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Editor’s Note:  Fellow educators: “If you have tears… prepare to shed them now!Julius Ceasar.”

At every level and arena of the teaching–learning continuum, this is the endemic crisis throughout education systems in many countries. Extraordinary challenges await solutions. We need them now!

Zambian School Administrators and Teachers Speak Out:
“The Challenges Are Too Many”

Carolyn M. Thomas

Zambia / USA

Keywords: Zambia, education, distance learning, distance education, Sub-Saharan Africa, higher education


Current literature on distance learning supports the premise that effective learning can occur without the constant presence of face-to-face teachers.  The Commonwealth of Learning is an intergovernmental organization created by Commonwealth Heads of Government to encourage the development and sharing of distance learning education knowledge, resources and technologies (Dhanarajan, 2001).  Zambia is a part of this organization and was specifically mentioned in a 1991 report as a country with “a television/radio network and/or rural telecommunications infrastructure appropriate for cost-effective implementation of distance education” (Commonwealth of Learning, 1991, p. 2). 

A 2003 report by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa, under the auspices of the Commonwealth of Learning, states there has been a growing interest in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) in the possibilities of distance learning as an increasingly important and credible part of education delivery strategies designed to provide greater access to quality education (Mays, 2003).  Indeed, the current Zambian governmental education document, Educating Our Future, states that the Ministry of Education “will promote open learning, lifelong education, and a variety of mechanisms for continuing and distance learning” (Ministry of Education, 1996, p. 80).  There is much agreement regarding the potential effectiveness of distance learning programs in Sub-Saharan countries, including Zambia. 

As early as 1989 several success stories in distance education in Africa were described; however, distance education largely remains underdeveloped in Africa mainly because of underfunding (Moyo, 2003).  This article addresses the reality of the educational state of affairs that Zambian teachers face when attempting to complete higher education degrees by means of distance learning.  Although this article focuses on Zambia, the basic premises can be generalized to other Sub-Saharan countries with similar circumstances.  In this article, the words of actual administrators and teachers within the country authenticate the reality of their plight as they struggle against overwhelming odds in their pursuit of university degrees utilizing distance learning.  Their words portray a realistic picture of the complexities of distance learning in developing countries.

Zambia is a democratic republic located in Sub-Saharan Africa, having gained its independence in 1964 from Great Britain following forty years of direct rule by the British (Küster, 1999).  At the time of independence there were only 961 college graduates in the country, all of whom attended a university outside of Zambia since there were no universities or colleges in the country prior to 1966 (Kelly, 1999).  Immediately after independence the state government acquired almost total control of the educational system and quickly expanded it.  In 1966, the University of Zambia was opened, and between the years 1966 and 1977 five new primary teacher-training colleges were opened in addition to two new secondary teacher-training colleges.  At independence, the country already had six teacher-training colleges, which brought the total number of teacher-training colleges in Zambia to thirteen (Manchishi, 2004).

Teacher education colleges have three levels of training.  The first level is the certificate level, which prepares students to teach in Grades 1 – 7 in lower and middle primary schools.  To enter these colleges, students must have a Grade 12 Certificate or a General Certificate of Education.  The study time for this certificate is two years, with the first year in college and the second year teaching in a classroom. There are currently ten teacher training colleges that give certificates. The second level is the diploma level, which is required to teach in upper basic education Grades 8 and 9.  These students have an additional one year program (or one and a half years by distance learning) and also specialize in two teaching subjects.  There are five colleges these students can attend to obtain a diploma, all of which include a distance learning program.  The third level is the degree level for teachers of Grades 10-12 in secondary schools, and comprises two additional years of study beyond a certificate program.  Students must attend a college affiliated with the University of Zambia to obtain their degree (Manchishi, 2004).  Interestingly, teachers of commercial subjects such as agricultural science and industrial arts are trained in institutions which are not teacher training colleges and are under the auspices of government ministries other than the Ministry of Education (Manchishi, 2004). 

While the Ministry of Education has established the requirements to qualify people to teach, some of the teachers actually teaching in the classrooms have not completed these requirements.  In a 1998 survey sponsored by UNESCO and the Ministry of Education, the teaching qualifications of all sixth grade teachers throughout the nine provinces of Zambia were recorded.  All primary teachers of Grades 1 to 7 in Zambia are expected to have completed a minimum of twelve grades of primary and secondary education, as well as two years of pre-service teacher training.  The research showed that 81 per cent of all sixth grade teachers completed Grade 12 and 58 per cent completed the two pre-service years of training.  However, results from the same survey revealed that 96 per cent of Grade 6 students attended schools where their headmasters had completed the required two years of pre-service teacher training (Nkamba & Kanyika, 1998). 

Fortunately, these statistics are now out of date; standards of teacher education have risen since the late 1990s.  During recent research conducted in 2006 in Choma District, Zambia, I found that 86 per cent of the 148 teacher participants in the study have completed the required two years of teacher training.  In addition, many of these teachers, especially those teaching Grades 7 and 8, are taking classes toward their diplomas and/or degrees or have already completed them. 

There are disparaging conditions in Zambia which mitigate the effectiveness of distance learning.  Globally distance education is transforming the way people learn. However, the change has not been as significant in the developing world, with “the digital divide” in the information and communication technology greatest between Africa and much of the developed world (Moyo, 2003).  Distance education remains underdeveloped in Sub-Saharan Africa largely due to underfunding, lack of skilled personnel and a lack of strong commitment by governmental leaders.  Zambia suffers under the scourge of HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty, which siphons available funds from distance learning endeavors.  According to the 2002 Zambia Demographic Health Survey, 16.5 per cent of the population aged 15 - 49 is HIV positive (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2005).  Approximately 21.5 per cent of the total population of Zambia is estimated to have HIV/AIDS, with higher numbers of professionals, including teachers, infected (Wood, Berry, Tambulukani, Sikwibele, & Kanyika, 2003).  With a population of over 11 million, Zambia ranks 143 out of 162 on the 2001 United Nations Human Development Report (Verhagen, 2002).  Additionally, 73 per cent of the population is classified as living below the poverty line.  Income is unequally distributed, with the top 20 per cent of the population receiving 57 per cent of the per capita income, while the bottom 40 per cent receive 11 per cent (Verhagen, 2002).  Consequently, due to these two overwhelming concerns, funds designated for education in general, including distance learning, are severely limited.

In 2006, I interviewed 36 administrators and teachers from basic schools in Choma District, Zambia.  Of the teachers who were interviewed, 75 per cent are either currently enrolled or plan to enroll in a diploma or degree program. The 25 per cent who are not enrolled in a program are close to retirement age.  Their responses reflect strong feelings about the status of distance learning in Zambia.  In order for the teachers to obtain a diploma, they must complete at least one to two years of distance learning while they are still teaching fulltime. To obtain a degree, they must attend a university for at least one year of fulltime study.  However, there are significant obstacles that hinder their pursuit of further education which are unique to developing countries:

1.      the difficulty of completing their degree program onsite at a university (a requirement of degree programs in Zambia) with no means of obtaining income to support their families at home;

2.      the long wait for another teaching posting (position), sometimes two to three years after they have completed their degree program; and

3.      the possibility that when a posting is secured, there will not be a commensurate pay raise.  School administrators in Choma District, Zambia, spoke quite candidly about these concerns in interviews with them.

An extremely critical theme for teacher training, which kept reappearing throughout the interviews, was the problem of financing continuing education through distance learning.  Many teachers are enrolled in distance learning programs to obtain their diplomas or degrees; the number of teachers enrolled in a distance learning program during 2003 was 4,500 throughout Zambia.  The National In-Service Teachers’ College, one of the largest distance learning colleges in Zambia, can only accommodate 500 teachers per year (Longe, 2003).  The University of Zambia accepted only 360 students out of 2,580 distance learner applications in 2003 (Chishimba, 2002).  Although it is difficult to gain admission in one of the distance learning colleges, several of the teachers and administrators interviewed were already admitted, but were frustrated with the prospect of not being able to afford the payments to attend the university fulltime.  If they resign their current teaching posts to attend school, they may not be reinstated upon completion of the course and will be required to wait several years for a new posting.  One teacher discussed the problem of going for further studies:

Some conditions are not favorable for teachers.  You see if you want to go for further studies you are told you resign first…or you have to sponsor yourself.  Now where do you get that money?  You resign and again you sponsor yourself to that school.  Those are some of the challenges we are facing as teachers. (Teacher B2, personal communication, August 2, 2006)

A deputy head who desires to attend a university stated:

I would like to maybe go to university.  Except that maybe now again, you see, that’s another challenge because things are not very easy now.  Why?  It’s because the policy now is that, in our districts, the district can only sponsor four teachers per year in all the Choma district.  And we are 1000 plus teachers!  Now if I wait until my turn comes, who knows?  By that time I will be too old…I will approach retirement.  And then if I tell the government…okay, fine, I want to sponsor myself so that I can do it quickly in my own time… the government will say….now therein we are going to move you out of the payroll.  Now if I don’t get my salary how do I support myself?   And yet it was going to be easier for me if I supported myself because then the government would spend little or nothing on me.  But again if I am told they withdraw the salary from me, how do I make ends meet?  How do I pay for my school?  So, much as I would want to go for further studies as quickly as possible, that becomes a bottleneck.
(Deputy Head C, personal communication, August 4, 2006)

The following interview quotation was stated by a teacher who is already enrolled in a degree program at The University of Zambia, which will eventually require him to become a fulltime student for two years.  He commented:

It’s supposed to take five years.  Otherwise the first three years I’m supposed to do it on distance and then for the last two years I’m supposed to go for full time.  Yeah, now that’s where the confrontation is in the Ministry of Education.  They’re saying, you know you should go for full time, you should be having to go for full time.  Then we are scrapped off the pay list, the pay roll.  It’s like you go on unpaid leave.  When you are off the pay sheet, you sponsor yourself.  When you come back, you have to re-apply to be a teacher under the Ministry of Education.  So it’s quite confusing.  So we are trying to maybe talk to the management, saying, “why can’t we finish on distance?”  Because if I have to stop work today, where do I get the money to sponsor myself?  Otherwise I’m willing to sacrifice the little that I have on distance.  Like this year we are supposed to pay 1.6 million towards the tutorial…1,600,000 kwacha ($ 440.) just for tutorials!  And maybe the examination.  The rest…I have to cook for myself when I’m there, to buy my own food and materials, study books and stuff.  So it’s quite expensive.  They are saying for the last two years I ought to go there so that I complete my course.  But that is much more expensive to go on full time because it’s seven million, eight million, somewhere there, per semester, which is quite expensive. (Teacher A1, personal communication, August 1, 2006)

This level of frustration is pervasive among teachers industrious enough to desire a higher educational degree.  This same teacher continued, “They are saying we need to improve the quality of teachers.  That’s what we are trying to do.  I’m striving on my own but the government doesn’t want to come in and help me out.  So I don’t know.”

Another teacher who already completed his diploma and is hoping to begin a degree program commented, “But the way it is in Zambia here, when you want to get training, you have to, maybe…you are asked to go on an unpaid study leave, so that is a discouragement.  You’ll find it greatly demoralizes the teachers” (Teacher D2, personal communication, August 3, 2006).  The problem is exacerbated because there are no government educational loans available for teachers and the prospect of waiting for a new posting after completing a degree program is extremely disheartening.

A second recurring theme in the interviews was the extended length of time for graduates of teacher training colleges to get posted after they have completed their degrees.  It is a well-documented fact that classes are crowded and student/teacher ratios are very high.  In spite of these glaring needs, teachers usually wait two or three years until they are posted because there are insufficient funds in the education budget to hire the necessary number of teachers each year.  One deputy head commented on this situation:

When I was completing my training, I got employed before my results were out.  So by the time my results were out…by the time I got my diploma…I was already employed and teaching.  But of late, the system has changed…two years, three years.  Some have waited for three years. (Deputy Head A, personal communication, August 1, 2006)

One headmaster has still not seen a change in posting time, despite rumors of decreased wait time:

It’s getting worse and definitely impacting negatively on the teacher that comes because by the time he has come out to actually start work he has been off the line of teaching for three or four years… all the methods are forgotten.  He’s just as good as somebody that would have come from the street.  That’s how I look at it myself.  When they’re in college, they have a chance to maybe plan lessons for a short time, then they go away for a period of four years without ever writing a lesson plan.  When they come back even the books that they were learning to use are no longer the ones that they use…these new books…so this teacher just comes as a new person.  That’s why they are finding it difficult to teach and they are finding it difficult to teach! (Headmaster D, personal communication, August 3, 2006)

One Grade 6 teacher commented, “I completed in 2002 and I started in 2005.”  (Teacher D1, personal communication, August 3, 2006).  In spite of the desperate need for teachers to reduce student to teacher ratios in both rural and urban schools, postings are very slow.

Teachers are motivated to pursue higher educational degrees for several reasons.  One reason, of course, is the hope of increased income, with the salary scale for all teachers supposedly based on additional education, or “upgrades”.  However, the pay increase does not always materialize after further education is completed.  When asked if there are differences in teachers’ salaries depending on years of teaching experience, one deputy head replied:

There is supposed to be.  But it’s not always there.  And this is one of the issues that our unions have discussing with the government.  There’s a system which they call the notch system.  At your entry you’re paid so much.  And every year you’re supposed to have an increase.  And automatically it should increase…you don’t have to negotiate that.  It’s supposed to be an automatic increment.  So that the one who starts today will not have exactly the same salary as the one who started five/ten years ago, even if you have the same qualification.  So you get something for the experience.  But it hasn’t been effective.  Most teachers notice that from their paychecks they are not getting their yearly notches.  And so you find a teacher who has been teaching for fifteen years sometimes will have even a lower salary than the one who started this year.  We have had such situations. (Deputy Head A, personal communication, August 1, 2006)

Further clarification came from another teacher:

The truth is the one who is starting now and the one who has taught for 33 years…we have the same salary.  So there’s nothing like saying this one has started this year so the salary should be higher.  We are all at the same rate, provided you are a teacher… and the problem is they are not looking at the qualifications of somebody, even if one has gone for a degree…for a diploma… the salary will be the same with the one who has just started.  That is a big problem.  I don’t know why the government cannot revise on that one. (Teacher F2, personal interview, August 4, 2006)

Concurrence regarding widespread discrepancies within the salary scale was supported in comments by a third teacher:

When you are posted (receive a teaching assignment from the Ministry of Education) you’ll be teaching and you are considered to be on probation.  Then you are put on a certain scale.  After probation period, when you are confirmed, then you’ll be put on another scale.  Now that is where…no matter how long you’ll be teaching, if you are not promoted, then you will be on the same salary.  It (probation) is supposed to be six months…yes…but the problem is that we have teachers who have been teaching maybe for 12 years and they are still on probation.  They have not been promoted…just because it has not happened…just because maybe there are maybe mistakes in the offices somewhere.  It takes time for someone to be put on another scale after he or she has upgraded. (Teacher E4, personal communication, July 31, 2006)

Despite these inherent discrepancies, teachers continue to apply for entrance to diploma and degree programs.  Whereas in the United States some teachers obtain master’s degrees solely for a pay raise, Zambians have no assurance of an increase in pay after they complete their schooling.


The obstacles teachers face in their careers are monumental.  Common themes throughout the interviews reveal their frustrations with trying to advance their education, but yet they are committed to teaching the children in their classrooms.  They are very aware that governmental support and commitment is the key to the success of the Zambian national distance education program.  However, with the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS and extreme poverty throughout the country, governmental financial support for distance learning is, by default, inadequate.  One headmaster with many years of teaching and administrative experience made this emotionally-charged statement, “I feel if they (the government) are putting effort, it’s not enough…it’s not enough, honestly, it’s not enough.  They could do better, they could do better” (Headmaster D, personal communication, August 3, 2006). 


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Wood, J., Berry, J. W., Tambulukani, G., Sikwibele, A. L., & Kanyika, J. (2003). Local solutions to global challenges:  Towards effective partnership in basic education:  Zambia. The Hague: Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

About the Author

Carolyn M. Thomas Ph.D. is currently teaching educational psychology classes at Millersville University, Millersville, PA.  She recently completed research in Zambia, where she conducted teacher training seminars with primary and basic school teachers in Choma District, Zambia.  The impetus for this article came from the teachers’ and administrators’ desires to become expert teachers, despite their difficult teaching circumstances.


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