Teaching ELT in Challenging Contexts: An Interview with Harry Kuchah Kuchah

The year 2016 was a golden year, with TESOL celebrating its 50th anniversary and educators across the globe making a difference in their classrooms and communities. It has been a honor for me to share some of their stories with you and highlight their unwavering commitment to the field. I am delighted to close the year with a very special interview with Harry Kuchah Kuchah. Inspired by the wisdom and intelligence of his great grandfather, Harry wears his name proudly. His best practices stem from his experience as a student himself of large classes in Cameroon, which has translated into a mission of embracing students as partners in teaching and learning and empowering teachers to become agents of change.


Harry Kuchah Kuchah

Harry Kuchah Kuchah (HKK): Currently I am at the University of Bath as a lecturer in TESOL and applied linguistics, but I still do a lot of teacher development work in Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in Cameroon, and Ghana and I have also written some materials for the British Council, Certificate in Primary English Language Teaching Programs in South Africa. I grew up in Cameroon, and I went to school in classes similar to where I do my research. That experience is what made me the teacher practitioner and researcher that I am today.

Sherry Blok (SB): What is the ELT landscape like in Cameroon, Harry?

HKK: The landscape is a huge range of things—the good, bad and the ugly, and in fact, the very, very ugly. You will find elite private schools with fewer children than state schools, but the tuition is very high.

In terms of state primary and secondary schools, large schools are a common phenomenon. Even in the capital city of Yaounde, where there are supposed to be lots of civil servants and lots of schools for children to go to, you would still find schools that have same features with schools in most remote parts of the country. For example, less than 800 meters from the Ministry of Education in Yaounde, there is a practicing primary school (attached to the teacher training college). This is supposed to be a top notch primary school but you’ll find no resources or textbooks.  That is partly because of government policy in the late 1990s [and] early 2000s to give free primary education, but this policy was not matched with the provision of appropriate and sufficient infrastructure and resources.

SB: What are some of the contextual realities of teaching large classes in Cameroon?

HKK: When I started teaching secondary school in the far north of Cameroon, my smallest class consisted of 147 students and my largest class had 235 teenagers. Imagine, these classrooms were built for 60 students, so students were quite cramped in. In my class of 235 teenagers (which for me, is the best class in my life) we had only 19 textbooks, so it was not possible to use the textbooks. I obtained permission from the authors to photocopy the books and I encouraged my students to copy the units. But it didn’t work because they not only couldn’t afford it, but also many of my students had to walk distances of more than 7 km to come to school in the morning. The realities of many state school classrooms in Cameroon include large under-resourced and multilingual classrooms because of the more than 250 local languages spoken in the country.

SB: Would the use of technology resolve some of those issues of limited resources?

HKK: Technology is a no-go area. You won’t find that in state schools. The rhetoric about technology is very huge, and there is a lot said about that. The basic things we take for granted in the West, are so so far from the realities in the types of contexts in which I work. State schools have no computers; even where there is a lone computer, electricity supply is not always regular. Mobile phones are still not accepted in the school environment, yet policy rhetoric claims we are in a digital age.

SB: You mentioned the class of 235 students was your favourite class. Why?

HKK: It was my favourite class because I think it is that class that made me who I am today and the reason is . . . the desperation of not being able to cope with the students, but also out of the fear of being [labeled] as a failure in the very beginning of my career, I had to develop different ways of approaching my students, which entailed negotiations with them to resolve problems together that were very glaring to us. These students helped me develop my ideas about what I have come to call a pedagogy of partnership.

SB: In your work, you have referred to embracing learners as partners as a strategy to cope with teaching in challenging circumstances.

HKK: Yes, that’s right. The best thing I did in my whole career was to turn to students rather than to colleagues and ask for solutions to our challenges. That is where I discovered that we can learn a lot more when we look at our students as the key stakeholders in this business of teaching and learning. We need to value the unique contributions of what our students bring to the classroom.

SB: Can you give us an example of how your students got involved to resolve issues you were facing as a teacher?

HKK:  Since there was a lack of textbooks, I engaged my students in a process to help me find different materials in English. Thus, we ended up developing our own materials. I encouraged them to bring in anything in English and think carefully [about] how we could use those materials for classroom activities.  I became a teacher who was looking at the curriculum goals and matching them to the materials the students were bringing to me and encouraging students to create their own materials.


A Pedagogy of Partnership

SB: With the students’ best interests at heart, your act of desperation to use student-developed authentic materials while teaching large classes in challenging circumstances evolved into your doctoral research. What was your focus?

HKK: I was looking at teacher perspectives of what consists of good and appropriate teaching practices in difficult contexts but also looking at children’s perspectives and experiences through narratives of their English lessons. In some of the groups, the children said they didn’t like a lesson because the text was “so not cool and the pictures are old fashioned.” The students explained that if the teachers asked them to write their own texts, they would have written more interesting texts. In my research, I found the students could come up with better texts which were more interesting [and] level-appropriate, but also, they generated comprehension questions that were far more challenging if you look at them in terms of Bloom’s taxonomy. They were at a very high level of cognitive ability compared to the questions asked in the textbook.

If learners are encouraged to contribute to teaching and learning by providing or developing materials which they think are cool and reflect on how best these materials can be digested in a language classroom, we would have some real ideas that would help us to be relevant to our learners, and that, in a sense, motivates them.

SB: One of the biggest challenges in teaching language in difficult circumstances is space and the opportunity to do learner-centered activities. How did you cope with this challenge?

HKK: Since the classroom was very small in the north, I would have very little space to turn, so I came out after my lesson with chalk all over my body because I was standing so closely to the chalkboard. Because of the high temperatures reaching close to 45 degrees Celsius, I stood by the door to get some fresh air. I soon discovered that more and more some of my students came late to class so they could stay outside and follow the lesson through the window because they felt I was more interested in those who are outside than those who are inside. Then, more and more my students started coming late and the number of students outside was getting larger than the number of students inside and so we had to discuss this issue together.

The resolution was to move two of our three sessions a week outside under trees. Because it was a predominately Muslim community, they were used to saying their prayers in the sun under trees. I divided my class into 23 groups of 10 teenagers each under trees, so I could move from one group to the other while each group was doing a separate activity . . . . In the third session, we would meet in class and we would share what was happening in those different groups. That is how it worked.


Embracing Learners as Partners

SB: Not only have you identified students as important stakeholders in ELT in Cameroon, you have also done the same work with teachers. How have you tried to empower teachers in Cameroon, shifting from seeing them from a deficit perspective to see them as important stakeholders in education?

HKK: Policy makers tend to blame teachers for not doing their job properly if new approaches (often donated from international organizations or foreign countries) fail, so teachers are often devalued in Cameroon. Putting teachers and learners at the center of the discourse and encouraging dialogue between policy makers and teachers allows teachers to contribute their best practices to enhance teaching and learning and puts more value on teacher identity. If we encourage teachers to reflect positively on their own practices, and to listen to the voices to their children, they can pull together a pool of principles and practices that work in their classrooms. There is nothing better in a school than a proud and happy teacher. My research has centered around generating best practices in context and encouraging teachers to collaboratively engage with their own narratives of successful practice critically and reflectively. Teacher associations, by their very nonhierarchical nature, offer ideal communities of practice for this to happen.

SB:  How can a bottom-up approach through teacher association research bridge the gap between policies adopted for English language teaching (ELT) contexts with limited resources?

HKK: In 2013, Richard Smith (University of Warwick) was invited by TESOL International [Association] to lead a TESOL symposium in Cameroon, and he presented to CAMELTA [Cameroon English Language Teachers Association]. Out of his visit, we developed something we called teacher association research: a collective approach to developing best practices through research in context. At the end of Richard’s session, we asked 188 teachers to write down three research questions they would want to [ask] related to their teaching if they had the time and means to conduct research. We collated the data and we found many of the questions related to classroom challenges, and they are now available on the CAMELTA website. The top priorities are motivation, low resources, low student proficiency and teacher continuous professional development. With this initiative, a group of teachers within the association are becoming more involved in conducting classroom-based research, which not only leads to teacher empowerment but also has potential to facilitate more informed policies for the ELT context in Cameroon.

Further Reading

Kuchah, K., & Smith, R. C. (2011). Pedagogy of autonomy for difficult circumstances: from practice to principles, International Journal of Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 5 (2), 119–140

Smith, R., & Kuchah, K. (2016). Researching teacher associations, ELT Journal, 70(2), 212–221.

Kuchah, K. (2015). An interim report on the CAMELTA Teacher Association Research project (progress report), ELT Research, 30, 33–36.


About Sherry Blok

Sherry Blok
Sherry Blok is the assistant director of programs at the Centre for Continuing Education, Concordia University. Montreal, Canada. She holds a master’s degree in second language education from McGill University and has more than 20 years of experience as an ESL lecturer in the intensive English program at Concordia University. She received the TESOL Teacher of the Year Award in 2015 and has presented nationally and internationally on topics related to English for academic purposes, global citizenship education, assessment, and teacher feedback.
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2 Responses to Teaching ELT in Challenging Contexts: An Interview with Harry Kuchah Kuchah

  1. Manjusha Sagrolikar says:

    Teaching to large classes is the challenging situation in many parts.This interview is inspiring for those who have large classes.But school management won’t allow teachers to take the students out of the class as it is un managable or uncontrolled they think.Thanks for this interview it made us to think.

  2. ARJUN DHAKAL says:

    This is very interesting to know about Cameroon and education scenario.More interesting thig is that this is ver much similar to Nepal and Nepali education in the field of ELT

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