On the afternoon of Friday, 12 November, Martha Omollo, a teacher in Nairobi County, was called to her school and served with a letter from the Teachers Service Commission, the government employer of teachers in public schools. The letter, which was dated that day, informed her that she had been transferred to a school in Trans Nzoia County, 400 kilometres away, and that she was to report ready to teach the following Monday, 15th November.
Earlier in the week, Omollo had been the spokesperson of the Teachers’ Pressure Group, which had called into question the loyalty of the union leaders to its members, and the opaque health insurance scheme into which teachers pay through involuntary salary deductions. Shortly after the press conference, Omollo received a call from the TSC Nairobi County office warning her not to publicly discuss issues facing teachers.
The idea that a teacher can pack her bags in the middle of the term and move 400 km away, ready to teach in three days, is nothing short of cruel. The move clearly disregards human nature, and the fact that teaching is, by its very essence, a profession of relationship. Teachers cannot take care of students’ minds and wellbeing when they themselves are anxious about their own wellbeing, and worse, when they are denied the freedom of thought and speech. The transfer communicates that the TSC does not care, and worse, it callously turns one teacher into a warning to other teachers.
Similar treatment of a teacher was witnessed in April this year. The media reported about a teacher, Magdalene Kimani, who trekked to a school 20km away for a number of days to administer national examinations. In reaction to this fairly innocent report, the county education office sent her a “show cause” letter, yet the report was initiated by the media rather than the other way round. The education officials were heartless to ignore the teacher’s 20km trek and then issue a threatening letter to her.
These two cases are just a microcosm of the harassment that Kenyan teachers endure under the TSC. For instance, the TSC has carried out massive transfers of teachers away from their home areas in a procedure called “delocalization”. In her appearance before the Senate, Nancy Macharia, the CEO of the TSC, justified the initiative affecting thousands of teachers as a move to encourage “national cohesion”. It is amazing that one can think that cohesion comes from displacing teachers, disrupting their families, and showing no care about what worried teachers mean for students. To make such moves that increase teachers’ anxiety during school unrest is insensitive and a symptom of bureaucratic hubris.
It should not surprise Kenyans, therefore, that this callousness is bound to show up in the schools and public spaces. Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals, and a seeming ignorance of the harm that their actions against juniors imply for the larger public. Teachers who are anxious and who feel disrespected cannot treat children with dignity and respond to the extra-ordinary circumstances of the children under their care. To expect otherwise, as the TSC seems to do, is the definition of either hubris or inhumanity.
Take, for instance, the forms that teachers have to fill in regularly. According to the TSC, teachers have to fill in 18 forms, but teachers say that the forms are more than that. The ludicrous CBC promise of paying attention to individual learners has meant that teachers fill in forms detailing the special learners in their class, the nature of the learners’ challenges, and the remedies that the teachers have taken to address those challenges. Teachers are also expected to file reports on how they have covered what KICD calls “strands” and “subs-strands”. Now that this is assessment season, teachers are also required by the Kenya National Examinations Council to assess students conducting group activities, but the assessments require the teacher to grade each individual student along six or seven measurements. This means that for one subject taught to one class of sixty students, a teacher is filling in 60 rows x 7 columns.
Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals.
The problem with this work is not simply the amount. It’s that the work is demeaning. Teachers are filling in paperwork about teaching rather than doing the actual teaching. In the language of the anthropologist David Graeber, this is the “bullshitization” of work caused by an increase in bureaucrats with nothing to do but supervise others. The point of these forms is not to improve teaching and learning, as the bureaucrats have deluded themselves. The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children, nor the fact that that beauty and mystery cannot be translated into numerical measurements. By some perverse psychology, Graeber explains, work in the neoliberal era has meant an exponential increase in administrators who subsequently use bureaucratic tools to terrorize the people doing the actual work.
I do not use the word “terrorize” lightly. The word has been used by education scholars in their assessments of performance appraisal for teachers, including by the eminent British education sociologist Stephen J. Ball, in his well-cited journal article The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. The nature of terror is to plant shame and fear in the individual, make the individual feel isolated and therefore incapable of changing anything about their condition. Terror is also characterized by a lack of predictability. And because the system is always incoherent and inconsistent, teachers can never tell where the attack will come from. No matter what the teacher does, the teacher is never good enough.
One teacher told me that with TPAD, teachers are told to rate themselves but not too much, and then punished for not achieving 100 per cent performance. The teacher put it this way: “During the introduction of TPAD, we were directed that we should not rate ourselves more than 80 per cent even when you know you have met the ‘targets’. During the recent interviews, those without evidence of it were disqualified.”
The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children.
Another tragically hilarious story was recounted in a letter to the editor of the Nation newspaper some years back. The letter, titled “TSC should listen to teachers’ voice on appraisal row”, read:
Back in 2010, quality assurance and standards personnel from the Ministry of Education visited the school I was teaching in then.
As a routine, they demanded to inspect teachers’ ‘tools of trade’, as they called them. These included schemes of work, records of work books, lesson notes and lesson plans and files containing learners’ progress reports, amongst many others. We complied. Only one member of staff had all these. The rest of us, in a staff of 27, including the principal, had one or more documents missing.
After perusal, we were given a lengthy lecture on how ‘lazy’ we had become, and that only one of us merited a recognition in a public forum, notably, the school’s Annual General Meeting, and that the institution would be posting better results were we to emulate our colleague.
After the exit of the QASO personnel, the entire staffroom burst into laughter. Months later, the teacher in question was transferred following complaints from parents and learners over his below par delivery and alcoholism.
This is an egregious story of how bureaucrats confuse measures and tools of work with the actual work itself. Humiliating teachers for not having submitted complete records is similar to judging a carpenter’s work not by the furniture but by the carpenter’s hammer. For the teacher, part of the torture of performance appraisal comes from the consciousness that the work that one is doing is barely a reflection of the real work of teaching. As the story shows, a teacher actually teaching in the classroom is unlikely to achieve perfect record keeping, and yet, it is the lack of record keeping that is used to judge the teacher as lax and incompetent.
As Ball explains, the goal of teacher appraisals is not the improvement of teaching, as education bureaucrats claim. The real goal is to capture the teacher’s soul. The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are. It is a vicious power grab aimed at denying teachers the ability to make judgements based on their professional opinion, and at making the bureaucrats and managers, rather than the children in their classrooms, the main focus of teaching. This obsession is so acute in the TSC, that as the latest wave of school fires began a few weeks ago, teachers were simultaneously receiving text messages from their employer reminding them to meet the deadlines for their appraisals. In other words, our children are not a priority for the education bureaucrats. It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the “teach and go home” philosophy. It even has an acronym: TAGH.
The common sense of cruelty
How is this cruelty so easily enforced without public resistance?
Part of what makes appraisals so difficult to resist is that they sound like common sense. The argument of the managerialists and politicians in support of appraisals goes something like this: Public education is useless and is failing our children (the Kenyan version is that it produces incompetent graduates). The problem is the teachers. To improve our education and make teachers work better, teachers need to be policed with appraisals or performance contracts, where their performance is measured by a score.
This logic is devilishly convincing when one has no personal experience of teaching. I have been studying performance management in education for a decade, and to this day, I still struggle with explaining why the system is abusive. The common sense character comes from Anglo-American billionaires and politicians whose power and access to the media allows them to spread the narrative of truant and incompetent teachers who are overpaid by the state and protected by permanent and pensionable terms (called “tenure” in the US). Teachers in the US, UK and Australia, among other English-speaking countries have gallantly resisted this attack, but their struggle has been rendered longer and harder by the fact that politicians and billionaires have used the media to poison the public’s opinion of teachers.
The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are.
The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”. To avoid the political mess of firing teachers en masse, these haters of teachers call for more measurement of teachers’ work. They also advocate for drastic measures like shaming and firing teachers, and closing schools that do not meet “standards”, standards that are solely determined by students’ examination scores. Appraisal management is a large-scale and sanitized form of “constructive dismissal”, which is the technical term for workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately mistreated so that they can quit. The tactics are working, because many teachers tell me that they want to quit.
Microsoft seems to be preparing for such a scenario where the number of trained teachers will be so insufficient that technology will have to do the teachers’ work. Microsoft came on my radar when one teacher wrote to me that part of the TSC’s regime of form-filling includes teachers uploading their notes on Microsoft. It appears that when the president attended the Global Partners for Education conference in London in August 2021, one of the events was to sign a deal with Microsoft whose goal was vaguely defined as “to enable the best use of technology to dramatically enhance learning.”
The article gives no details of what Microsoft intends to do with those notes, but one can legitimately worry that the point is to eventually use those notes to create lessons for which Microsoft will charge Kenyans, and probably without honouring the copyright of teachers. If such is the case, then the teaching profession is essentially a plantation in which the TSC is the foreman that terrorizes teachers to extract materials for foreign companies to exploit.
There is yet another common sense narrative to make us accommodate this potential exploitation, and this narrative came with CBC. It is the narrative of “individual talent” and “personalized learning”. When Kenyans hear it, they think the discussion is about a human teacher giving loving and individual attention to each child, when in fact, the corporates are talking about children learning from tablets and without teachers.
This hatred for teachers is not about education. It’s a cruel contempt for society and especially for the poor whom, the rich think, do not deserve a good education, least of all at public expense. Others suggest that it comes from contempt for teachers as people with expertise, and as members of unions that are still standing up against the casualization of labour. Rev. William J. Barber also mentioned another logic of this attack: “The reason they want to privatize education is because a lot of people who are greedy know that they can’t make as much money out in other markets now. So they want to come in and siphon off money from the government for their own personal pockets. Some of them don’t hate government; they just hate government money going to anybody but them.”
Whatever the case, the war against teachers and public education, which has a peculiarly Anglo-American character, is a war that has been waged against Kenyan public school teachers since 2010, led by the current president who was Finance Minister and Acting Education Minister then, and with the help of the British Government. As Nimi Hoffman details in her article, the DfID engaged British academics who used unethical means to push for a project that undermined teachers’ unions through hiring contract teachers on low pay. The project was piloted in Kakamega County and was rigorously resisted by the teachers’ unions.
It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the philosophy of “teach and go home”.
The relentless effort to casualize teaching continued in April 2015, when the TSC announced the replacement of the punitive performance management system with a more “encouraging” appraisal system. The pilot project was funded by the World Bank, and the British Council funded the implementation of appraisals. To anticipate the resistance of the union officials, the then TSC chief executive officer Gabriel Lengoiboni reminded them that they had implicitly accepted the project when they participated in the benchmarking trip to Britain in 2014.
Education policy in Africa has largely been influenced in this way. Foreign governments offer trips abroad for teachers, and the familiarity disempowers teachers from questioning or opposing the policy being subtly pushed through this informal networking. Even the Bologna Process, largely responsible for the bureaucratization of Kenyan higher education, was entrenched through sponsored trips to Europe for African vice-chancellors and senior academics.
Truth is exposure
The way to end this intricate system of decadence in the school system is through public exposure. But education leaders in Kenya are notoriously secretive, fanatically hostile to self-examination and ironically, steadfastly resistant to public interrogation. Learning institutions muzzle teaching professionals despite academic freedom being guaranteed by the constitution. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development replaced the education system with competency but avoided any debate in the media about their choice. The TSC terrorizes teachers in the shadows and punishes teachers for any publicity in the media. In the universities, public debate is discouraged through an insidious rebuke of disagreement as “attacking people personally” and with calls for intervention from a third party to lead in reconciliation. Being a teacher in Kenya’s colonial school system is like living in a bad version of the movie “Stepford Wives”, where people are supposed to ignore reality and humanity and live in a fictional utopia.
There is little difference between this scenario and witchcraft. The defining characteristic of witchcraft is that actions happen in the shadows, supposedly with no human actors, as if brought about by the wind, with nobody to hold accountable. There is no one to name, no one to be held responsible. Education institutions maintain a stoic silence in the delusion that because education bureaucrats have blocked their ears and cannot hear alternative voices and visions of education, those alternatives do not exist.
The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”.
This is why we need a Truth and Justice Commission for education. We need a public forum where Kenyans are forced to hear all the participants in education, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It is time for Kenyans to stop listening to the disjointed stories of the media, the propaganda of the private sector, and the silence of educational institutions, and to construct for themselves a complete story that connects the dots between the brutality suffered by our children, the terror experienced by teachers, the deaf ears of education bureaucrats and the sadism of the Kenyan public. Our faith in the colonial education system is a national delusion that can only be cured by the truth.
In the immediate, TPAD and the litany of bureaucracy which the TSC imposes on teachers needs to be abolished. The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into the classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. Despite its “Commission”, tag the TSC’s role is mainly human resource clerical work. If the TSC officers want to enjoy the dignity of teaching, they are welcome to join us in the classroom. As they know, there are not enough teachers, and moving with their salaries to the classroom would save the country some money for hiring teachers. Likewise, the yearly assessments of the Kenya National Examination Council need to be done away with. With the introduction of CBC, the KICD promised Kenyans the end of exam obsession. It is ridiculous that CBC is now increasing yearly assessments all the way down to primary school. And Martha Omollo’s transfer should be reversed. The remedial measures should be guided by this simple principle: our children deserve to be taught by adults who are free in thinking, creative in teaching, and caring in interaction.