The First Day Of School: Supporting Teachers to Make a Difference

The media is abuzz with stories of families buying school supplies, a sign of that first day when yellow pencils are long, crayons are whole, and children feel the power of the heroes pictured on their backpacks.

In rural Iowa, my grandchildren will enter word-rich classrooms led by teachers, whether recent college graduates or seasoned veterans, all of whom have learned the science and art of teaching reading.

As a teacher with 25 years of classroom experience, and another 20 years of advocating for education and educators, I still get a thrill at the thought of another school year.

As a teacher in rural Iowa and New York, I was fortunate. I always knew that the basics would be taken care of. My classroom was clean and safe. My paycheck arrived on time. The buses brought my students to school. The government provided lunch. Parents showed up for conferences. Boosters raised money for extras.

After four years as senior adviser of international education at USAID, I will always remember a young teacher I met in Malawi named Enita Banda. Dedicated and courageous, Enita is emblematic of so many teachers I’ve observed in developing countries around the world.

As a second grade teacher, Enita stands before a classroom of 200 children  --  a unimaginable scenario for most American teachers. My tax dollars helped pay for her training to teach reading, but Enita still doesn’t have enough desks, pencils or textbooks in the local language.

At schools like Enita’s, parents decide whether they send their children to school or have them work in the home or in the fields. School is often too far for children to walk, or the road is unsafe, especially for girls. Teachers themselves often have trouble finding transportation to school. Students are often too hungry to learn.

Teachers like Enita often have no sick days or health insurance. Many teachers walk miles to get their paychecks. Sometimes they’re not paid at all.

The challenges for teachers and students are even greater in countries in crisis and conflict. In Syria and South Sudan, schools may close indefinitely because of violence. In places like Nepal and Haiti, schools crumble due to natural disasters.

In these countries, teachers  --  like their students --  suffer from inadequate food supplies for themselves and their own children. They fear for their lives. They grieve for family members as well as for students who have been murdered, kidnapped or lost under rubble.

How do we even begin to give teachers a reason to anticipate the first day of school?

After all these years as a student, teacher, and now working at USAID, here’s what I know for sure:

  1. Teachers around the globe want to do a good job. They want to teach and nurture the children in their care.
  2. Teachers can’t teach effectively without support from parents and the community, all of whom create a healthy learning environment for their children.
  3. Teachers need to work in a system where data is used to make informed decisions.
  4. Teachers must be paid consistently and fairly.
  5. Teachers need to be trained to lead student-centered classrooms, and must continue professional development.
  6. Teachers need instructional programs, classroom learning materials, and books that children can read and enjoy.

At USAID, we are identifying barriers to education, and working with other donors and ministries of education to help teachers develop resilient children who can learn and flourish.

When there are so many problems to solve, we have to celebrate each step along the way.

On September 30, I hope to be in Malawi to celebrate the kickoff of a USAID-funded reading program that will benefit over 5 million beginning readers in every district of the country for the first time. This year, as a result of that program, Enita Banda and her colleagues teaching early grade readers will start the school year with textbooks in Chichewa and English for each student. Now that’s something to get excited about!

USAID is also addressing the needs of teachers and caregivers in countries affected by crisis and conflict like Jordan and Iraq. USAID and its partners have just launched a toolkit called Safe Healing and Learning Spaces, a guide for creating safe spaces where teachers can help students learn, even during a natural or human-made disaster. This step-by-step process allows both teachers and their students to feel safe and heal during the routines of going to school, playing and learning.

As we celebrate a new school year in this country and around the world, and together celebrate the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day September 8, let’s remember the most important education resource we have  --  the world’s teachers.

About the Author: Christie Vilsack is USAID’s Senior Advisor for international education. 

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on USAID's "Ending Extreme Poverty in this Generation" publication on

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Enita Banda stands before her 200 second grade students in a rural school in Malawi. Her students don’t have enough desks, pencils or books. [Christie Vilsack, USAID]
Posted by Christie Vilsack
September 8, 2016


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