At the chiming of small hand bells, 100 teachers-in-training at the Yei Teacher Training College (YTTC) shuttle between lectures on education philosophy, mathematics, and English. There are no holidays here – seats are filled year round – and classes run from 9 am to 5 pm.
"Not even a second lost," read signs posted in the classrooms and along shady walkways.
The urgency is clear. South Sudan has one of the worst teacher shortages in the world, with fewer than 45 percent of its primary school teachers having had formal training, UNESCO states. The effect can be seen nationally in the fact that more than 70 percent of adults are illiterate.
To compound the problem, the country's civil war, now in its second year, has forced hundreds of thousands of children out of school as teachers go unpaid, families flee their homes, and school buildings are occupied or destroyed by armed groups.
Despite the disruptions, YTTC has managed to avoid closure since it opened more than a decade ago. At the time, the south was still mired in a bloody independence struggle against the Arab north. Since then, the college, tucked near the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has grown into the leading teacher training institution in South Sudan, battling poor perceptions of teachers, meager resources, and a lack of education funding from the government.
To the people of YTTC, education is too important to wait for peace.
"Education is very, very central to reconstruction of any country. Without teachers we cannot have better education … that is where we shape the nation," says James Kepo, YTTC's principal who, like his colleagues, believes that an investment in teachers is an investment in the future of the country.
“I think even in times of war, we need to invest in people,” says Mr. Kepo. “Life must continue."
A neverending war
The teacher shortage here dates to South Sudan’s 22-year war for independence that killed some 2 million people before peace was reached in 2005.
"The teachers of those years either died or they joined the [rebel] movement," says Edward Kokole, director of teacher education in South Sudan's Education Ministry.
Whoever was available stepped in, like Paul Malual, a 28-year-old who started teaching 15 years ago – before he finished high school.
"There was no qualified teacher," says Mr. Malual. "It was for some of the children to teach the others."
YTTC didn't wait to start, either. The college, established in an area liberated by the southern rebels, welcomed its first students in 2002 with backing by local churches, foreign donors, and the rebels' civilian administration.
Kepo, the college principal, was a South Sudanese teacher in exile in Uganda at the time. He recalls sneaking across the border to help in liberated Yei, where conditions were dire and students learned in a single brick building.
"When you came down here ... I mean, you get moved because things were very pathetic," he says.
Today it's hard to imagine that past.
The school graduates 100 qualified teachers a year, more than any of the other 11 teacher training institutions (TTIs) in the country. But it faces a huge challenge: only one-third of South Sudan's 28,000 teachers are qualified, according to the National Ministry of Education. With 1.8 million students nationwide, there are more than 200 pupils for every qualified teacher. To bring that ratio to just 50 students per certified teacher means training more than 26,000 teachers.
New trainees have access to some of the best resources in the country. YTTC's science laboratory, in a sprawling campus of mango trees and classrooms blocks, rivals those in some American public schools. An Internet-connected computer lab has 50 flat-screen computers. Students, hailing from all over South Sudan as well as parts of Uganda and Sudan, can check out books from a 20,000-volume library, and take courses in music and art.
At YTTC, the focus is on instructing teachers in modern "learner-centered" teaching strategies – a departure from the rote drilling commonly practiced in East Africa. Tutors challenge teachers-in-training to adjust their lesson plans rather than cane misbehaving students. "Inclusion," the teaching of all students together regardless of disability, is standard.
"This college, it made me to know that there are other people with special needs like eye impairment, slow learners," says Chandia Agnes, at 29 a four-year classroom veteran who is now more than halfway through her certificate course.
What first began as a mission of nation-building has now turned into a mission of survival. YTTC's commitment to high quality instruction is a far cry from government support for education.
Just 5.5 percent of South Sudan's latest budget went to education last year, compared to 42 percent for security and military. The five government-run TTIs are currently closed due to lack of funding.
"Over the years everyone talks of education being a priority, but then that is not matched to the budget," Kepo says.
Earning a national respect
The difficult lifestyle teachers face post-graduation is also undercutting the already small investment put into them. Even though YTTC graduates are often directly hired as head teachers or school inspectors because of their high qualifications, those who make it into the classroom often don't stay long.
Part of the problem is that many South Sudanese do not believe that teaching is a respectable career, Kepo says.
"They think it is not a specialized profession."
The pay is abysmal too. Government school teachers earn less than fifty dollars a month, and are rarely paid on time. In the last year, salaries in some states went unpaid so the government could fund the war effort.
Indeed with skills in English and computers on their resume, many YTTC graduates opt to work for higher paying foreign NGOs.
For those willing to stay in the profession, none will have the resources available in Yei, including things as basic as electricity or four walls and a roof. Some will teach under trees, their students scratching letters and numbers with sticks in the dirt.
YTTC teacher Dora Avoka tries to prepare her students for that reality, adding that the most important skill for new teachers is the ability to improvise.
"Even if it is under the mango tree," she tells her students, "that very place should turn into a classroom."
Mr. Kokole, from the education ministry, says South Sudan needs to adopt a new policy in teacher management – ensuring qualified teachers have the salaries, benefits, and supervision they need to keep them from leaving the profession.
"We don't have a big supply of secondary school leavers across the country who are ready to come for [teacher] training," he says. "But once the teacher management is improved, teachers are motivated and given high salaries, then there will be attraction."
It is hard to implement such a change with the current civil war, a conflict that has killed tens of thousands since December 2013, continuing to burn in the background. Some new teachers can't return to their communities, and diversion of donor funds to deal with humanitarian needs near the front lines has forced the college to shelve a new dormitory that would have doubled the student body.
But the college’s history and continued perseverance shows parts of South Sudan can develop even during wartime.
"People are supposed to hold their destiny and hold their institutions and work hard," says Kepo. "Many people who think South Sudanese cannot do [these] things, they are wrong."
For Malual, the young man who had to start teaching classes in his community as a teen, attending YTTC, where he is now working toward his teacher certificate, is calling. He knows he can take this training back to his community.
"This is my career," he says after a class on behavior management. "I want to be a professional in my field."