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Universal primary teachers’ struggle, pain to survive

By Vision Reporter

Added 16th July 2014 10:37 PM

Just like Carol Amoding, as seen in our story yesterday, Nicholas Olupot’s story reflects how teachers are also combing through a hazy path to keep the Universal Primary Education dream alive.

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 By Stephen Ssenkaaba 

Just like Carol Amoding, as seen in our story yesterday, Nicholas Olupot’s story reflects how teachers are also combing through a hazy path to keep the Universal Primary Education dream alive.  
Teachers are forced by high cost of living against meager salaries to moonlight at the expense of their teaching duty. In this second part of the series Conan Businge, Stephen Ssenkaaba, Jonathan Angura, Angel Musinguzi & Caroline Ariba focus on teachers through Opolot’s experience.
The hazy morning breeze hangs heavy over the rusting roof; raining its graying chilly winds down the green grass carpet at Bishop School Mukono West primary school in Mukono district. Out of one of the rooms¬–on the extreme left side of the classroom block that overlooks the expansive school compound, emerges a tall, lean man; wearing a cream T-shirt, brown thinning trousers and simple black leather shoes.
 Nicholas Olupot is the Social Studies (S.S.T) and Religious Education (R.E) teacher in this school. He teaches Primary six and seven. He also is the Director of Studies–whom everyone at the school, perhaps for convenience, now fondly calls: “DOS”- as if it were part of his official name.
Olupot, like thousands of other teachers under the Universal Primary Education (UPE) programme all over the country are nowadays faced numerous challenges. 
It is almost 17 years ago when a much needed universal education programme (UPE) started in Uganda. Parents who had lost hope of ever sending their children to school were relieved of the burden of paying fees, and excitedly started sending their children by the millions to school. 
But these schools are now facing a myriad of difficulties: classes flooded with pupils, low-paid teachers overwhelmed and often absent, scholastic materials and school infrastructure inadequate, and the inspection and monitoring system collapsed. This is at the time the Government’s promise for free education seems to have been misunderstood by the then main funders– the parents and the financial burden of funding the programme is weighing in.
Unforgiving routine 
Olupot comes into office at 6:00 a.m. At 7:00 a.m. he goes out to monitor the arrival of pupils and teachers. “I’m always on the watch,” he says. “Teachers and pupils are expected to be here by 7:00 am. Anyone who comes after that time is considered late.” He will soon set the class activity rolling; churning out scholastic materials to teachers from his office.
He will then prepare to take on his class–the SST lesson to Primary seven candidates.  As he paces up and down the verandah making sure that all is in place, this father of two pre-pubescent girls looks dutiful. However, his thin face, large protruding eyes with browned whites and thin scattered stubble- tell a different story.
They tell a story of a struggling teacher under the government’s free primary education system known as UPE. Because the pupils in this school, like in other UPE schools do not pay school fees, the school entirely relies on supplies from the Government: from scholastic materials to salaries. Because these materials are often in short supply and usually delayed, teachers like Olupot go about their work with very little at their disposal. This makes their daily work, as I found out when I recently spent a day observing how Olupot goes about his work; very difficult and stressful.
FAMILY MAN:Olupot takes care of four children – two biological daughters and two dependents. On top of meeting their physical needs he monitors their school work.
Olupot sits in a sparsely furnished dimly-lit room with a dead typewriter and two plastic chairs for his visitors. His office, which is supposed to keep scholastic materials barely has any chalk, teaching aids and other useful materials. I wonder what he gives out to the teachers every morning. “I distribute whatever little we have of the books, markers, charts,” he says.
Olupot goes to class as often as is possible. However, the inadequate supply of scholastic materials often frustrates his work. “I have seven text books for SST which I have to distribute among 69 pupils in my class,” he says. Because of the difficulty in distributing these textbooks, he divides up his class into groups so that each group crowds around one text book during lessons. “Sometimes, I use these books as reference points,” he says.
 He does the same with the wall charts; another crucial but scarce scholastic material in the school.  “There are only two of them. So I hang them up, on the classroom wall and ask the pupils to refer to them after class,” he says.  For other needed but unavailable instruments like barometers “we use diagrams to illustrate their functionality,” Olupot says.
Olupot is among the lucky UPE teachers to have lunch at school. This has been made possible through a special school arrangement to provide meals for teachers and pupils. “We encourage pupils to make a monetary contribution of sh50,000 towards lunch. It is this money that we use to buy the food which we share with those pupils that will have contributed,” he explains. Like for the pupils, lunch for the teachers is a basic meal of posho (maize floor) and beans; which the teachers enjoy in a room next to Olupot’s office.
Throughout the afternoon and well into the evening, he will attend to classwork, conduct a sports session at 3:30 pm and then return in the evening to supervise evening reading sessions for the pupils in the boarding section. These entire activities end at 9:00 p.m. “That is when I return home,” he says .
Olupot lives in a shared colonial style two room house located across the school compound. The crumbling structure is made of rusty brown iron sheets, shaky wooden windows and concrete walls with peeling cream paint. His school is just one of the every 10 schools in the country with teachers’ quarters. “I live in one part of the house while my colleague lives in the other part,” he says. Inside the house, a dizzying shadow looms, only slightly illuminated by the open window in the living room. 
It is a crammed space much of which is eaten up by a huge brown vanished dining table, three wooden dining chairs and a tattered sofa. The pink and blue walls of the living room are patchy and dirty, and the little wooden cupboard on the side also serves as the ironing board and Television stand. I managed a small sneak peek into the only bedroom in this house. It was too dark for me to see. “It is here that I stay with my two daughters Dorcus and Florence and my two other dependents,” Olupot says.
In a country where most UPE teachers walk miles to go to school, Olupot feels lucky to have accommodation near to his work station, dilapidated as it is.
Even then, Olupot continuously worries about survival.  When he joined this school in 2010, his monthly salary was a mere sh280,000. 
Over the past three years, it has slightly increased to sh350,000. “After taxes, this comes to a mere sh300, 000,” he says. Considering that he has four children to take care of, Olupot finds it hard to make-do with such a meager salary. “While Dorcus and Florence are attending school here in Mukono, my two other dependents require school fees costs which I’m finding very hard to meet using my teacher’s salary.
This term I sent one of my dependents with just sh280,000 out of the total 380,000 school fees. I keep worrying that anytime, she will be sent back home. Olupot’s monthly domestic budget is sh600,000. This is double his monthly salary , which as a result of the perennial delays in teacher remuneration, often comes at the end of the term.
Such constraints at work explain the 11% attrition rate of teachers in the county if the 2011 ‘Teachers for Education for All report if to be taken seriously. The report says that voluntary resignation are still the biggest causes of teacher attrition in Uganda and the Sub-Saharan Africa on top of family responsibilities, illness, pull factors (alternative employment Labor market conditions), relative pay of teachers, conditions of schools, low job satisfaction and living conditions of the posted to school.
Olupot’s children do chores at home as he looks on
Making ends meet
“You just cannot survive on this,” he told me. To supplement his meager salary, Olupot has teamed up with fellow teachers, who have side-businesses to form Savings and Credit scheme. “Each of the members contributes sh140,000 from their salaries at the end of every month .  When this accumulates, I can withdraw some money from the pool and use it,” he says.
But some of his fellow teachers in the neighboring school could not the meager pay anymore and they quit. Some of those who stayed, teach only when they feel like teaching, report to work in case they decide to teach and surprisingly 82% of them are not equipped enough to set assessment tests for their pupils, according to the latest Government report done by Uganda National Examinations Board.
Such abseentism behaviour of teachers from school is costing the country sh52bn annually according to the World Bank.
Olupot also used to operate a cloth selling business. Unfortunately, he had to close it. “It became difficult for me to monitor,” he says. He then started rearing goats and turkeys. “I started with two goats and two turkeys in 2001. By the end of last year, I had 18 turkeys. I sold some of these and now have a few left,” he says. He also recently bought a piece of land in Kabembe, along Kayunga road where he established a commercial tree project. While these have helped in the interim, they have come at a great cost to his teaching job.
“Before closing my cloth business, I would never settle in class. I had to make sure business was running well; that the person I put in place to run it was making profit. Eventually it became difficult for me to maintain. I incurred far too many losses I had to close it,”
To raise some extra money, Olupot rears goats.
The goats and turkeys are less demanding of his time, but they sometimes take him away from his teaching duties to find feeds and drugs for them. When such scenarios arise, Olupot has to always come up with an excuse to be away from class.
“I often have to find a plausible reason; such as going to sort out my bank account, or to find important information on the internet at a café away from school,” he says.
Olupot knows how such conflicting loyalties affect his work and most importantly, how they cost the pupils he teachers, but somehow cannot help it.
He would have counted on a promotion for a better pay. But like several other teachers in the country, there is no clear policy on teacher promotion and advancement, and many upgraded teachers remain on the lower rank according to the June 2014 report the NGO Forum and UNATU report; on the assessment of the NRM Government’s performance on commitments to teachers’ demands in its manifesto. 
At home his two young daughters understand their father’s dilemma. They understand when he comes back home late and when he has to leave school to find some more money for the family. Dorcus Kulume, 10 and in Primary Five and her other 12 years-old sibling Florence Amukadde in Primary Seven at Bishop School Mukono West primary school–patiently await their father’s return at home every night, hoping that he has carried some bread for them.
“It is okay, as long as we are able to continue with our education,” Kulume says. She prepares dinner for the family every evening when her elder sister who is arranging for her Primary Leaving Examinations, is busy reading; as their father stays out late at work. Understanding the struggle that her father has gone through to raise them single-handedly, Kulume says she will work very hard to become a doctor.
Amukadde says that her father really works hard even though sometimes there is not enough money. “I am hoping that he can find school fees to pay for my secondary education,” she says.
As teachers like Olupot seek to improve standards in primary education, the situation on the ground suggests dire conditions. “Teachers are doing their best but the conditions under which we operate need to be improved,  Henry Kityo, the deputy head teacher at Bishop School Mukono West primary school says.
Believing that the poor work conditions of teachers have a direct impact on the performance of pupils, Kityo calls for a revising of teachers’ salaries to enable them meet the high standards of living.
What should be the way forward for Uganda’s free primary education programme? Get the final take of our UPE series in the next issue….
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