Why performance contracts for teachers may not work

Striking teachers carry placards outside Knut headquarters in Nairobi on September 7. Photo/FILE
Striking teachers carry placards outside Knut headquarters in Nairobi on September 7. Photo/FILE

As the teachers strike progresses in its second week, the clamour for tying down our tutors with performance contracts is rising every now and then. Apparently, performance contracts will increase teacher productivity and could be a panacea for future strikes. But with uneven resources, different learning environments and disparate pupils’ backgrounds, it will be interesting to see how the teachers’ performance contracts would work. For many times, our teachers go beyond the call of duty when doing their work and nobody rewards them for it.

Consider the case of schoolteacher Miriam Wambugu. Two years ago, this teacher noticed that her brightest pupil was wavering and even coming late to school. She intervened and slowly the story came out. The pupil, a girl, had a woeful tale of a broken home with a drunkard father and a mother who had run away, leaving her to fend for her two younger siblings. The children lived with an aged grandmother who could not guarantee them a meal or even security in a tough inner city neighbourhood.

Wambugu visited this family on several occasions and as the KCPE approached, she took this pupil to live with her. Two other kind teachers took her siblings to their families while the provincial administration set out to trace their mother.

Wambugu’s personal involvement in this matter left her fatigued and she did not have time for the last minute drill of her examination class. Consequently her class posted a small drop in the mean score in KCPE. After the dust had settled, the local DEO summoned her head teacher to explain the poor KCPE performance of his school. This head teacher conveniently tabled the individual scores of his teachers and Wambugu’s class had the lowest. The DEO raved and ranted that the head teacher must “do something” before the DEO himself scattered all the teachers across the entire county.

The head teacher summoned the school committee to grill Wambugu, ostensibly, for “letting the institution down.” Three hours later, the school administrators were moved to tears by Wambugu’s sorrowful tale. The pupil she had rescued had scored 302 marks and for Wambugu, this was her greatest achievement since she was employed as a teacher. She told them in black and white that even if she was to be sacked, she would bask in the singular accomplishment of altering the life of her pupil. Ashamed, the school administrators dropped the matter and chipped in Wambugu’s fund for taking her pupil to secondary school.

Wambugu’s woeful tale illustrates a common incredulity that often attends the measurement of teachers’ work as the din for performance contracts threatens to obscure the real reasons for the current teachers strike. Frequently, the treacherous variable of the human factor is overlooked in this debate. Everybody erroneously compares a teacher’s field like a huge factory where the volume of production is controlled by precise factors like power, labour, raw materials and so on.

But human beings perform best when there is peace, security and stability in their lives. Unlike a typical construction site where cheap labour hangs by the gate daily to replace absent employees, a pupil’s erratic school attendance will have a bearing on the entire performance of the class and school. An illness, death, divorce or separation of pupils’ parents’ are crucial factors that every teacher has to contend with daily. And often one has to ferret out these details and give appropriate guidance. But nobody makes an allowance for these factors when the blame game for low marks starts.

The diverse economic backgrounds of the pupils, prevailing social climate and facilities in schools are other key factors that often put a check on pupils’ performance as the hullaballoo of teachers’ contracts rages.

As a nation, we have conspired and narrowed down the achievement in school to a single parameter of a mean grade, regardless of how it is attained. It is often immaterial if within a year a teacher persuades a drug addict, cult member or a homosexual student to come off his or her habits. Spending quality time with a pupil to dissuade him or her from lethargic, hopelessness and suicidal tendencies might actually be misconstrued as time wastage and earn one a censure especially now in third term when its all systems go for high KCSE and KCPE marks. Yet any teacher worth his or her name is morally bound to produce an all round pupil regardless of the risks involved that include official censure and transfer.

A credible performance contract for teachers must be tailored to cater for all that the educators do within and outside their official duties. It must also take into account each pupil’s unique family and learning circumstances because one- size- fits- all documents, that are popular in jobs dealing with non-human entities, are bound to fail miserably in schools.

Kariuki teaches at Nyandarua high school, Ol Kalou.