I’d like to think of myself as a morning person. I mean, I am a morning person. More or less. As long as I have a cup of coffee in my hand within fifteen minutes of stumbling out of bed and nobody speaks to me in a voice above a whisper for at least an hour, I’m happy as a lark. My teammate David, on the other hand, brings this whole good-morning-sunshine concept to a whole new level. The guy can seriously hop out of bed at the crack of dawn and launch right into a cheerful debate about the ethics of contemporary development research without even so much as a yawning. I’ve acknowledged to myself that, in theory, D’s morning spunk is something that I should really aspire to. Yet, putting the theory into practice is something I’ve found to be more than a little challenging. After all, it’s hard to break old habits like staying up late, drinking too much coffee, and, well, being content with my own solitary grumpiness until at least 8 a.m. For now, I’m trying to change slowly by going to bed at a reasonable hour, but the change is going to be gradual. I doubt I’ll ever be as fast-moving and upbeat as David at 7 in the morning. This week I’ve learned that I’m not alone. In spite of all the differences in culture, food, clothing, and language, there’s one thing that Kenya and I have very much in common: we like to move slowly when we are just waking up to begin work again.

This is the first week in September, which means schools have opened back up for the last term of the year. The academic year in Kenya is divided into trimesters, with month-long breaks set during April, August and December to separate each term. Unlike in the U.S., where students and teachers dive into lessons and activities on the first day of school, here in Kenya schools tend to take a little more time to ease into the actual task of teaching. Generally it takes two full weeks for teachers to actually begin holding normal class sessions with planned lessons. For the first half-month, then, students and teachers move at a drowsy pace, casually easing into their normal school routine as teachers trickle in from neighboring districts and students take their time in scraping together enough change to buy an exercise book and pencil for note-taking.

It’s a serious issue. If schools take, on average, two extra weeks of each school term to just actually begin the task of beginning, that means that their students go an extra one and a half to two full months without instruction every year. When added to the three months of official holiday already allotted by the government that comes out to around five months a year when students are not learning. This may seem like a fairly simple problem to fix. In theory, it shouldn’t take much effort for the government inspectors and head teachers to actually enforce the official start day of the term. But unfortunately, old habits die hard. While most teachers and ministry officials agree that every class hour should be utilized to its fullest potential, most are quick to provide a list of excuses for why their schools have such a hard time starting back up after the holidays: The students need time to trickle in from their shambas (farms). Teachers must have time to travel from visiting their families. Head teachers have to wait on funds from the government to buy supplies. Or, my favorite so far is simply, “This is Kenya.”

In July, Meghan, Francis and I began to brainstorm ways we could begin to break this cycle of sluggish beginnings. We decided that the first group we should work with was the teachers, because they seemed to be at the very root of the problem. After all, if teachers fail to prepare meaningful lessons and activities for their students to participate in, it only makes sense that student attendance would be poor during those first weeks of the term. Thus, we decided to start by planning two in-service days geared towards motivating and preparing teachers to plan for the coming term.

We designated one in-service day for each of the two sub-locations Nuru works in, Nyametaburo and Nyangiti. In spite of current trends in teacher attendance to the first week of school, we decided to set the dates of the in-service day before the official start date of school, because we wanted to establish the importance of teachers being prepared to teach beginning from the very first day. Yet, we knew that the early dates could mean that many teachers would choose to simply ignore our invitation because they were not obligated to be at school during that time. Nevertheless, we spent a good portion of the holiday month preparing for a good turn out. We hired lecturers from the Ministry of Education, coordinated logistics with the schools that would be hosting all of the teachers, and reminded head teachers to inform their staff of the in-service dates, all in the hopes that the teachers would come.

When I woke up on the morning of the first in-service I was nervous about how the day would turn out. In spite of all of our planning, I didn’t know if it would be reasonable to expect three teachers to attend, or upwards of thirty. Yet, as the first lecture began that morning I was pleased to see that we had around 20 teachers in attendance. Not bad! As the morning progressed, another ten teachers or so trickled into the seminar (we still have a lot of work to do on getting people to arrive on time). By the end of the first in-service day I was psyched. We had at least two teachers from every school in the area attend, and almost perfect attendance from two of the four schools within the Nyangiti sublocation. The teachers were interested in the topics addressed by the lecturers and engaged in lively discussion with them about the ideas they were presenting. We held a great brainstorm to discuss innovative ways that Nuru could further promote quality planning before the beginning of the term and, by the end of the day, all the teachers had written lesson plans for the first week of classes. I left feeling like we had taken the first steps towards really addressing the problem of slow term start-up.

Unfortunately, the second day was as much of a disappointment as the first day was a success. I arrived to Nyametaburo Primary School a few minutes before the day’s events were planned to begin. Not a single person was there: no teachers, no lecturers, no headmasters, no NOTHING. I was baffled. Granted, I was expecting a poorer turn-out in the Nyametaburo sub-location than we had seen in Nyangiti because the headmasters were known to be less cooperative and helpful. Still, I couldn’t believe that even the lecturers we had hired from the government were not there, nor was the headmaster with whom we’d spent hours planning for the in-service just the week before.

As I began frantically calling Francis and the ministry to see what had happened I began to piece together the story. Turns out, the ranking officer from the Ministry of Education for the entire province had decided to make a surprise visit to our neighboring district, summoning all ministry employees in the surrounding area to come see him. From what I could gather there was no real purpose for the meeting. It was simply that the most important government bureaucrat in the province had arrived on the scene and all his underlings were expected to come pay their respects. Thus, the two lecturers we had hired to work with us for the entire day decided to drop everything they were doing to attend his special meeting. It had just slipped their minds to call and warn us of their absence.

The headmaster of the school had informed his teachers about the in-service day, and eventually most of the teachers arrived. Of course, most of them came about two hours after we were supposed to begin, but they could hardly be blamed: their boss, the headmaster in charge of hosting the entire event, was more than three hours late in arriving.  A couple of other teachers from neighboring schools also trickled in eventually, but by then we had decided to cancel the day’s activities.  We were already running very behind schedule and the lecturers wouldn’t be there to lead discussion.

The contrast between the two in-service days is quite telling. As the first day proved, there is a lot of potential for improvement in teacher performance when the government and school leaders take the initiative to organize and plan ways to get teachers motivated about their work. Yet, the second day was a hard reminder of how difficult it can be to work effectively with bureaucratic, “good old boy” government ministries and school leaders who prefer the old, comfortable way of doing things. The mixture of success and frustration from these in-service days has shown me that the issues we are dealing with extend far beyond the specific communities we work in. They are systemic. It’s going to be a challenge to break old habits when the leaders at all levels are the ones most reluctant to change their ways. It may seem drastic, but the key might be to simply circumvent the ineffective and unreliable guys in power altogether. That way, we can devote our time and energy to working directly with the educators that truly embrace the idea of improving the educational standards for their students, their country’s future leaders. I hope to be able to find a way to effectively work with these teachers, because they are the ones that can really make the impact here in Kenya in the long run. In the meantime, I am trying not to get too frustrated with the government ministers, hired lecturers and headmasters I am trying to work with. After all, as I am reminded every day when grumpily brewing my first cup of coffee, sometimes it’s hard to hit the ground running and just go. Weeding out deeply rooted bad habits and reshaping age-old routines takes time. We are beginning slowly… but that doesn’t mean we won’t go a long way if we just wake up and keep pushing forward.