October 5 is International Teachers’ Day, that one time a year when we celebrate the role of teachers in transforming the lives of successive generations of young people across the world.
Rwandan teachers have marked this day for quite some time now, and last Thursday they did so again. I am not sure, though, whether the rest of us did or even gave a moment’s thought to the occasion or the immense job teachers do.
For me, mention of teachers and their work takes me back more than half a century ago when we were newly arrived in foreign lands seeking refuge.
Before our parents had completed putting up makeshift shelters to keep us protected from the elements, some among us who had been teachers in Rwanda and others who were not but had some level of education gathered all the children under acacia trees that dotted the whole place and started teaching them.
We paid no fees and couldn’t afford it anyway. The teachers earned no salary and actually expected no material reward. Their only form of payment was the extra-ordinary enthusiasm of their pupils.
They had no books or other teaching materials and so had to improvise. They taught mainly from memory of how they used to do it back home or how they had been taught.
Indeed in the early years we followed the Rwandan curriculum of the time. But what they lacked in teaching and learning materials, and even experience, they more than made up for it in motivation and dedication.
Coping with growing up children from different backgrounds can be very trying at the best of times. You have a collection of pranksters and bullies, gifted pupils and slow learners, and even some unwilling to learn.
To this mix you can add others bent on disrupting everyone else. Our volunteer teachers had to deal with a similar situation and the times were the worst imaginable.
The acacia trees were our classrooms. We sat on rough logs or stones, or on the bare ground. We wrote on our thighs with dry twigs for pens. It didn’t seem to matter then. We had our teachers and were getting some education.
And so despite the difficult circumstances, we were able to learn. Those teachers made something out of us. They were heroes and saved, not just our generation from being wasted, but a whole nation for generations to come.
We owe them a huge debt of gratitude, and if for some reason we have never told them so, this is the time to do it. Those who are still with us, and even those departed, please accept our belated gratitude. I am sure even in the Afterlife they can hear us.
Teachers in Rwanda today have carried on in much the same vein, of selfless service, dedication and sacrifice.
Although their lot is much better than our refugee teachers, they still do not have much by way of reward for their invaluable efforts. Yet they carry on.
They teach the same sort of student mix - the clever and not so clever, the humble and eager to learn, the naughty and disruptive, the headstrong, all – and must shape and direct them towards a purposeful existence. That has and will never be an easy task.
This time, they also have to deal with difficult parents, some of whom are little better than their children and appear not to have gained much from their own education.
And they bemoan their state and plead for its improvement and indeed every October 5 they present the usual litany of woes and requests. But to their credit none has deserted their post.
There is good reason for this. Conditions may not be perfect, but they are better today than they have ever been. The learning environment has much improved. Technological advancement makes the learning process easier. Teachers have the opportunity to do better than their counterparts who worked in conditions of deprivation.
And so for a while now the tone among teachers has been different. They look forward to their day because it is the one time when their efforts are publicly recognised. The best performing among them even get rewarded with cows and computers.
We can never stop celebrating our teachers because they have such an impact on our individual lives and on the future of nations and humankind. The greatest among them will always be inspirational and transformational.
They will always be role models for successive generations of students in varying circumstances. They are the unsung heroes of every epoch, some might even say saints.
We bow to them and say, from the deepest part of our hearts, thank you for making us who we are.