In Ethiopia's 'queen city of the desert' where I was born and raised, it is not uncommon for public primary school teachers to teach in double shifts. Because of the workload and the hot weather, teachers get tired of teaching most afternoons. I was one of the top scorers in my classes, which at times gave me the privilege of being picked by my teachers to lead the class and “teach” my classmates. Mostly, I revised what we had learned before, while my teacher scored tests or took notes of students' participation. Even at that time, my heart sympathized with my teachers as I could see the exhaustion in their faces. At that early age, I could also see that even in disadvantaged circumstances, there can be advantages. The relative advantage I had as a top student and, more importantly, the support I received from my teachers were some of the reasons that inspired me to dream of working on issues that would lead to policy change and create equal opportunities for all children. This inspired me to become an education researcher.
My own experience and that of my classmates reflect what happens in many countries in Africa and around the world and why the Time to Teach (TTT) conceptualization of teacher attendance and its goal of generating policy change through rigorous evidence really resonates with me. The study recognizes that teacher absenteeism is a complex phenomenon that can manifest in multiple nuanced ways and more importantly, it seeks to amplify the voice of teachers on factors affecting their attendance, both within and outside of Africa.
Reflecting on my own experience, the traditional understanding of teacher absenteeism (school absence) does not help to unpack the various bottlenecks to effective learning.
Although "teaching" my classmates helped me to develop confidence and cultivate a teamwork culture, as a class, we were not learning the subject matter that we were supposed to learn even though our teachers were in the classroom.
Where, for learning to occur, teachers do not only need to (1) be at school, but they also need to (2) be punctual (i.e., not arriving late/leaving early), (3) be in the classroom (while at school), and (4) spend sufficient time on task (while in the classroom).
While this mixed-method study focuses on capturing the voices of teachers, the perspectives of teacher union representatives, headteachers, students, community leaders, national and sub-national education officials are also included in the evidence gathered. From the outset, the TTT study underwent a rigorous development and co-creation process that involved actors at different levels of the education system to maximize evidence uptake and use. This co-creation process included representatives from ministries of education, teacher unions, academia, UNICEF country and regional offices, and UNICEF Office of Research – Innocenti. Throughout the process, the study's methodological approach, conceptualizations of attendance, and data collection instruments were developed and validated by all those actors.
I took a personal interest in working on this project beyond my childhood experience, but also from my time as a PhD candidate. I was inspired when I recognized the strong connection between TTT and my doctoral dissertation, which examines how Ethiopian secondary school students imagine and navigate their futures: in both cases, the evidence shows that the context needs to be accounted for when assessing the impact of teacher management policies (and their transferability)I argue that focusing solely on in-school conditions cannot fully enhance students’ capabilities to pursue and achieve their aspirations without considering how family, school, and societal conditions affect their education. Similarly, the TTT study follows a comprehensive approach. Expanding on previous work, the TTT recognizes that attendance can be influenced by factors both outside and within the control of teachers at different levels: (1) national, (2) sub-national, (3) community, (4) school, and (5) individual. By adopting this approach, the study provides an insight into teachers’ own perspectives across 20 African countries on the factors affecting their presence at school and in the classroom, such as workload (e.g., administrative duties, official school business), pre-service and in-service training (availability and timing), remuneration (adequate and timely payment), school resources and infrastructure, parental involvement, student engagement, as well as factors outside the education system (e.g., health, family obligations, weather, conflict, etc.), among others.
Even though the TTT study identifies and provides a more comprehensive picture of the factors affecting various forms of teachers’ attendance in Africa, it does not address all questions. Further research is needed to strengthen the existing evidence on the links between teacher attendance, their allocation, and students' learning outcomes. It is also essential to expand the research on teacher attendance to other education levels (pre-primary and secondary education), marginalized communities, and assess the gender dimension of teacher attendance. However, this does not deny the TTT's paramount role in addressing what I experienced first-hand and now aim to capture in my work as a researcher: recognizing the systematic need to support teachers (in their attendance) and encourage learning across the continent.
“When a teacher has 70 pupils to teach in the morning shift and another 70 pupils in the evening, it may discourage a teacher. The teacher will teach those of the morning shift well and neglect those of the afternoon; he just gives them homework because he/she is tired." -- District education officer, Rwanda
"Sometimes it's so hot that we have to go sit under the mango trees to breathe for 15 or 20 minutes." -- Teacher, Côte d'Ivoire
"When our class teacher is too busy preparing or marking, she gives us work or tells us to finish any we work we have. Mostly, she splits us into groups, and we do group discussions." -- Student, Kenya
For more information on the Time to Teach study results in each participating country, please visit our Time to Teach microsite.
Hanna Wedajo was an education research consultant at UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti, where she focused on teachers in Africa.