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Teachers for Global Classrooms Guiding Question
TGC encouraged us to view our International Field Experience through a self-developed question that would guide us through the process of learning about our international placement. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the multitude of new experiences when traveling, so this question was useful to us because it helped focus our intention and organize what we have learned into a framework that we would be able to use to leverage those experiences into useful applications in the future.
As an environmental studies teacher who is interested in sustainable development and is in the process of building an environmental education program at my school site, I was curious how the Senegalese government addressed its environment and sustainable development goals through the educational system.
Guiding Question: What drives pro-environmental behavior in Senegal and how is it addressed in Senegalese education? What is prioritized? How does environmental information flow through communities and does it influence behavior? How effective is it and is it sustainable over time? Do students/teachers feel like they have control of the outcome of events related to their climate and environment?
When I was in Saint-Louis Senegal for my placement, I was able to talk to teachers and administrators at the school site level about environmental education efforts. In Dakar, I had the opportunity to talk to those who worked on the national level about the structure of the educational system and the impact of the Ministries on education.
Senegal faces various environmental challenges: desertification from the encroaching Sahara, erosion caused by global warming, plastics pollution of ocean fishing grounds, and poor urban sanitation. In order to combat these issues, students are taught about environmental issues imbedded in the geography and science frameworks, which are developed and implemented at the national level around the ages of 9-11. Climate change, destructive weather phenomena, air and water pollution, and recycling are some examples of topics addressed. Students are rarely provided with experiences beyond the classroom, as there are few means to provide field trips for students in public schools, and the Ministries of Education and Environment do not provide funding (45% of the national budget goes to education but schools don’t see it- some schools have no electricity, let alone internet connectivity, basic resources like texts are old or scarce). In fact, they do not collaborate with one another and have had no joint meetings for the past ten years. Like many developing nations, it seems the desire to develop economically supersedes environmental protection. (The Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development’s website lists various initiatives in action like the Great Green Wall, but the section for Environmental Education has no content.)
Outside of direct instruction, at the school site level in both public and private institutions, environmental education is disseminated through student governments and extra-curricular clubs. Their focus tends to be on developing responsibilities by caring for the school grounds. They make sure the school is clean, the trees and plants are watered, and that the student body does its part to maintain the areas. They reach out to farmers to advise them what trees they can plant and grow, and how to care for them. Some teachers are able to find grant funding in cooperation with NGOs and Peace Corps for hand-washing stations on school grounds, urban agriculture classes, and arts & crafts related to environmental topics. This gives students the opportunity to practice theory learned in classroom lessons.
Student behaviors do change after classroom lessons are implemented. Challenges arise, however, as students who are new to the school are not accustomed to picking up after themselves and tend to litter habitually. This behavior has begun to change as other students model appropriate behaviors with their own trash and even clean up after those who litter. While the goal of environmental education in the schools is for pro-environmental knowledge and behaviors to transfer to the the home, home and village behaviors do not change much.
While the national government controls teacher education, curriculum and teacher placement throughout the country, it was pointed out to me by Mr. Aidara and Mr. Faye, two retired administrators in Saint-Louis as well as education officials on the national level, that in practice, the future of education (and consequently that of Senegal) is dictated by international bodies like the World Bank, the UN and USAID. These institutions fund programs that through the national government and the Ministries, decide the number of teachers that the country trains each year and which subjects they will teach. Prospective teachers ask, “why become teachers?” if they are not teaching what they want to teach and can only do what the government tells them to do. The best and the brightest are not choosing to go into the educational field, decreasing the quality of incoming teachers, and forcing the government to develop alternative teaching pathways for those who don’t meet standards so that critical positions will be filled. (Ongoing issues with lack of personal agency is a problem for recruitment and retention of U.S. teachers as well.) There seemed to be a considerable amount of frustration on all levels over how little control the people of Senegal have over the development of their country’s future because of outside influence.
In addition to institutional barriers to success, cultural factors like early marriage for girls, the lingering effect of colonization, the workload of women, lack of trust in government, and low literacy and numeracy rates (possibly tied to the persistence of oral tradition) contribute to the challenges faced by educators on the ground. There are many positive indicators of growth, however. In terms of instructional practices, there is a movement towards teaching critical thinking, creativity, and modeling a love of learning so that students will be capable of becoming citizens who can participate in the successful development of Senegal. There is a growing force of strong female leadership in the traditionally dominated field of education, and active participation in education by girls from elementary through university level. High quality teaching practices are found across the country, despite lack of basic amenities and funding. Students seem invested in their learning and understand that education is a way to improve their station in life. Despite very real challenges to growth, there are many successes to be found in Senegalese education today. These notes are in no way meant to be complete and thorough, but are a collection of insights I gained throughout my IFE. There is a lot I did not write about- the landfill situation in Dakar, increasingly violent teacher strikes, the influence of ISIL in the northeastern regions and their impact on farming practices, rapid urbanization and its effects, the struggles of the Maure community in border regions, the bold and brave children I met, the dedication and professionalism of the Senegalese education community, and Molly Melching’s work in community-led development. There is much more to be said and even more to the story left unseen than can be gleaned in a three week trip. Months after I returned to VA, I am still processing the experience. I do know that I feel an immense sense of gratitude to have had this opportunity, and hope that I find a useful way to apply what I have learned to my practices here in the states. If anyone is interested in continuing the conversation about education in Senegal, or if anyone has questions about my guiding question and my findings, please feel free to email me. I’d love to hear from you and learn more.