After 34 years teaching primary school, one could forgive Bibie Hassani if she was set in her ways. Her methods, her classroom aids—all had served her as well as could be expected in the rural schools of Mtwara, Tanzania, where resources for teachers are paltry and scores of children pack classrooms with no electricity or books. Bibie was doing what she could with what was available.
Still, these old methods were not working as well as she would have liked. No matter how much passion she had for the job, children in her classrooms were performing about the same as the rest of the country. In 2013, only 5 percent of Tanzanian first-graders could pass a Swahili language test.
Bibie wanted to be a better teacher. So when USAID’s Tanzania 21st Century Basic Education program came to her school, she did not hesitate to take advantage of the training it provided. The program showed teachers in 891 primary schools in Zanzibar and Mtwara how to use student-centered teaching methods, homemade teaching aids and classroom technology to increase literacy.
“My dream is to see all my kids being able to read,” Bibie says. “I think of a day when none of the students in my school can fail because they don’t know how to read.”
She incorporated all the new techniques she had learned for making class lively and engaging for her small charges—songs, games and skits that had never before been used in the traditional “chalk and talk” methodology. She tried to tease out the students that needed individualized attention and support, and use group work to partner them with stronger performers who could lead.
She covered her classroom in colorful posters, letters and drawings that used a new phonetic approach to teaching reading to make the space bright and fun.
“Once I used to sit and wait for the government to bring resources [to] schools,” Bibie says. Now she takes matters into her own hands. “I can make a lot of teaching aids using only the resources available here in school.”
Bibie did not stop with her own classroom.
Her excellent performance in the classroom and in training sessions, as well as her expertise and advocacy for reading, was recognized by the district and regional education offices. Because of these achievements, she was appointed to the position of district facilitator to help other schools in her area implement the new methods of teacher training and reading instruction.
From teacher to published author
Reading materials for primary school students in Tanzania are often overly complex, with too many words on a page. When Bibie learned techniques for writing her own stories that were accessible and engaging for new readers, she masterfully put them into practice.
Rangi Zetu and Upile are full of bright drawings and simple words and sentences. According to the program’s sequenced and age-appropriate approach to reading, that’s exactly the way children’s books should be. USAID decided to publish Bibie’s stories so they would be available to more young readers.
Bibie is the first woman, and the first teacher from the Mtwara region, to be published under the program.
“I could not believe that one day I [would] have my books being read by people,” Bibie says. “Such experience has added [to] my passion for this job.”
Now, her two titles are being used in all 891 primary schools in Mtwara and Zanzibar.
Hoping for more change
In January 2015, Bibie was transferred to Mailimoja primary school. She now has 49 first-graders in her classroom. When they go home at 11:30 a.m., she stays for an extra three hours to teach math and science to the higher grades. With only seven teachers for 267 students, there is no one else to do it.
The extra commitments pile on top of what Bibie already calls a “double share” of work that comes just from being a woman and mother in Tanzanian society.
But Bibie doesn’t mind.
“I have been a teacher for a long time. I love to teach and I love my job,” she says. “It gives me pleasure to see my kids being able to read. I love to see them grow up and be successful, and that is what is pushing [me] every day to do this job.”
She’d like to see even more change for her school and region—simple things such as having enough chairs for all of her students. Or having a toilet for teachers. She’d love to see the school get a library.
At the community level, ideally there would be more collaboration with parents, Bibie says, many who still prefer their children to spend their days working rather than going to school.
Looking at the bigger picture, she wants teachers in Tanzania and around the world to be respected and valued. They work under such challenging conditions, she says, and are often underpaid and underappreciated.
“I am a teacher. I love my job, and I would like the world to value teachers just like doctors or other professionals,” she says.
Bibie knows from experience that the influence of a good teacher is invaluable and extends far beyond the classroom.
“Teachers are very important. No one would have been where they are if it was not for the good job of teachers,” she says.
Bibie would also like to see Tanzanian women more readily viewed as competent professionals able to stand and succeed on their own. “I am happy to be a woman who is a teacher, and I know my success has changed some views from people who believed a woman cannot stand by herself and be successful,” Bibie says. “I would love more women [to] take a stand and believe in themselves. I know they can do it.”
She says the best thing she can do to achieve those goals is to serve as an example to other teachers and other women. After all, she says, teaching is more than just a profession for her—it’s a calling. And despite all the challenges, it is one that she loves.