Working to improve learning outcomes in English and Mathematics for 2.6 million children in Rwanda
A typical day in life of a Building Learning Foundations volunteer in Nyamasheke district

Written by Mary Watkins

Mary Watkins is a BLF volunteer working in Nyamasheke District of the Western province in Rwanda. She tells us about her average day experience as a volunteer supporting teachers of English and Mathematics to improve their teaching practice; thereby improving learning outcomes for children at P1-P3. Most of these teachers are very new to the English language.

Mary supports Maths teachers to create learning materials

Muraho neza! I am Mary Watkins supporting the Building Learning Foundations (BLF) which is funded by the British people through UKaid and aims to improve the learning outcomes of children in English and Mathematics at P1 to P3 in every government school of Rwanda.

My role is to visit schools and support teachers to improve their teaching practice in Mathematics and English.

Early riser-a rough ride!

On a typical day I leave home at 6.30am and travel by motorbike taxi to a school. The journey can often take up to two hours. Nyamasheke District is very remote and many of the roads are rough dirt tracks.

The scenery is stunning; Rwanda is such a beautiful country with mountains everywhere. In Nyamasheke District, there is very little flat land, you are either going up or going down! There’s lots of rain and for several months the main challenge is mud causing the motorbike to slide and get stuck. Fortunately, my moto driver Thomas is skilled at negotiating challenging conditions and I have become adept at hopping off the moto-bike when necessary. I hoped when the dry season started the journeys would become easier but now the mud has been replaced by thick dust.

Too muddy for motos-Going on foot

I arrive at the school and am greeted by a sea of excited faces as the pupils are always fascinated to see the BLF team. Some of these schools have very few visitors and are not accessible by car. In the rainy season even, the moto bikes can’t reach them and we partly journey on foot which is hard as most of Nyamasheke’s schools are perched on top of the hills!

I spend the whole day working with teachers starting with a group training. All English and Mathematics teachers in lower primary attend. We do many activities and games developing their English and discussing ways of making teaching more active and interesting for the children.

Many teachers say they cannot teach the children in groups or use more active methods as they have few materials. I carry a bag of homemade resources that cost virtually nothing to make. Many local bars collect bottle tops for me which I use to make counting sticks or I write numbers on them making maths resources. I have made a simple abacus from sticks and tops and teach place value using bundles of sticks.

The training session includes time looking at how they can make simple teaching aids and we try out the games and the activities.

After the group training I observe the teachers in action. It is rewarding when they try out some of the new games they have learned. I am impressed by the resilience of these teachers who may have 60 children in one crowded classroom. Teaching so many children is not easy and the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ method is the favoured technique but gradually I am seeing more teachers using group work and concrete materials. My favourite part of the job is helping the teachers to make and use teaching aids and I get a real buzz out of seeing them used in their lessons. The children come to life in the classroom when they are active and busy.

Another part of the visit that I really love is when I take a short demonstration lesson with the children. The teachers are sometimes unsure how to use the activities we showed them in the group meeting so it is great to demonstrate to them how it can work. The children are always a delight and so enthusiastic.

Afterwards I meet the teachers individually in a mentoring meeting to discuss the issues faced and potential solutions. Targets and ideas are agreed ready for my next visit.

Poverty levels are high in Nyamasheke. Some children arrive at school tired and hungry presenting a real challenge for all. Teachers work long hours – starting at 07:20 and as there are many children the schools operate a double shift system; one group attending in the morning and another in the afternoon. The teachers finish work at 5pm. I know they are working long hours, many have families to care for and they walk a long way to school. It is difficult asking them to do extra work following my visits.

One thing I would love to be able to do is to speak more of the local language. Communicating with the teachers and children would be so much easier. I have tried learning Kinyarwanda but with limited success. However, my attempts are greeted with a combination of delight and laughter and even a few sentences are appreciated.

The BLF project is really exciting- a programme that reaches every government and government-aided primary school in Rwanda. Even though we are still in the early days we have seen the teachers make good progress in their use of English and teaching methodologies in both English and Maths. Working here is so rewarding and I strongly recommend it to anyone looking for a refreshing teaching experience.

About the author

Mary Watkins is a Welsh primary school teacher with 31 years of teaching experience. She is a volunteer working with VSO as a BLF District Teaching Advisor working with a team of national volunteers in the remote western province of Rwanda on the edge of Nyungwe rainforest.

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