Pauline Mhako knows that her job is one of the greatest, for it involves shaping the minds of 35 little girls and boys in her class.
She is a teacher at the SOS Maizelands Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centre in Zimbabwe’s Central Province. In her career, Pauline has witnessed many special moments, making her appreciate how influential educators are to their pupils.
“I am always amazed at the change I see in my students at the end of every school term, and at the end of the year,” she says. “They morph and bloom into different personas, which is wonderful to see.”
Pauline Mhako at the SOS Maizelands Early Childhood Development Centre.
Building children’s competencies
The 34-year-old is in charge of a class of eager learners aged between five and six years. One of the key facets of her work includes competency building in children. This involves building their life skills and preparing the children for future learning. As parents are essential for a child’s development, they are actively engaged in the learning process as well and support the children with homework and in the understanding of basic aspects of child rights and technology.
This way of teaching is aligned with a new school curriculum launched by Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Education in 2016, designed to make learning more practical and holistic. In this new system, children are introduced to features of technology, relating it to home appliances the use of mobile phones and computers. In rural communities such as Maizelands, these lessons are critical in ensuring resource-poor children do not lag behind in their understanding of the bigger world.
Understanding the child’s background
For Pauline, however, teaching goes beyond merely following the curriculum. It is also about noticing the small things that could either encourage or harm the progress of pupils in her class.
“Last year, one of my pupils could not socialise with other children. The little girl, Runako*, could hardly hold a pencil to draw. She was also so afraid of human contact. Together with the school principal we checked Runako’s background, and held counselling sessions with her parents to find a solution to her challenges,” Pauline explains. “In the process we discovered that she lived with her mother who had just remarried. Unfortunately, her being abused by her older siblings was the root cause of her behaviour. After counselling the whole family, Runako began to change. She became lively and remained happy as she transitioned to grade one,” details Pauline.
Because children are in their formative years at the early childhood development stage, lack of adequate care and guidance can result in lasting developmental challenges. This is why Pauline is always on the lookout for red flags.
Five-year-old Unathi*, for example, was aggressive towards her classmates. She frequently bullied them, stole their food and often came to school with incorrectly paired shoes, or torn and dirty clothing.
“After investigating, we discovered that Unathi was being neglected by her guardian, her paternal grandmother,” says Pauline. “Her mother passed away and her father left without any financial support. Her grandmother was frustrated and overwhelmed by the demands of raising such a young child at her old age.”
The SOS Children’s Villages staff approached Unathi’s grandmother and supported her with counselling and parenting skills training. The effect has been positive, Pauline explains, as Unathi’s grandmother is now more willing to properly care for her granddaughter. And since the home environment has improved, Unathi is well-mannered and has a healthier attitude.
The role of a teacher in a child’s life
But not all cases have a happy ending, says Pauline. Not all caregivers are willing to learn how to positively parent their children. They struggle to see the value of education mostly due to a perception formed by their own life experiences.
Getting to know each child to be able to identify difficulties is part of Pauline's role as a teacher.
Other parents are absent from home because, faced with the pressure of providing for their families, they move to the cities. In such situations, teachers have to fill the gap and become a parental figure for their children, ensuring that the supportive school environment they create also extends to their homes.
“In spite of all the challenges, teaching is a joy to me and it will always be worth it,” says Pauline. “When I witness positive change in children like Runako and Unathi, I know that I am enabling lifelong transformation. And so I am not just a teacher, I am that child’s second chance at a better future.”
*Name changed for privacy protection
Photos: Tom Maruko