From the 13th of March, the Rwandan government has suspended all institutions where people gather in large groups: as with many other nations around the world, this is a core precaution to stop the spread of COVID-19. Rwanda was the first sub-Saharan nation to mandate a full lock-down, with borders closed to anyone except Rwandans returning home. Because of quick action, the nation has managed to limit the spread with no deaths to date. Medical officers report that the existing protective equipment and ventilators are sufficient for the time being, but medical facilities would be stretched to a breaking point if the caseload were to accelerate. President Paul Kagame has warned of the long-term impact that the virus will have on the African economy and suggested $100 billion as the figure required to prevent mass deprivation.
In this blog, Leanne Cameron interviews two Rwandan teachers, Cleophace Nzabagerageza and Laurien Ikuzwe. They comment on changes at their respective institutions and those that have occurred throughout Rwanda since the lockdown.
LC: How are you feeling about everything that is happening? Are you staying busy?
Cleophace: Physically I am feeling well. And in this lockdown period every day I take approximately four hours to read different resources about the subjects that I teach (English, Kinyarwanda, and ICT); I look at books and materials from the internet to try and improve my understanding. But I am worried about when this pandemic will stop so that we can go back to school. Due to the speed and the number of people who are sick from or spreading COVID-19, different counties have taken measures to wipe it out, so I am concerned for people who are suffering. But about my career as a teacher I am worried whether the students will forget things that they have studied which would require me to begin from basics. Nobody knows when the lockdown will end and we will return to normal.
Cleophace delivering a motivational speech at his school pre-COVID
Laurien: This COVID-19 period has been a time of reflection to me about my profession. I’ve been reflecting on my work as a teacher, asking myself; why I do what I do? What kind of a teacher was I? What kind of a teacher I want to be? How does my teaching matter in the lives of my kids and the community?
In this period, I see the power of effectively-shared knowledge. My prior teaching was mainly philosophic and followed these steps: acquisition, understanding, application and becoming. But as we have found ourselves in this trying situation, I went quickly to check on my students (especially those who are my Facebook friends) and asking them how they are coping with the situation. I realized the power of connection and see how my job has impacted my students in many ways. Considering what I see around me, I think it gives me opportunity for understanding social cohesion and what life means in a community. I am learning that life is about understanding one another and seeing that life is relative. Whatever is happening to one might happen to another. Thus, it reminds me to dive into how we should build a common life together.
LC: Tell me about your students. How are they coping with the lockdown?
Cleophace: My school is a private technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institution working under the control of Rwanda Polytechnic with the Workplace Development Authority at the head head. It is a coed school with male and female students from both local and urban areas in attendance; my students are 15 to 19 years old. They are working towards a TVET certificate of completion in the trades of Motor Vehicle Mechanics and Tailoring. I talk to my students regularly through social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook, but we also talk on the phone and email as well. They tell me how they feel; many are scared and have lost the hope about when the pandemic will stop to let them go back for their studies.
Laurien: I teach student in Grades 10-12 at a government-aided boarding secondary school. Their ages vary from 15 to 22 and they come from all across the country: from cities, suburbs, and countryside. They all are in scientific studies (STEM), and I teach them English for communication. They have all been sent home.
Laurien at work
LC: Can you talk a little about the situation for primary-aged students?
Cleophace: Our government has initiated a media programme of teaching via television and radio called Building Learning Foundations Radio and Television Programme; it is delivered in partnership with UKAid. The subjects that are delivered in this radio and television program are examinable in national examinations from lower primary to advanced secondary. For primary students, the subjects of Kinyarwanda, English and Maths* are delivered. For lower secondly, students can learn English, Physics, Chemistry, Maths and Kinyarwanda. For upper secondary, most of the schools use their websites where they post lessons and assignments. The Ministry of Education has also strengthened the program of e-learning so the students can find different resources to help them keep the ‘mood’ of education and learning. Universities are also using e-learning platforms to keep students connected.
But access to the internet and even to power is still a big problem for many Rwandans, especially in the countryside. Many students don’t have a personal computer or smartphone to even access the internet this is a problem especially for students who are in universities. Fortunately, the Ministry of Education have assured those students who aren’t able to follow either radio or e-learning programs that they will go on from where they stopped when schools start again. Further, to facilitate even those students who cannot easily find internet, smart phones and computer, the Rwanda Education Board has initiated a toll free line of *134# where they find some questions to test their knowledge. So the use of those programmes is to keep their mind sharp and occupied but not to replace the classroom.
LC: Do you think your approach to teaching will change in the future due to this period of lockdown?
Laurien: When it comes to the approach to teaching English language after COVID-19 period, I absolutely think that I will change somewhat due to the lock down. I will adapt to new approaches because it is the first time in my life (maybe for many people) to experience a global and yet local lockdown, I realised education has a reason to be much more contextualized to the real life situation. There are a lot of things to consider in English language teaching (ELT). For instance, we are likely to be persuaded to integrate technology and to use all available digital devices in ELT because the world is becoming more digitized; many jobs from different domains of life have been saved by working at home during COVID-19 due to the support of the internet. For instance, many schools were forced to shift their schooling activities to e-learning, though it has been tough for many. I believe that everything started like this and there is hope that learning and work will continue to be customized.
Cleophace: With this lockdown period, I have enough time to think and reflect about the content that I will deliver whenever we will go back to school. I am preparing and writing clear and relevant notes for content delivery. This will help me to change my teaching style since notes will be prepared in advance; I will be able to engage students in more hands-on learning. I know I will also need to think about different learning theories and try to individualise my teaching strategies.
LC: Do you think this will influence what English language you teach in the future? More vocabulary about viruses and pandemics, maybe?
Laurien: Yes! Now, I think some language items will be added in my ELT: medical vocabulary, and vocabulary for talking about pandemics and epidemics, as you have mentioned. I will also add more work on technology and other necessary language commands.
Cleophace: When we prepare for classes, we go through the line of curriculum that the Ministry of Education has established. But illustrations, examples and explanation together with cross cutting issues are adapted depending on the situation. This means that my teaching will be led by the moral lessons left by this COVID-19 and some unpopular vocabulary items will be retained, and vocabulary around pandemic, lockdown, confinement, outbreak, curfew, etc. will be integrated in the courses that I deliver.
*English, mathematics, and all other subjects apart from Kinyarwanda are taught in English for the primary level.