My unforgettable 7 years of work at Lira Town College

In late June 2012, I came back from Gulu University, with all my belongings after finishing the 3-year Bachelor of ICT study programme. Actually, I did final exams in May but had to stay because of financial issues, final year project issues, and personal ambition. I wanted to try to get work in Gulu, West Nile or Karamoja. It didn’t work out, the only remaining option was to return to Lira or Dokolo.

After arriving in Lira, I had to get something to do & had 3 places in mind – All Saints University Lango (since I had been reading there during holidays), Lira Town College (because my two siblings were studying there) and Dr. Obote College (my former school).

On Monday, July 02, 2012, I walked to town to kick-start my job search. I had 3 applications for 3 target places. I had already made up my mind to travel to the village after dropping off my applications. I started with ASUL, up along Obote Avenue (Lira’s main street). They declined, though they said they would have loved to have me since they wanted to start the department of ICT. No problem, I continued to Lira Town College.

At Lira Town College, I met the Headteacher, Ms. Acen Sophia Rose. After a brief discussion about my competencies (about 10 minutes), she told me I could take me & start work. That very day. I had to cancel my journey to the village immediately.

First Assignment-processing results

My first work assignment was to compute student marks for the whole school. I still don’t know how I managed to do that. Imagine marks for about 2,600 students. That was in July 2012. In early August, I then took over as ICT teacher for A-level. It was only one class (S.5) because the curriculum was changed that year from 4 Principal subjects & 1 subsidiary subject (G.P) to 3 Principal subjects & 2 subsidiary subjects (GP & ICT/sub-maths). So, the opportunity I got was also partly because there was an institutional problem to manage the change. In fact, many schools did the same – hired IT or CS graduates to teach the “new, complicated” subject.

From IT to Education

One would wonder how I managed to teach, yet primarily I was not trained as a teacher. While I in A-level, I admired teaching a lot (I was a “teacher” in discussion groups) and wanted to be a teacher of English/Literature. The other options I wanted was Mass Communication & IT (because it was the in-thing). In spite of this desire, I was unable to get government scholarship to do my education course. I then changed my mind to do IT, the in-thing then. Resultantly, choosing to study IT didn’t rub off the desire for “teaching”. I think that is why I was able to stay longer, even when I got many opportunities that would have halted my “teaching”. Today, most people actually think I studied education, and they call me “Apwony Emma” (Teacher Emma or Mwalimu Emma). I became a teacher by practice, not qualification. Train on job kind of arrangement. I believe that qualification just gives us the foundation to kick start our careers.

Working with diverse Students

For the 7 years I was at Lira Town College, I met very many good students. And I love the diversity in that school. It has students from all over the country & abroad (South Sudan of course). It has a good social mix – biggest number of adult students, Muslims, students with disabilities, the urban poor, the rural poor and Indian students. It is culturally very diverse, with many ethnicities and languages.

Also enjoyed involving students in tech activities, and together, we won quite a number of awards. Even after leaving school, we have always kept in touch, and many of their parents are my friends. I like that.

Recognition from outside school, not the school

In the first 5 years, I was very dedicated to my work. My work in class and other tech activities brought me some awards and recognition at various tech events. I was featured on TV, newspapers and radio many times. I was made an Examiner, gained respect and my social status reputation improved. I became a role model for many young people. However, I was never ever acknowledged or recognized (in private or publicly) for anything. Very ironical but I don’t feel bad. It was always that this is not working, this is wrong. And bla bla bla. But that’s life. Most times we don’t appreciate what we have, and admire what we don’t have. What mattered for me was the impact my efforts had on students & respect from the community. It is very uplifting & fulfilling to know that your effort has propelled someone’s career. That your little help opened other opportunities for them. And that you made a difference in their lives.

Diving into STEM & national recognition.

In a school with about 2,600 students and 100 teachers (right now), it is difficult to get the attention of the boss. There is a lot of drama involved in getting this attention. Some people spread rumours, lies or buy the boss something – just to get their attention (and some favours as well). For me, at first, I would overwork, so much. Sometimes I would go home at 11:00pm. I would work sometimes 16 hours a day to beat unrealistic deadlines. In spite of all this, I didn’t get any attention or recognition. But kept working no matter. The turning point came when one day, left school, passed by supermarket to buy some groceries (sugar, bread etc.) and went home (ate something and slept). The following day I rushed to school again. More work. More work. Then one day I opened my bag and saw sugar that I had bought many days ago. I bought, forgot to remove it, carried it in my bag for days. I realised that I was overworking so much so that I did not have me time (on the other hand, it also saved me from many challenges that come from being youth). I did not have life after work. After that incident, I cut off most work (secretarial work), focused only on class & tech projects. My life came back to normal.

In 2013, together with students, we won our first tech award (Robotics). We were featured in newspapers & TV. We were good. That moment made me focus more on getting national awards & recognition, not school recognition (it was not coming). That meant doing many things differently, different from other teachers. That made me closer to students, but farther from my colleague teachers. I stopped pursuing money (it never came to me). I pursued excellence & recognition outside. The following year we won ACIA, pioneered with Technovation Challenge, Africa Code Week, HIVOS Social Innovation awards, Biotechnology Essay writing competitions. We got full board into STEM. We did any tech project we could find. All was good. We competed against the best schools in the country, and many times, we beat them.

All these came with awards, recognition & popularity. Unfortunately, funding for these activities were cut off, leaving me with no choice but opt-out.

What was not possible?

I kind of feel uneasy that during those 7 years, many good ideas were never implemented. My aim to make Lira Town College the best school when it comes to use of technology. The teaching was good, however the percentage pass in computer studies & ICT were averaging at 30-38% (not so good). I was not the only one with this not-so-good statistics. I still feel some kind of guilt. I was not successful in making management adopt to use school management system, school-wide e-learning system and website (I hosted a school website for 2 years on my account). I was also not able to fully make the computer lab a centre of excellence (community learning & innovation centre) and procure all-year internet access for students & staff.

Returning for school and putting self

In 2016, when I made 30 years, I had a moment of reflection. One of the things that came to my mind was that, I had worked for 5 years, but didn’t have anything to show for it. It seemed like for I was working for the school. Nothing for me. I was part of “young teachers” paid by the board (not on government payroll). The money – let me not talk about that. It was only good for bachelor. That changed in 2017. I now had a wife. But also, we lost dad (January 2017) and was made heir to family. That is huge responsibility. I made a decision in that in the New Year (2017), I would still be working in school, but I would focus on my myself. Circumstances change people. Experiences change people. I needed new thinking. I decided to return to school for Masters, and as they say, when you join another road, it takes you to another destination. The Masters class opened my mind. My wife also opened another part of my mind. We work so that our families are fine. And family includes children! That’s the point.

With the loss of dad, the going back to school, and family life, the year went by very fast. But within the year, I won the 2017 Teachers Making a Difference award, and that opened more doors. It made it possible for me to travel abroad –for the first time. My aim then was to finish masters and cross over to university. I had started my journey out of Lira Town College.

Many teachers, many friends & solidarity

One of the things I loved most from Lira Town College is the solidarity that the teachers have. Many are very dedicated to their work and are generally free with each other. They are also ambitious. It is only at Lira Town College were you can find teachers in school all year round –everyday – even on Christmas day. To most of us, the college is like home.

Headteacher, the good & the bad.

The Headteacher, Ms Acen Sophia Rose has done a good job. After the mismanagement that occurred over the years (including during the 20-year insurgency in the north), she has managed to put most things right. From the time she came to Lira Town College, she has done many things. New structures are many, student enrolment is up & good teachers are in place. But just like most leaders, there are bad things that she is blamed for. I take the view that one person cannot be blamed for all the problems in society. There are many socio-economic & political issues that invade Lira Town College, considering that it is within an urban area. As a person, I choose to complain less, and work hard instead. For the rest of my life, I will always remember her for giving me the opportunity to serve and trusting me at the time at was just 25 years, with no experience. I know she will also remember me for having remained faithful & staying longer, even when opportunities knocked on me.

When will studies stop?

My decision to return to school in 2017 has brought both good luck and challenges. I have traversed places I didn’t know I would reach. But above all, I have been to many universities – Mbarara University of Science & Technology (2 weeks only), UTAMU (4 semesters), Uganda Martyrs University – Rubaga (1 ½  months), Kampala University (not admitted) University of Delaware – U.S.A (6 weeks, Mandela Washington Fellowship) and now here at University College Cork, Ireland (1 year). When will studies stop? Definitely after that PhD.

What’s the next plan?

When I return to Uganda next year, I will be playing with children at home and do some agriculture as I look for the next opportunity. I will end with this quote from William Ayers that; “Teaching is an act of hope for a better future. The reward of teaching is knowing that your life has made a difference.” End.