Keynote Speech by TWA at the GTI Axis Summit 2022

Kofi Annan, the late and former UN Secretary-General from Ghana is credited for the following quote:

“Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development”.

July 15th 2022 | Global Teacher’s Institute – Axis Summit 2022 | Heron Bridge College
Keynote Speech By Flora Mugambi-Mutunga, TWA Senior Community and Education Consultant

Jambo, to everyone present here today and those of you joining us remotely. My name is Flora Mwari Mugambi-Mutunga, a proud African daughter from Kenya delighted to be home in our beautiful continent with all of you today after a long stretch away due to the global pandemic. I am so pleased to be here also as part of the Teach With Africa Team and as an administrator at the Town School For Boys in San Francisco, California. I am joined by fellow educators from the Hamlin School for Girls and Town School for Boys who will be part of the Community of Practice workshops later today. I hope you will take advantage of their interactive workshop. The preposition “With” in Teach With Africa denotes and signals an intentional partnership, a way of being in community one to another-an extension of Ubuntu. 

Our conference theme: Revive, Refresh, Rejuvenate; Education in The Post Pandemic Era, finds us each with a story, a narrative to share about what our individual and collective journeys have been as we continue to navigate the storm and the aftermath of this ongoing pandemic personally and professionally.

March 2020 found school administrators and school boards with a difficult choice to make: Keep classrooms open and risk more COVID-19 deaths, or close schools and sacrifice children’s learning. Like many parents across the world with school-age children, I was uncertain of what lay ahead for our 5-year-old daughter who had just completed preschool/pre-primary a few weeks into starting her first year in elementary school. We rearranged our apartment to fit a small desk for her in the living room where I was also setting up my workspace while my husband found a corner in our bedroom to turn into a temporary office space. Our wifi soon became sluggish with all three devices suddenly stretching its bandwidth and found that we had to increase the speed to avoid dropping off Zoom classes or meetings. Our daughter was at the beginning stages of the reading process and was much less familiar at the time with how to use a laptop to mute and unmute herself during the first virtual gathering of their day and follow instructions on a math lesson on estimation using whatever we could find in our kitchen cabinets. Just months earlier she was surrounded by classmates and teachers in a much more natural setting with breaks for recess and physical education outdoors.  In order for my husband and I to get our work done, we took shifts in who covered morning and afternoon lessons, who prepared her lunch and who made a trip to the grocery store to wait in long lines for her milk and toilet paper for our household. We didn’t heed the earlier warnings to stock up on toilet paper and dry goods like rice and beans or disinfecting wipes; it was a thing in the United States. However, we recognize our blessings to be able to be home with our daughter at the time and support her distance learning. Another blessing was that she was eventually able to return to in-person schooling with Covid restriction protocols in place sooner rather than later.

Some say that we were all in the same pandemic boat but perhaps it is more accurate to say that we were in the same storm but in different boats. Many schools throughout the United States, particularly various public schools, were stretched to the edges and were in the clutches of distraught. I remember reaching out to a public school administrator via Zoom in San Francisco when we returned to in-person school to see how we could partner. The educator with whom I spoke was visibly exhausted and shared that no learning could take place (even in terms of tutoring students) as his school was also a refuge for those families with children who were seeking food and shelter. In the background of our Zoom call were his own children who were clearly in need of his attention. Many of the families who attended his school were undocumented, had lost whatever hourly cash jobs they held as a result of the pandemic and were living in very crowded situations. The rate of Covid infections was also on the rise. 

A recently published National Public Radio article posed a central question: How did the pandemic disrupt learning for America’s more than 50 million K-12 students? The author of the article, Corey Turner goes on to say: “For two years, that question has felt immeasurable, like a phantom, though few educators doubted the shadow it cast over children who spent months struggling to learn online. 

As the third pandemic school year has come to a close, new research offers the clearest six indicators yet to date of the pandemic’s academic toll which is summarized as follows:

  1. Students learned less. This isn’t a surprise. Many institutions had little to no experience with remote instruction at the onset of the pandemic; they lacked teacher training, appropriate software, laptops, and universal internet access and, not to mention that in many cases, students lacked stability and a supportive adult at home to help.
  2. Students at high-poverty schools were hit hardest. These students experienced a double academic challenge: Their schools remained in remote learning for a much longer period of time and as such, missed more learning. These were the most vulnerable students who also faced food and housing insecurity as well as losses of loved ones due to Covid-19. 
  3. Different States, Saw Different Gaps. A collaborative group of researchers from Harvard found that learning loss was pronounced in States that had higher levels of overall remote instruction including States like California, Illinois, Kentucky and Virginia.
  4. High school graduation rates didn’t change much. Researchers from the Brooking Institution a think tank based in Washington, DC, looked at the impact the pandemic turmoil had on high school graduation and college entry rates and derived the following: While high school graduation ceremonies were cancelled in the 2019-2020 school year, graduation rates actually increased slightly as the message was simply, “just show up”. School officials had relaxed their standards. 
  5. Many high school graduates opted to delay college. Researchers found that entry rates for recent high school grads at four-year colleges dipped 6% and a worrying 16% at two-year colleges. One theory suggests that trying to start something new and develop relationships remotely in a pandemic was not appealing to many high school graduates.
  6. Schools can do something about it. School leaders in many parts of the States and globally are brainstorming ways to help students make up for missed learning opportunities. A popular approach that is emerging is the idea of high dosage tutoring which the education commissioner in the state of Tennessee describes as “tutoring students two to three times per week for at least 30 minutes, and with no more than three students in a group”. Not every school district will be able to do this, but school leaders and politicians are realizing the importance of finding creative pathways to inject new and sustainable learning opportunities as a result of the disruption of the pandemic in academia. 

We can also seize opportunities and look for inspiration in the face of challenges.

I was inspired by a youth open letter to global leaders that was featured in the Global Education Monitoring Report in 2020 calling for more inclusive learning environments when schools re-open. It can be summarized as a plea to the global leaders, ministers and decision-makers to ensure that we don’t lose an entire generation of learners to Covid-19. In this compelling letter, the young authors note: “Even before schools shut in early March, some 260 million children were not in school. Not because they didn’t want to, but because world leaders had not prioritized their education. They added, “we are writing to implore you to take this chance to ‘build back better, to restore rather than replicate past mistakes. The letter goes on to read: “Learners should not have to adapt to the system. Instead, education systems should adapt to their needs. Societies, like nature, thrive on diversity, not on monocultures”.

Here is what I believe: Equal access to quality education must be a priority because educated youths across the world empower communities and fuel economies, helping people out of extreme poverty. 

We often hear the old adage, “where there is a will, there is a way”. Many African governments accessed education during the pandemic using technological innovations by using, for example, a telephone line is known as “Your Teacher Online ” to provide some mentorship and support to learners. Other nations like South Africa, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria and several others saw the use of radios and television stations dedicated a few hours a day to remote learning. Platforms like WhatsApp have become a vital tool for teachers and learners. In South Africa, teachers having little to no previous experience have had to adapt to online learning platforms while learning how to use management systems during the pandemic. To aid in supporting learners, you have used online teaching resources and conducted consultations using platforms like Zoom, WhatsApp and Google messaging services that allow video calls. Schools have created WhatsApp learning groups to take pictures of book pages and send them to caregivers. Learners have been receiving teaching materials through their phone thus enabling instruction to continue. Where there is a will, there is a way. “In some instances, teachers pasted pieces of paper on the wall and used them as “whiteboards,” then recorded themselves on their phones to teach learners from these whiteboards“. Where there is a will, there is a way: In Ghana, 26-year-old Charles Ofori Antipem, a son of a former science teacher, designed pocket-size labs turning more children to study science. UNICEF’s ‘Reimagine Education’ initiative is also revolutionising learning and foundational skills to provide a quality education for every child through Internet connectivity, digital learning and engagement.

And what of our mental health and wellness:

As educators, we must always prioritize students’ mental and emotional wellness as well as our own. As a self-proclaimed extrovert who enjoys the company of people and being in a community, the lockdown phase was especially nerve-wracking. I found some physical outlets through exercise routines albeit virtually. The song Jerusalema, by Master KG and the dance routines which were replicated worldwide became my favorite pandemic tune and still puts a smile on my face. The appeal of Zoom meals with friends lost its zest early on though I very much appreciated being able to use technology to reach my far-flung family members. Dad still hasn’t quite transitioned to using Zoom even after several attempts to walk him through it but is quite adept with WhatsApp. 

The pandemic has revealed a significant need for schools and their communities to grasp the importance of Social Emotional Learning. 

In the spring and summer of 2020, organizations including the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning  and the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence published resources and recommendations to help educators process the stress of remote learning and adjust to the “new normal.” This article, published in the Center for American progress noted the following abridged observations which are relevant globally:

-The effects of the pandemic on educators’ professional lives have been exacerbated by the stress and trauma they experience in their personal lives.

-Educators have not been exempt from losing loved ones and colleagues to COVID-19, and members of marginalized communities have been disproportionately affected, as they are more likely to be exposed to, contract, and die from the virus.

-Having the space and time to grieve and process loss was a luxury that many people were not afforded this past year. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted, “Grieving the loss of a loved one while coping with the fear and anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic can be especially overwhelming.”

-Providing SEL support for educators has also been shown to benefit students and school communities. (I am so grateful for the emotional grounding and release that the LEAP Maths and Science schools, for example, provide through their Life Orientation Programs. The Teach With Africa team is looking forward to visiting one of the LEAP 4 Maths and Science Schools in Deipsloot.

-Research has found that school leaders who have strong social and emotional competencies positively affect teacher effectiveness and school climate. It is imperative that school administrators invest in wellness for their teachers and students.

At Town School for Boys, our Lower School Social Emotional Learning teacher, Ms. Richardson harnessed Zoom to join grade-level parent meetings to share examples of lessons that she was covering with learners and offer tips on conversation starters on how to talk about a range of emotions at home. At my daughter’s school, The Hamlin School for Girls, Ms. Blaesing provided updates on her small lunch group discussions with the girls on how they too were addressing emotional wellness with the students.

Panorama Education, an SEL organization based out of Boston Massachusettes, shares 5 Strategies To Build Student Belonging. You all have the power in this room and those online to create the type of place where students feel they belong. These five strategies include:

1. Permission To Envision: Give yourself permission to take a step back and envision what you hope to be true for your educational community. (Example: What do I want my classroom to look like).

2. “Get To Know You” User Guides: A “user guide” is a document that can help individuals provide more visibility into their personalities, interests, and working habits and facilitate more effective collaboration with peers and teachers. (Flora: This requires trust, self-reflection and transparency).

3. Culture Boxes:  Creating culture boxes is an opportunity to build a sense of belonging, as well as self and social awareness. (Flora: An example of what might go into my culture box would be some African fabric, carvings, jewellery, beaded artwork, music, etc)

4. Belonging Baton Pass: I particularly like this strategy: As you learn what works for students, their hobbies, and how they like to feel seen, share that with other adults who are supporting those students. (Flora: Create a google doc or some shared file to share with other teachers who are supporting the student).

5. Morning Meetings: Setting aside time every day to check in and say hello builds a sense of belonging for students and adults in the classroom. (Flora: My daughter, a rising grade 3 student, is very keen on being punctual to school every day so that she doesn’t miss this important classroom management practice. She had two tardies this last school year because I was running on Kenyan time-my fault!).

Speaking of Kenya, my grandfather, granny Jeremiah as we fondly referred to him, was a member of the Njuri Ncheke, the supreme governing council of elders for the Meru, my tribal people, who reside on the foothills of Mt. Kenya. Also filling a judicial role, it is the apex of the Meru tradition. Granny Jeremiah was born with his traditional name Guantai Arujaru in the very late 1800s in colonial Kenya. A formal education was not afforded to Black Kenyans for an extensive period of time, and the call for a liberated country came at a steep price. He passed away in 2003. Because of the opportunities that my grandparents and parents were denied, I recognize in me a thirst to deepen my learning and education, especially around history, social justice, equity and to also forward a sense of belonging for everyone. This entails reading a wide variety of texts authored by African writers. I want to remain curious and stretch my heart to lead and act with compassion even when the world seems to push and pull us in different directions. Lately, I have been wondering what type of world we want to leave behind for the next generation to inherit and I hope that I will contribute in meaningful ways.  I stand on the shoulders with deep gratitude for all of my ancestors for paving a way forward for my generation and that of our children at a steep price to freedom. My father, now approaching his mid-80s, remembers growing up as the first in his generation to attend limited formal schooling. The learning conditions and environment, he recalls with me on a recent WhatsApp phone call, were dismal and segregated. The exposure to what they were allowed to be taught was framed in the context of oppression for fear that “the Africans would get too smart for us”. He trained as a medical officer at what was once the King George Hospital, later named Kenyatta National Hospital. His instructors, he shared, were demeaning and degrading on multiple fronts. However, he pushed through with his studies with strong encouragement from his parents to stay the course. That encouragement to center our studies was echoed by my grandparents who travelled every so often from upcountry to visit their grandchildren in Nairobi. They never learned to read and write beyond exchanging some words in Swahili and writing their first names which was a source of pride. Today, they would be proud to know that UNESCO has proclaimed the 7th July of every year as the World Kiswahili Language Day with the goal of promoting the use of the Kiswahili language as a beacon for peace and enhanced multiculturalism.

My late mother Beatrice Igoki Mugambi who came from a long line of nurses and educators was a trained district midwife and trained under similar oppressive conditions. Nonetheless, she maintained a heart and passion for the community she served and led by example by providing postnatal care which wasn’t typically available. She passed away when I was a young child though many relatives uplift her memory by sharing how focused she was in her studies knowing that someday she would make a difference. I feel her love and comforting presence around me. Thank you, mama,

We can all make a difference: I stand before you in a beautiful country whose price for freedom and liberation from apartheid came at a very high yet necessary cost. We must never take this for granted and instead, do all that we can to use our classrooms to forward exemplary education. As the late President Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. How might you envision making a change within your classrooms and outside the classroom? Is there a Social Responsibility project you were involved with earlier, but it fell by the wayside? What might you do to rejuvenate and re-engage with this project? Time, my fellow educators, brothers and sisters and children of my heart, waits for no one. Take action, do something and use your education to champion causes small and big even while the pandemic is still here with us. Find some regimen for your well-being, for your wellness to keep going forward.  May the ties that bind us of compassion, determination and hope keep us together.

I will conclude with two quotes. One from Hassiena Marriott and another from John Gilmour:

From: Hassiena Marriott, who I describe as a change maker, a solutions-oriented leader and is also a passionate Head of Education at Global Teachers Institute: “Use the fire within me to light and grow the fire in others until we brighten our world”.

And from John Gilmour- an extraordinary educator, a visionary, and a man who wears many hats and fights many causes:

“Social transformation comes with personal transformation: one person at a time, one school at a time, one community at a time”.

 May we all be revived, refreshed and rejuvenated in our craft as educators and extend hearts of compassion as we move through this global pandemic.

Asanteni sana (Thank you) for your gift of time and for affording me a sense of Ubuntu.

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