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Opinion | Oct 31, 2011

Raising Generational Foundations: The National Service Advantage

Raising Generational Foundations: The National Service Advantage

...Thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations. – Isaiah, the son of Amoz

Simply put, this is an interesting time to be part of the National Service Scheme (NSS). The Rip Van Winkles may not see it though, since they are given to the bad old habit of sleeping during revolutionary times. So tell them when they wake up from slumber, that graduates of various disciplines are voluntarily identifying with farming, long thought to be an exclusive preserve of the uneducated. Assuredly, hunger is doomed in view of this increased participation of service personnel in agriculture. This desirable change and other excellent strides speak hope to our generation, and remain a support to the many efforts at consolidating our status as a Lower Middle Income Country (MIC).

What I said elsewhere, I say here, that the story reported of a fact-finding Bangladeshi delegation compassing sea and land, just because of our country's national service model, is a heartening attestation that the pacesetting domain of excellence is not an abrokyire heritage. It is also an indication that we can be good not just at imitating but also at initiating. The facts are plain as the day for those with eyes wide opened in optimism. We as Ghanaians have all it takes to humbly imitate the good and proudly initiate the better. Trailblazing initiators we can be, if we sideline the ubiquitous 'pull-him-down (PhD)' politics, and collectively set our faces like flint in confronting particular national problems.

With the release of the 2011/2012 national service postings, tertiary institution graduates are now duty-bound to variously contribute to national development for a period of one year. It is widely expected that the ideals of discipline, hardwork, and patriotism would be internalized by these would-be leaders in the course of service. Take it or leave it, national service is synonymous with duty on the part of every graduate. No wonder the Executive Director recently pleaded with his countrymen to see national service “as a national duty call and not punishment.” Can I say that the heckling tantrum at Winneba was fresh in his mind? Yes, I think I am permitted, and even encouraged to add that the plea is suggestive of his disapproval of that in-house mutiny staged against rural national service on the University of Education campus. This general plea need not be denied, for to do so bro, is to be somewhat unpatriotic; it is to be insensitive to Ghana's developmental needs. There is an urgent need for the powers that be to adopt an attitude of positive firmness, so as not to pander to the undue demands of some cohorts in a student or youth wing of their political parties. They must at all times insist on a marked departure from “dreaming aspiration to laborious doing,” to use C.S Lewis' phrase.

Youth contribution to nation-building should go beyond that wishy-washy what-government-must-do conversation to a concrete what-I-am-doing contribution. The vogue now amongst many youth groups is to release press statements and that ends there. Am I then insinuating that words are unimportant? No. Words are not unimportant, but they must be complemented by decisive action if anything good is to come out of them. And that is why I challenge all personnel to a sober rethinking of Kofi Akordor's belief of what true national service entails: “changing the fortunes of a people whose situation looks hopeless”. The proven writer is more than right. He who turns his back on service in remote areas is unfit (now and in the future) to speak and act on behalf of the people. Period!

Now, a matter-of-fact illustration I suppose, will do much good in sensitizing you of Kwaku Atta's plight as a school boy. Got some time? Then come with me as we brave all odds, I mean as we accept a service posting to a D/A school in a typical akorase. The scanty population in the village reveals the reality of rural-urban migration, especially on the part of the success-conscious young. Your guess of farming as the main occupation is right. Other employment opportunities, we say, are plainly nonexistent. If you don't farm, then poor you, there will be nothing to keep your mouth busy.

Set on a partially steep slope, the village can be said to be an isolated one of sorts with an un-tarred road that is hardly plied by the popular trotro vehicles. Most of the inhabitants have migrated to urban centres and those remaining are not passengers of a day in, day out regularity. So the road is manned by a one-gallon taxi driver with his classic boneshaker. Your worries about the car's road worthiness may be discarded the moment you get to know that it's a rugged master, an accomplished veteran in the business of transporting passengers. And don't forget, it's the most affordable, if not the quickest means of getting to the village. The driver has a way of easing tensed feelings with his no-nonsense congeniality. He knows almost all his passengers, and his plain gossip about a teacher and school girl gives a general picture of an active grapevine during the barely twenty-minute drive from a major town in the district to the village.

Let us skip the different buildings that welcome you as you enter the village. They may heighten your uneasiness about the whole matter as you consider where you will be lodging. For the relief of your uneasy mind, a new JHS building has just been completed and soon to be commissioned for use. The pupils would soon be moved from the exhausted and collapsing old classroom block to this new standard structure. For the sake of formality and other administrative procedures, let us enter the headmaster's office in the old school building. The office is a manageable space with the characteristic sheaf of papers and folders arranged on a neatly-covered table. Old metal trunks and the musty smell of books tell you a great deal about the school's colonial heritage. After much discussion about confronting problems, inadequate teachers, undesirable work attitudes, lascivious manoeuvrings, to name just a few, the groundwork is laid for the commencement of service as a rural national service teacher.

The Realities on the Ground

It was the first test in the JHS section and the host class was form three; the final-year students preparing for the Basic Education Certification Examination (BECE). It was a test of professional competence in the handling of English language. Anyway, it was not a 'justify-your-inclusion' kind of session. How could that be when some of the classes were without teachers? Since first impressions are crucial, the service personnel carefully chose words and endeavoured to endear himself to the pupils through a mixed assortment of sentence and word usage. The resounding “yes sir!” feedback to his optimistic “do you understand?” enquiries assured him that something of a tangible change in intellectual know-how was being achieved. Yes, teaching was dutifully going on and learning it seemed, was drawing momentum from an unprecedented edition of great teaching.

Not until realism sank idealism did he realize that pupil illiteracy was a reigning handicap. Not even a jot or tittle of what he said was comprehensible to his head-nodding students. Final-year students were unable to make out the meaning of a simple English passage. Is that supposed to be a joke? No, please. Okay, how about the simple task of distinguishing nouns from pronouns? That passed as a difficult task to them bro, so they could not either. Well, let us then give the pupils of primary six the chance to undo the disgrace done their school by the seniors. So, we are in class six now...But there was the selfsame diagnosis of a moribund literacy. Holistic literacy must have surely pitched his tenth amongst them in years gone by. At that material moment however, he was nowhere to be found. It was difficult trying to distinguish an English class from a Ghanaian language class. You have to halt, Mr. English teacher, and speak the local language if you want them to understand what you are trying to send across. In a nutshell, the illiteracy epidemic had reached abysmal proportions in the very institution tasked with its annihilation. You see young faces with great potentials that can be imperilled as a result of a reading deficiency. The simplest words could not be any more pronounced than understood.

So Who Takes the Blame?

Disheartening facts have been related, right? Maybe.....but don't turn your critical stares upon the teachers just because JHS students cannot read, write and speak basic English. At least, this is in line with GNAT's reminder that teachers alone cannot make good students and thus should not be blamed for poor academic showings. Should the pupils then be looked upon askance? If you allow, then let us re-echo the oft-repeated refrain:

Those kids, are they not lazy and recalcitrant? Pleasure-mad and without any enthusiasm for reading? Are they not familiar with jingles from TV commercials more than their textbooks?

Consider the free things at their disposal: Theirs is the enjoyment of a fee-free education. There is the added benefit of having free access to updated and curriculum-relevant textbooks. Their school bags most often are unable to contain all their books. They come to school smartly clad in uniforms for which their parents never paid a kobo. In some places, the pupils are assured of a nutritious meal during school days. And there is this gift of free transport for those in the catchment areas of the Metro Mass Transit. What else do they want? This dismal illiteracy is their own creative doing; a self-inflicted intellectual disability.

Real-time statistics can make social commentators right, even when they are culpable for gross “pedagogical inattention”. Benjamin R. Barber therefore sounds out the clarion call for adults to re-examine this captious reasoning. For this whole blame game, he earnestly maintains, “reeks of hypocrisy” and reflects a growing national comfort with the game of “let's pretend we care.” Hear the Harvard University scholar as he reasons with the nation, with you and I at large.

...Pundits, instead of looking for solutions, search busily for scapegoats...Others turn on the kids themselves, so that at the same moment as we are transferring our responsibilities to the shoulders of the next generation, we are blaming them for our generation's most conspicuous failures.

The Unkempt Garden

Blaming kids for our generation's most conspicuous failures? That's serious and ashamedly indicting! Without mincing words, I propose that the unfortunate development of schooled illiteracy and academic non-performance in general, has everything to do with foundations; the relegation of kindergarten instruction to the background. Rendered another way, the kindergarten neglect accounts for the poor showing of pupil literacy in later years of formal schooling. Kindergarten, in its original German parlance literally means “children's garden” and it represents the “form of education for young children that serves as a transition from home to the commencement of more formal schooling”. It is a sensitive period, a time of creative learning, of mastering speech through supervised play and frolic. During this period, there is the need for tender gardening if that inhibiting overgrowth of prickly weeds amongst dressy daffodils is to be avoided.

Foundations evidently determine everything. That which “is learned young,” C.H Spurgeon rightly quipped, “is learned for life.” Ever seen a strong building with a weak foundation? If you have, then that building is fated not to stand for long. Anywhere you are and in almost everything you do, the good gives way to the better, and not the other way round. The kids who shout out their mastery of nursery rhymes are those who in later life would diligently commit to rote, complex mathematic formulae and scientific definitions. Foundation is everything. Everything is all about foundations.

Here in our akorase, kindergarten kids cheerfully come to school, but theirs is the unrestrained play without purposeful direction. There is no teacher to make them laugh with clowning antics in some activity-based learning. They don't have any teacher to lead them through a series of laughing sympathy for Humpty Dumpty's comical fall. Theirs is a deprivation of the opportunity to rhyme out their ecstatic wonderment of the twinkle little star. With no drills in tongue-twisting, it is evident that they are no more familiar with Peter Piper than with the peck of pickled peppers picked. By now, you are wondering why the District Education Directorate has not been able to do something about this. Well, I can guarantee that the “we are very much aware” reply awaits your concerned enquiry. Anyway, you can't accuse them of inaction when there are no teachers to be posted to take up appointments as kindergarten and primary teachers. The few posted end up at the JHS because of the 'urgent' issues of preparation for final examinations. With these in mind, it is easy to understand why some service personnel are sent to help in the educational instruction of kindergarten kids through activity-based teaching and learning. Only that it takes something more than professed patriotism, something more than political party membership to take up the challenge of this national punishment.

Now, Come to think of it, what could make a graduate to see national service as a punishment? Unrealized expectations. He never envisioned himself teaching at some akorase D/A primary school. He never thought that the embattled Mr. Kuagbenu could overlook his credentials as a university graduate and assign him to teach kindergarten children in a place far removed from Accra. This may well explain why an allowance-earning duty sometimes becomes a punishment to a service personnel. Added to this is the uneasiness that he may end up aiding in the fulfilment of Professor Aryeetey's graduate unemployment prophecy. These are not things to be simply brushed off.

Raising Generational Foundations

What can we say to such a person caught up in this punishment? The kindergarten and primary school kids in the village need your willingly offered assistance. The schools are seriously lacking in quality tuition. The students, without good foundations, are pathetically failing, year after year, and no one knows the positive impact that your charitable help would bring to bear upon their lives. Perhaps a pupil may in the course of your service, be greatly encouraged to war against the endemic zero percent BECE record. You would be peculiarly positioned by your pedagogical privilege to effect desirable changes when all other attempts at remedying the situation fail.

“And who then is willing to consecrate his service this day” for the sake of God and country? Who is willing to help “raise up the foundations of many generations”? If you are, then here are some down-to-earth suggestions which may or may not find favour with the experts from the colleges of education. Dare to try it, for it worked for others in similar situations.

Cooperate with the hardworking staff and stay away from those who are more given to talking than teaching. They have a way of demoralizing you; of extinguishing your fire of dedication to the herculean task of slaying ignorance. Never be in a hurry to follow the institutionalized routine of completing syllabus for completion sake. It is useless treating adverbs when they don't even know what verbs are. Sometimes there is the need for you to review the twenty-six alphabets of the English language not just with kindergarten and primary kids, but JHS pupils as well. You can also consider some lessons on how to pronounce and spell two-letter words. Give them some time to master them and then proceed on to three-letter words. You can add some tongue-twisters to strengthen their grip on pronunciation. Be creatively alert as you gauge progress being made.

Be firm with them and consistently register your disdain for absenteeism by instituting strict punitive measures. Most of the headteachers will give you their unflinching support. It is worth knowing that those kids are fond of skipping school for the farm. Critically examine every I-was-sick explanation rendered as reason for absenteeism. Most are concocted in order to avoid the resultant punishment of truancy. Be careful about the supposedly innocent girls at the JHS. Araba Koomson is impudently capable of expressing (in wonderfully written letters) her infatuating affection for you even when she cannot satisfactorily write a simple my-self essay. To be forewarned is to be forearmed, beware, “for she hath cast down many wounded: yea, many strong men have been slain by her.” Some promising personnel have had to abscond; to run away from the service field because of their loose association with her. Others inadvertently found themselves in one-man battles against exasperated town boys. And you can imagine the various intensities of gratuitous jealousy-inspired blows meted out to them. I have said much about this, because I don't want to hear you say one day that I didn't warn you.

Reading assignments should be regularly given even if you are teaching mathematics. Otherwise, you will be a good teacher only when GES supervisors are reading your lesson notes. Diligently seek to drop something into minds, and not just teachers' lesson notebooks. Also, it would be a nice idea to start a reading club. Normally, you can start with old discarded books at the office. They are always in abundance there. Let members of the reading clubs choose their own executives. Always emphasize on the value of reading and be ready to gives prizes like stationeries and confections to hardworking pupils. These prizes can do magic as far as the whetting of pupil appetite for reading and learning is concerned. Do everything humanely possible to be abreast of ideas in Anis Haffar's Youth Leadership Forum in the Daily Graphic. Make sure you allow the distinguished educationist to inject some of his brilliant and ground-breaking ideas into you.

Don't be tempted to despise these small and seemingly insignificant measures. They can be relied upon to profoundly inspire lives to meaningfulness. For all you know, nine-year old Kwaku Atta may one day be spotted boasting not about his mother's cookery skills, but proudly opining to friends and family, that you are “the best teacher in the world.” And believe me bro, this artless citation would be widely accepted, and you would be on your way to experiencing the greatness that is intrinsically linked with true service.

Of a truth, “everybody can be great because everybody can serve.” I am fully convicted of this and in no doubt also of your own agreement with Martin Luther King Jr. Wait a minute....something just flashed in my mind...Circumstances and people cannot take away from you, the choice to dream big dreams for your pupils and service community. The decision to help raise the foundations of many generations is solely yours. Oh, that all rural national service teachers would consider this as they go about their daily duties.

Gideon Amoako Sarpong / aca_education a t yahoo dot com/ 0243354091

The writer is the recipient of the 2010/2011 Best National Service Personnel Award, Gomoa West District, Central Region.

Gideon Amoako Sarpong
Gideon Amoako Sarpong, © 2011

This author has authored 11 publications on Modern Ghana.
Author column: GideonAmoakoSarpong

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