children the way my teachers cane us!” Surely, that is not the intention of schooling! This is an example of the hidden curriculum.


Reducing Gender Biased Messages

We as teachers are not only expected to teach the formal curricula, but we transmit the hidden curriculum through the language that we use, the way we behave, the way we interact with the children in the classroom and outside. The cumulative effect of gender biased language use, behaviour and interactions within the school setting may be the exclusion of the girl child. Therefore, if we are to promote the participation of girls in education, we have to be conscious of the hidden curriculum and make deliberate efforts to reduce its negativity through:

  1. Avoiding the use of gender stereotypes and labels/ridicule. Example: Classroom research from many parts of the world show a connection between repeated comments by a teacher on the inherent disability of girls to do science and maths with their actual performance and aspirations in the area. For example, it was found that teachers would respond to girls who got their maths right with comment like: You have the body of a girl but brain of a boy!

  2. Balancing invisibility of girls/gender balanced texts in school books (written word and/or illustrations) by giving concrete examples of the female gender in positive roles. Example: In a Zambian social studies textbook, the first female character was introduced about halfway through the text. The character was not even human but a lioness! However, male human characters were introduced into the book right from the beginning.

  3. Using gender responsive language: e.g human resource vs. manpower; he to include she

  4. Giving girls and boys equal opportunities to answer questions and express themselves in class. However, remember that equality goes beyond parity.


Building confidence/self esteem of girls

Organising single sex scenes/spaces is a good strategy for confidence building. Single sex scenes involve separating girls from boys when they are weak in specific subjects or topics. The concept of Senior Women Teachers, separate counseling rooms by gender, and gender segregated sanitation facilities are variations of this.


Teaching girls and boys mutual respect and value of cooperation

Encourage boys to be allies of girls. the Girls Education Movement (GEM) in Uganda  for example has male members. Among other things, male members of school-based GEM clubs help girls by walking with them to and from school, early mornings and late in the afternoons as strategy to protect them. (Girls at risk of dropping out because safety/security concerns).


Understanding where the girls is coming from

Issue of opportunity costs leading to tardiness and absenteeism. Not excluding girl from class because of being late.


Monitoring attendance, risks

By monitoring regular attendance, identify girls at risk of dropping out. Find ways of reaching out to families of girls at risk, strategies for their protection in school.