Adopting New Ideas - With Zest

Kenya's Margaret Waigu Githegi teaches pupils for whom English is a third language

ON a slope of Mount Kenya, in a modest secondary boarding school here with cows in the side yard, Peter Karanja dreams of becoming a pilot or an engineer.

For his English teacher, Margaret Waigu Githegi, a Kenyan who speaks five languages and loves songs by Dolly Parton, the chance to help make such dreams come true spurs her along the 20-minute walks from home to school, down unpaved, sometimes mud-filled roads.

"What excites me," she says, "is the fact that students get what I'm telling them.... And they pass their exams and become better in life.... They maybe go to college and do something that will help them in their future, rather than just staying at home and doing nothing."

Richard Arden, an adviser to the Kenya Ministry of Education, describes Ms. Githegi as one of Kenya's outstanding teachers. "She has a high level of commitment to her work as a teacher," he says. "She has a very positive outlook on adopting new ideas and is a good organizer of in-service teacher training."

Julius Ndumbi, headmaster at Chuka High School for Boys, says Githegi is a good teacher because she's very confident: "She has a mastery of her subject. She interacts very well with both teachers and students."

One of Githegi's students, Peter, the would-be pilot or engineer, says: "She's polite, good mannered. I like the way she understands our needs." And, he adds, "She understands our language problems concerning our mother tongue."

In Kenya, English is often a student's third language, after his or her tribal tongue and Swahili, the national language.

English is the language of secondary schools and universities in Kenya, and the passport to most jobs.

Githegi speaks, in addition to English and Swahili, two Kenyan tribal languages - Kikuyu and some Luo - as well as some Hindi, from her studies at Rajasthan University in India, where she earned a bachelor's degree in English in 1982.

"When I came back it was difficult to get a job," she says. Teaching "was the only job I could get." But she was soon hooked, loving the profession. She arrived at Chuka High School in 1986 and the following year was made head of what is now a nine-teacher English department.

In the past few years she has attended several short teacher-training courses in Kenya and, last year, one in Cambridge, England, sponsored by the British Council in Kenya, a cultural and educational organization. Githegi credits the council with improving her teaching.

"I think my classes were boring before. I did most of the talking. Now the students do most of the talking. It's more effective: The results are better."

In the classroom these days, Githegi is like a butterfly.

Using a technique not common in Kenya, she divides her English and English literature classes of 40 to 45 students each into groups of five or six. She floats from one group to another, landing just long enough to ask questions and keep students alert and working.

Also untypically for Kenyan teachers, she does not rely on memorization. "I don't like memorization, because when they memorize they don't understand exactly what they are doing," she says. Instead, she peppers the students with questions.

This morning she arrives at her first class with a handful of cartoons clipped from local newspapers.

"What is this?" she asks a group of students. She points to a picture of a man standing, puzzled, before a signpost indicating the directions to various locations. "Try to tell us what happened to this man. Why is he looking so confused? Then you come up with a story."

LATER, Githegi explains another of her teaching strategies:

"When I'm going to class, they don't know exactly what I'm going to teach.... Maybe you might use the textbook, and then the following day cuttings from magazines, like what I did today. Sometimes it's just dramatizing. So it's not just following one kind of teaching."

She walks briskly into her second class of the morning. Politely, but firmly, she tells the one boy not already seated to please sit down. Then, quickly, while she has their attention, she plunges into a prepared opening:

"Imagine that you went to your dormitory, and under your bed you found a snake. What would you do? What would be your immediate reaction?"

Silence. Then a few hands. "If there's no stick around," ventures one, "you can even step it with your feet."

"Suppose it's a big one," she prods. "What will you do?"

The boys, wearing gray slacks, and gray sweaters over blue shirts, are attentive. Discipline is not much of a problem in the school, says a male teacher, who adds that corporal punishment is used when necessary. But Githegi appears to keep students in line by keeping their interest.

"She uses different methods of teaching, which makes us even understand better," says another of her students, Martin Wachira. "She even encourages us to work hard so we can achieve our goals.... She is bright."

Martin, one of eight children, would like to be an engineer, too. His father is a headmaster at a primary school in Kenya.

As we talk, a boy emerges from another classroom with a large bell in one hand. He rings it a few times to signal the end of a class period. Students get a mid-morning tea-and-bread break.

Githegi teaches about four to five hours a day. She also coaches drama at the school, and is helping set up a small resource center in the nearest big town, Meru, where teachers will find books, newspapers, magazines, and materials on improving their techniques.

The center is being set up with the help of the British Council and Ministry of Education.

"There are times when, although you are enjoying it, you're just tired - physically and mentally," Githegi says. And her pay is frozen at the equivalent of US$130 a month (plus another $40 monthly housing allowance).

Like many other Kenyan teachers, she entered the profession with a non-teaching degree and lacks a teaching certificate. If she gets a government scholarship for graduate teacher studies, or if Kenya adopts an equivalency rule for experienced teachers without certificates, she could get more promotions.

Otherwise, as has happened with many others in her situation, the lure of private-sector jobs offering more money may mean Kenya will lose one its best teachers. Other articles in this series ran Nov. 4 and 18; Dec. 2, 16, and 30; Jan. 21; Feb. 3 and 18; March 2 and 16.

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