Monday, November 22, 2010

Meeting of the head teachers

Here in Ghana, I’ve been told that GMT stands for “Ghana Man Time”. This “GMT” runs behind the real clock time by 30 minutes to forever. (For the ultimate players out there, it’s much less predictable than “ultimate time”, which generally is less than an hour from the clock time.)  For example, a meeting or appointment scheduled for 9 am might start at 10, 11, or maybe not at all, because the person(s) might have randomly gone to Accra and didn’t call to say that they wouldn’t be in. On the one hand, it’s frustrating to never know exactly when—or even if—a meeting will occur. On the other hand, when we get caught in traffic and I’m late arriving at a school, everyone seems to understand and accept it.

Today’s post is on the experience of attending a meeting in Ghana, because it’s a wonderful study in some of the major differences between Ghana and the US. On Wednesday, we had our first meeting of the head teachers since the workshop. The meeting was scheduled for 9-11. Knowing that many people follow “GMT”, the head teachers were told that the meeting started at 8:30. By 9 am, only 4 head teachers had arrived—and one of them was head of the school where the meeting was being held. Even when we started the meeting at 10, not all the schools were represented, but they did all show up at the meeting.

The meeting agenda below is typical of the few meetings I’ve attended here so far.

My loyal blog readers will likely notice that, as with other public events, prayers are given to open and close the meeting. In this case, the opening prayer included thanks for the MCI School-to-School Project and how it will help the teachers. The previous minutes came from my supervisor’s notes from the past couple meetings with the head teachers before the ICT workshop. Even though there was no formal documentation of the notes, there was still a formal motion per Robert’s Rules of Order to approve the minutes.

Next I was asked to give feedback on my visits to the schools. Cultural misunderstanding (mostly on my part): based on an email over the weekend, I thought that Abenaa had pulled most of my suggested topics from the agenda. But what she meant is that she would cover a few of the key topics and the rest would be “left for you to handle” in my feedback at the meeting—which I was unaware I would be giving until 9:30 that morning when I saw the agenda.

My feedback took longer than it would in a similar GSK meeting—and not because I had more to say. As an American and a fast-talking one at that, I have to focus on speaking very slowly and clearly, which I find to be extremely difficult to do due to the stereotype of Americans speaking slowly and loudly to people who don’t speak English in the vain hopes that they’ll suddenly understand. But if I don’t focus on my speech patterns, I get blank looks and completely lose my audience.

My feedback began with the observation that even though the ongoing issues with the Internet were hampering efforts, many of the schools are doing some amazing work. One ICT teacher had already set up training for the other 30 teachers at his JHS and primary schools, while another school was bringing all their teachers into the computer lab once a week to learn ICT. Most of the teachers who attended the workshop remembered how to send an email and how to use Microsoft Word, two skills that will be crucial to their upcoming partnerships with NYC teachers.

After my report, Abenaa asked the schools to report on their activities. The two examples I gave during my feedback were only the “tip of the iceberg”—er, “ears and eyes of the hippo”.* I was blown away by how much they’re doing with the few PCs that they have. At every school, the ICT teachers are using the new PCs for a range of activities, from ICT training for their colleagues to getting their students and colleagues onto email to giving the students online assignments to complete.

At the end of the school feedback, Abenaa clarified some key figures, like the number of teachers at each school with email. Given the huge uptake on email at the schools, Abenaa requested that each head teacher compile a list of all their teachers and their email addresses, if they have them, and send it to her and me as an attachment—to show that they have email addresses and that they can use email and attachments. Eugene indicated that all future meeting invites will be sent by email rather than him phoning each person. I was both excited and terrified of his pronouncement—excited that we are forcing them to use ICT, terrified that none of them would show up at the next meeting because they didn’t see the email invitation. Luckily, later in the meeting we set the date and time of the next meeting in late January, meaning this new policy will be fully implemented in February.

It was requested that people always reply to every email, even if it’s just to say that the email was received. This statement had my head swimming with visions of a deluge of email from the 45 program teachers and 15 head teachers every time I needed to give them a small piece of information by email. But in this environment, when many of the people I work with here check their email less than once a week, there probably needs to be a mechanism to know that an email has been read and understood.

The big issue of the day, and the one that all the head teachers wanted solved, was the ongoing issues with the Zain Internet credits. As noted in my last post, all the schools have run out of their 30-day initial credit on the Zain routers and were waiting on the MCI program to explain how to recharge the routers. Since the discounted plans are not yet in place, Abenaa told the schools to purchase the credits at the going rate to ensure that the project can keep progressing. Zain told her that the schools needed to be careful about how much download the automatic updating of Windows uses—which concerns me, as I am not at all comfortable with the idea of putting Windows machines on the Net without enabling automatic Windows and anti-virus software updates. I will be very interested to see what Zain tells us when they finally send someone to do the training that was promised in the MOU.

After further topics, the last major item was the head teacher training in December. I was apprehensive that the head teachers would not want to come to an ICT workshop from December 20-23, since it’s immediately before the Christmas holidays, but Abenaa did not give them any other choices. She indicated that it was the week I was free and asked everyone if they could make it then. Only one head teacher could not, so the date was set. I had also requested (prior to the meeting) that we find a school with enough PCs so that we don’t have to set up and take down the PCs at the workshop. Abenaa asked the head teachers which school had 14 PCs available. Since Martyrs was the only one, the workshop will be there—which is great, since it’s the school I had suggested.

While some issues were decided by mandate from the Steering Committee, other decisions here are extremely democratic.** The time for the workshop each day is one of those decisions. After much discussion, including the point that traffic will be worse in the afternoons since it’s almost Christmas, we agreed on 9 am – 2 pm each day with a short (< 15 min) morning break and lunch from 11:30-12:15. I’m happy that we’ll be at Martyrs because their computer lab is air-conditioned, meaning that we should be able to work until 2 pm without difficulty. Since this timing means only 4 hours of lessons a day, I understand why the teachers at the other workshop thought that the training needed to be 5 days long. In the US, a similar training would be scheduled for two days from 8-5 each day because the people involved would feel they were too busy to give up an entire week.

Before wrapping up the meeting, we stumbled into talking about appropriate use of the PCs. Given the limited download at each school, the head teachers are very concerned that the teachers do not use the school resources “for browsing the Internet”. I’m torn on this one. I understand the need to ensure appropriate use, but I also know that some of the most useful things I learn are from “just browsing”. A typical Google search starts from a question that needs to be answered, like the best time to take a safari in East Africa, and ends 30 minutes later with me having learned about the life cycle of the African toad. I was much more in agreement with the statement that “nobody should be doing Facebook in the school”, as I was very irritated to see it up on many PCs while Liz was trying to teach the workshop. But we all know that unless Facebook is blocked on the PCs, there will be teachers—and especially students—using it.

The meeting ended as it began—with a prayer. A fitting end to a meeting for a culture in which God appears to be foremost in people’s minds and in their hearts.

*Per my Pulse training in May, “tip of the iceberg” is not a phrase that would typically be used in Africa for some rather obvious reasons—no icebergs near the equator. (I saw someone carrying a shopping bag with a polar bear on it and wondered what the child carrying it thought of the white bear.) The Pulse trainer told a story about a visit to West Africa where she was teaching a local village about the numerous social cues that can remain hidden when cultures meet. She used the example of an iceberg to describe something where only a very small part of the subject is visible to all (above the surface of the water). But the concept of an “iceberg” was completely foreign to them, leading her to ask, “What’s something where you only see a very small part above the water and know that there’s much more below the surface?” A wizened old man stood up and answered, “Hippo.”

** Ghanaian culture does a reasonable job of balancing top-down mandates with group decisions. In this situation (as with the earlier workshop), Abenaa told the participants the dates for the workshop but allowed them to suggest and agree on the times for each day. I find that people are much less likely to complain if they feel that they have some input into the decisions that impact them. While “empowerment” has only recently become a buzzword here in Ghana and is more likely to apply to women only, this lesson about empowering people to make decisions appropriate to their level is one that would likely improve the operations of all organizations.

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