When teachers are asked to deploy other teachers, we learn a lot about teacher preferences

A small group of primary school teachers in Makeni, Sierra Leone, huddle around a table in the principal’s office. Each holds a set of brightly coloured sticky notes that describes the teaching experience, payroll status, family background, and qualifications of three teachers — Sheku, Hawa, and Aminata.

The group is debating how to allocate these teachers to a set of schools with varying characteristics. 

One school is based in a remote area and offers frequent professional training. Another school is based in an urban location and has poor working conditions. A third school is based on the outskirts of town and provides teachers with limited support. After allocating each teacher to a school, the group begins to discuss their choices.

“I placed Sheku here because he has a few years experience. And, when you look at the distance and considering the fact that he is on salary, I think he can pay the fare to go to school.” 

“For Hawa, she fits in this school because she has no teaching experience so she has to get that experience from the teachers that she meets in the class.”

“When someone is on payroll and that person does not have a child then he or she will not have much burden. Aminata will not have problems. Like, in the morning, she will be thinking do I have to provide lunch or feeding? No.”

Soon, we have a collage of sticky notes that reflects the school choice preferences of the three teachers.

Why do teacher school choice preferences matter in Sierra Leone?

The Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education (MBSSE) and the Teaching Service Commission (TSC) in Sierra Leone are working on measures to improve teacher allocation equity and efficiency.

Over the past few years, the government has struggled to retain qualified teachers in remote and rural locations. Today, the pupil to qualified teacher ratio rises from 44:1 for schools in urban areas to 76:1 for schools in remote areas. 

Now, the MBSSE and the TSC have started to explore innovative ways — including a teacher preference matching model — to address these challenges. To support this work, EdTech Hub, the Education Commission, and Fab Inc are conducting research to understand the factors that influence the choice of teachers when they choose a new school.

Lessons learnt on teacher preferences in Sierra Leone

In a recent blog post, we reviewed evidence from low- and middle-income countries to get a sense of what factors teachers consider when deciding where to work. This review highlighted a number of important factors such as school location, the availability of basic facilities, and opportunities for professional development.

After completing this review, our research team met with 54 teachers and school leaders to see if these findings hold in Sierra Leone. This is what we discovered.

  1. When asked about what mattered most when choosing a school, teachers did not prioritise location

During the project, the majority of participating teachers told us that the location of a school mattered less than the availability of basic working conditions — electricity, water, toilets — and the provision of professional development opportunities. The table above shows that this trend was consistent across teachers with children, male and female teachers, payroll and non-payroll teachers, and those in different areas.

Notably, this finding does not mean the location of a school is not important. Instead, teachers described how a range of factors interacted to shape their decisions: school conditions, training opportunities, location, relationships within the school and with the community, training opportunities, and monetary incentives.  

  1. Monetary incentives can encourage teachers to move to remote areas although they may not be enough on their own

Many teachers noted that they would move to a school in a hard-to-reach area if they were either added to the payroll or received a higher salary. 

Monetary incentives, however, are not sufficient on their own. Teachers mentioned that they also considered the quality of accommodation, transport options, living and working conditions, proximity to family, and student well-being.

What can teachers do if they do not get any monetary incentives?

Teachers explained that those in urban areas can find additional work through tutoring or jobs with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Meanwhile, teachers in rural communities can earn money through farming.

  1. The availability of basic facilities and working conditions shape the willingness of teachers to change school

In Sierra Leone, the availability of facilities such as electricity and water strongly influences the preferences of some teachers. Here, we found that several teachers wanted to relocate to areas where they could access better working conditions, more transportation options, and a wider range of things to do in their free time. Similarly, a handful of teachers proved reluctant to relocate to a more remote area because of a lack of facilities.

How should the government staff schools with limited resources?

Many participants said that non-payroll teachers and teachers with children should be prioritised for placement in schools with good conditions. Importantly, teachers on payroll were perceived to be in a better position to manage poor working conditions.

  1. Teachers identified professional development opportunities as an important factor in decisions on where to work

Most teachers demanded more in-service training to build their pedagogical skills and improve their instructional practice. Notably, many teachers asked for training to come in the form of teacher learning circles and workshops. Meanwhile, the majority of non-payroll teachers prefered training that offered certificates to secure a regular salary.

Moreover, teachers said that those with limited or no experience — especially newly qualified teachers — need to be placed in schools with plenty of opportunities for professional development. In turn, more experienced teachers could help train, encourage, and support other colleagues. 

  1. Relationships within the school and with the community significantly influence the desire of teachers to relocate

A desire to be close to family and community networks underpinned the preferences of some teachers, especially non-payroll teachers. Some respondents, for instance, described how family commitments — child care, providing sustenance — would stop them from moving to another school even if the government offered monetary incentives. 

Similarly, established relationships with the community motivated teachers to stay at their assigned schools. Some teachers, for example, told us that they would like to remain in a community where they knew their neighbours and felt recognised.

  1. Schools expressed a demand for a gender-balanced workforce

Sierra Leone had the sixth lowest share of female teachers in the world in 2020. Here, schools in hard-to-reach areas are less likely to have female teachers than those in urban areas.

During the project, school leaders consistently noted that they aspired to a gender- balanced workforce. If schools had more male teachers, they asked for more female teachers while schools with more female teachers would ask for more male teachers.

In practice, these demands by school leaders are often rooted in gender stereotypes. One school leader told us female teachers are better suited to manage younger classes as they are ‘mothers’. Meanwhile, another school leader wanted to hire more male teachers as, according to them,  they can control difficult children.

What are our next steps?

In the future, we will launch a survey on school choice preferences with teachers from across Sierra Leone. In doing so, we aim to validate our findings at a national level.

Afterwards, we will work with the Teaching Service Commission to use these findings to design, test, and evaluate a GIS-supported approach to teacher allocation in Sierra Leone.

Do you want to know more about this research? If so, you should check out EdTech Hub’s web page on GIS-supported teacher allocation.

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