Compassionate Education in Tanzania

by Neale Mahoney


As someone at the beginning of my teaching career (I began teaching full time in 2010), I am always looking to other teachers for ideas on how I can become a better educator. I love observing teachers. I love learning from them, and I love witnessing the unique relationships between teachers and students. In a world with darkness that can sometimes feel insurmountable, teachers provide dedication, inspiration, and love. Around the world, across oceans and cultures, teachers shine a light that guides future generations and creates positive change in communities.

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The team of dedicated teachers at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania.

It was in a meeting with the teachers at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania, when a teacher asked me what I do to help “slow learners” in my classes.

Neale, in your classes in the U.S., how do you accommodate ‘slow learners?’

The term “slow learners” may sound offensive to you. Some people would call it politically incorrect, start a lawsuit if it were used to describe their child, be insulted or hurt or angry. But here in Mlali, Tanzania, it is the accepted term used to describe students who are significantly behind academically, many of whom would qualify for special education services if they lived in the United States.

He might as well have asked me to write an equation for quantum physics, because I didn’t have an answer that would translate from my urban classroom in the United States to this rural school in Tanzania. “Oh, you know, we talk to the special education team about getting the child evaluated! They may call the school psychologist, and we might advise the parents to make appointments with the child’s doctor, and maybe consult with a behavioral analyst, and then we gather all of this information and create a plan for the student! And sometimes additional teachers are assigned to help the student, and to help the teachers create assignments for the student in each class. Does that sound like a plan?”

At the Queen Elizabeth Academy in rural Tanzania, there isn’t yet a special education department. There are no doctors or psychologists or behavioral analysts who regularly visit the school to evaluate the children. There are no laws and requirements telling the teachers what they have to do, or what they should be doing, to better accommodate differently-abled students. The students don’t have access to colorful manipulatives or iPads or audiobooks.

But there are teachers.

Hard working, loving, compassionate teachers. Whether a school is in New Orleans or Paris or Mlali, whether it has SMARTboards or blackboards, theteachers who dedicate themselves to the next generation are every school’s greatest asset.

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Classroom at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania. Photo credit: Tom Kubik.

At the Queen Elizabeth Academy, we are working to establish a special education program to ensure that all students receive a quality education. It is a lot of work, and not something that is required in Tanzania, so these teachers are putting in extra time, love and energy to make a greater impact on their community. It is humbling and inspiring.

Teacher Jane is an example of an exceptional teacher. In observing her classes, it is clear that she loves her job and she loves her students. Last week, she came over one evening to do some washing. She wasn’t washing her clothes, though, she was washing her students’ uniforms so they would have clean clothes to wear to school. No one asked her to do it, and she wasn’t being paid overtime; she saw an opportunity to help and she did. As I write this, it is 8 o’clock at night, and Jane has been here for the last hour and a half because she wanted to continue to work on creating an academic plan for a student. Of the special education program, she says,

I like to know how to help slow learners because it is a good step for changing their future one step at a time. I want them to feel good and to feel confident.

Teacher Magomba often spends his planning periods working on the special education program, evaluating students and creating individualized education programs for them. His dedication to the special education program belies the fact that he has many other responsibilities within the school. He has become a true leader of the program, and has collaborated and assisted his colleagues to make sure it is a success.

This program isn’t perfect, but it is a significant step forward in achieving parity in education. I feel honored to work with the teachers at the Queen Elizabeth Academy, who are so dedicated to their students and to becoming better educators, and I am happy to have found this kinship thousands of miles away. Because of these teachers the students at QEA will flourish and thrive in the world beyond their classroom.

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Students celebrating winning a game during recess at the Queen Elizabeth Academy in Mlali, Tanzania. Photo credit:Ike Edeani.

Neale Mahoney is a Mama Hope Global Advocate Fellow from Vermont. To learn more about her work with the Queen Elizabeth Academy, click here. To experience life in Mlali, visit Under the Tree: Volume 2.