Chifuniro Kamwendo: Global teacher prize nominee

“I believe education has a place in opening one’s mind and eyes to see the many opportunities available and have access to what the world offers,” says vibrant Chifuniro Kamwendo a teacher with a vision at Blantyre Secondary School (BSS).

She is a finalist in the Global Teacher Prize competition, nominated into the top 50 finalists out of 10 000 applicants worldwide.

This qualifies her to become a teacher ambassador for the Varkey Foundation in Malawi.

Kamwendo runs a project at BSS which aims at improving the teaching and learning of hearing impaired (HI) students, which has run for more than a year.

“It is a very good and impactful project which needs to expand to the rest of the nation,” she says.

However, she does it on a small scale because of inadequate funding.

In this project through a grant she received of $2 000 (about K1.5 million) from the International Research and Exchanges (IREX), she has helped all the 19 HI students at Blantyre Secondary School.

With the same grant, she recruited a specialist teacher for the HI students and also trained teachers in basic sign language who continue to help these students.

Furthermore, the initiative has extended to Zingwagwa Primary School and Stella Marist Secondary School as the knowledge gained was shared to special needs teachers in the mentioned schools.

Professionally, Kamwendo says she is not trained as a special needs teacher, but was faced with a challenge of teaching hearing impaired students when she started working as a teacher in 2012.

Said Kamwendo: “Every day, I would go in and out of that class discontented with what I was doing, I knew the lives of those students were not given the chance to change and become better through education. I knew the system had overlooked this part and maybe, I was meant to be there and do something.”

Being bothered about it every day and with further exposure of the outside world, she says her prayer of helping the hearing impaired students got answered and she ventured into this project.

The global teacher prize is a Varkey Foundation initiative aimed at awarding an exceptional teacher, who is making outstanding contributions in their profession and to society.

It is worth $1 million (KK730 million)- highlighting the important role high performing teachers play not only in their students’ lives, but also surrounding societies- appreciating and celebrating their tireless efforts is the main aim of this prize. It started in 2015.

Kamwendo says, looking at the financial hurdle in helping the HI students, she decided to call for global attention and support by nominating herself for the Global Teacher Prize.

But this is not all she does. The teacher incorporates the use of technology in her classroom which is very essential to learning in this era.

She records video lessons with subtitles which help the students.

Kamwendo started doing this in 2017, the year she was able to buy cameras, after receiving the IREX grant.

This method gives the HI students the opportunity to do revision of class work at their own time. In addition, the captions of the videos help the HI students know how to spell since they are able to see words on the screen.

Patricia Nkhoma, a teacher who specialised in hearing impairment commends the project, adding that though she interprets for the students, BSS is riddled with very intelligent students.

She notes that repetition through the videos picks the HI students up in places they were left out during the actual lessons.

Nkhoma says the video lessons initiative started for students in Form Three, but the inadequate resources rendered the process unsustainable, hence, it is only done for Form Four students.

Normally teachers, only teach when they have a class, but for Nkhoma, she interprets in each class from morning till evening, a challenge, but much bigger is the gap that is there; since they have students with hearing impairment from form 1 to form 4.

However, she says that the HI students’ performance has improved as they would not pass beyond 20 percent.

Presently, they are hoping that three or four will have their Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) this year.

Kamwendo adds that the videos are particularly important because students’ ability to spell improves their writing and reading skills, another resultant for improved performance.

In addition to helping the HI students; two years into her teaching job, she started holding empowerment meetings every term, inviting professional women to mentor and guide the girls, especially and sometimes partnering with other fellow female teachers.

BSS receives the best performers from the Primary Leaving Certificate of Education (PLCE) results and the majority of them come from poor backgrounds which according to Kamwendo; means they have no exposure and have low self-esteem, particularly the girls.

At the beginning of secondary education, the girls are bright and excellent though still timid.

However, she discovered that as most of the girls go up the classes, their performances drop, which pushed her to help them realise their self-worth, encouraging them to work hard and dream big- beyond their incapable communities.

Expressing her passion and drive, she says, every day she looks forward to new opportunities to change a life.

“My energies are fueled up with the thought that ‘There is a child who needs me to become better’, There is nothing satisfying than seeing a positive change which you have contributed to,” she says.

Kamwendo cites that everyone has met and has been helped by teachers of different kinds, formal or informally and in different aspects.

“We are largely who we are because we have had someone who believed in us, in our education; who believed we would read and write when it was difficult to do so; who was so passionate to instill right values in us,” she observes.

She defines teaching as a calling that takes one’s sacrifice and patience, as it involves nurturing lives.

She adds: “I respect and recognise all what teachers do, not because am in the profession, but because God opened my eyes to their worth.”

Kamwendo says she is happy with some of the developments happening in Malawi in education, the new curriculum that is promoting skill development in students for instance.

However, she observes there are many policies that don’t raise the standard of our education; which at the moment is still not good.

These policies, she says have to do with administration to teaching and learning processes.

Kamwendo fears that if these are not looked into, Malawi’s education will remain at the same level.

“I see a productive and self-reliant Malawi if education is put as a priority among others. We cannot talk of education without recognising the good and exceptional job done by teachers at all levels,” says Kamwendo.

Despite all the challenges teachers face in the school, she believes a motivated and well taken care of teacher cannot be stopped-as they can do anything to achieve and improve other’s lives.

Her life wasn’t and is not all smooth. Challenges in life are inevitable and essential because you come out better, she says.

Kamwendo was born in a military family of 11, however, one passed away. She comes from Chipoyo Village, Balaka.

When she was nine years old, she moved to live with her sister who had found an opportunity in the city and she took her along.

She says she went to different primary schools, including Dziwe Primary School in Balaka, St. Pius Girls Primary School in Blantyre and Phungu LEA School in Lilongwe.

She went to Defence Force Secondary School and underwent her undergraduate studies at Chancellor College where she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in education humanities.

After, she did a short professional course under Teaching Excellence and Achievement Programme at George Mason University in the USA.

She has been a teacher for six years and has helped many students in different platforms and in her different capacities; as a teacher, a chaplain at the school and a role model to the girls.

If awarded the Global Teacher Prize, she says she would make sure no school age going child faces a barrier to education due to lack of school fees, basic needs or disability.

And also, she plans to enlarge her existing project for the HI students at BSS to reach all schools with the hearing impaired students across the country.

She says she would also fight for minimisation of obstacles of the hearing impaired students when they qualify for college through support in the introduction of special programmes in community and technical colleges.

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