SD Education Leader Tours African Schools

Sep 6, 2016

South Dakota’s Secretary of Education is reflecting on a recent trip to Africa. Melody Schopp is set to be the next president of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and she went to Malawi last week through the US Department of State.

Schopp says students in Malawi learn in huge classes or groups outside, and they don’t have bright, colorful classrooms like she sees in South Dakota. She says she saw this while touring African schools.

"And what’s really striking is that there’s really nothing in them. It’s just blank walls, little paint, desks. In the private one, there was electricity but no running water. But in the government one there was no electricity and no running water, so you think about those types of conditions," Schopp says. "Even more so to know that the children, to come to the school, often times had to walk – you know, there’s no public transportation for them to come – anywhere from an hour or it might be even more than an hour to get there."

Schopp says she can’t shake the experience of watching young boys try to sell mice so they had money to eat and having children crave the clean bottled water she carried.

SD Education Secretary Melody Schopp with children in Malawi during her Summer 2016 trip to Africa.
Credit Courtesy Melody Schopp

She says teachers in Malawi make little money, but people in the United States can consider how African communities view educators.

"Teachers are viewed with a lot of high regard and respect, and this is something I continually hear from educators across our state and across the nation – that the honor and the respect of the profession is waning over time," Schopp says. "So they have the same conversations about how we make sure that our educators are receiving that."

Schopp says few of South Dakota’s education strategies translate to educators who don’t even have enough books for students. She says it’s difficult to transpose American teaching strategies to Malawi’s education system.

"A big push in South Dakota that I’m really passionate about is personalized learning, meeting kids where they’re at. When you’re dealing with a huge class size – and I am not exaggerating. I mean, I didn’t talk to any teacher that had less than 100 students per class," Schopp says. "To even think about how we interact with our students here or to think about technology is just really beyond any sort of expectations. You know, if you don’t even have a textbook to take home, how do you even come down and have those interactive conversations with them."

Schopp says extreme poverty influences education in Malawi. Hear how and learn more about the experiences she brings back to South Dakota during an extended interview posted below.