TEACHERS in state-run urban schools are now selling sweets and other items of confectionery clandestinely to their pupils during school breaks to augment low salaries as they try to beat r
ising transport and living costs. But school heads are unhappy with this unusual practice.
The pattern compromises community efforts to raise funds for other administrative purposes from school tuckshops. Local school development associations run the small shops, often built within school premises, to generate funds for developing and maintaining school infrastructure.
Picture two nine-year-olds haggling in the school grounds over the price of a sweet during the mid-day break. One is anxious to accomplish an errand to sell all her sweets and endear herself with the teacher while the other believes she can force the price down by threatening to buy a similar brand of sweets at a cheaper price elsewhere within the school premises.
Picture too the teacher, sitting apprehensively in an empty classroom, either counting out her remaining stock of sweets or twiddling her thumbs nervously, wondering whether she will raise enough money for her bus fare back home and for the return journey back to work tomorrow.
Pauline Mlope (not her real name) always carries a leather bag to school with a pouch of sweets, neatly tucked among books and other teaching material. “Our school head and his deputy do not approve but what else can we do? It is either they look the other way while we sell or we run short of money for fares to and from work. It is the children’s education which will suffer most,” she says.
Mlope says it is embarrassing and degrades teachers’ status in the eyes of the children who take their instructors as role models.
“Selling sweets to pupils puts us in the same league with vegetable vendors on the streets. The situation does not inspire our students to aspire to become teachers at all,” she says.
Charmaine Khupe, another teacher at a school in the Gwabalanda working class suburb says: “Teachers cannot afford to buy even the cheapest type of cars from the meagre salaries they earn. Neither can most of them afford to buy houses of their own.”
“If you see a car parked at any of the schools here it is either a visitor’s or it belongs to a member of staff whose spouse is employed elsewhere,” complains Khupe, who says she has been teaching for the past two decades. She says teachers at private schools fare better than those at government ones.
Some urban teachers face the added disadvantage of being without homes of their own because their salaries fall far short of criteria for home mortgages set by most banks, hence they end up being lodgers, who are often at the mercy of landlords.
They have become objects of ridicule from some of their pupils whose parents own houses where teachers have taken up lodgings.
Teachers in Bulawayo briefly went on a nationwide strike last month demanding double the basic salary of $670 000. The Zimbabwe Teachers Association (Zimta) accused government of reneging on earlier promises to increase teacher’s salaries in phases. Current salaries fall far short of the minimum income recommended by the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, which says a food basket for an average family of five now costs $1,4 million a month.
In January this year teachers called for a 600% wage increase to keep salaries in tandem with rising inflation.
Matabeleland-based Zimta secretary-general Dennis Sinyolo said of the strike: “Our members have been patient, hoping something would come out of negotiations, and now feel their trust has been misplaced.”
Last week, the Portfolio Committee on Education, Sport and Culture recommended that government immediately review the salaries of teachers when it discovered that the ministry had only spent 27% of its budget allocated for salaries.
In a report to parliament, the committee said investigations had shown that teachers in Zimbabwe were the least paid compared to other professionals in the civil service. It noted that although the allocation for salaries for both primary and secondary education amounted to $1,8 trillion, halfway through the budget year only 27% of this amount had been spent.
“Your committee is concerned that the ministry under-spent while remuneration for teachers is too low. It should be noted that teachers are the only skilled professionals who are not taxed since their income falls short of the taxable income band,” the committee report said.
Over the years since Independence in 1980, the Education ministry has traditionally received a lion’s share of the national budget but working conditions and remuneration for teachers have continued to deteriorate.
The parliamentary committee recommended a review of current salary levels “so that they are commensurate with the importance attached to teachers, especially their new category as skilled workers” saying the issue of remuneration for teachers has been dragging on for a long time.
The committee also recommended to the government that it should consider giving hardship allowances to rural schoolteachers where most are accommodated in ramshackle houses that they often share at nominal monthly rentals to the district rural councils.
Despite the low remuneration in the profession, each year thousands of young Zimbabwean school leavers throng training colleges for limited places to train as teachers owing to the scarcity of job opportunities because of a shrinking economy. Training as a teacher guarantees graduates a ready job.
Preference for training at government institutions is given to applicants who have undergone paramilitary courses at national youth training centres.