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Educatin’ on empty: Strained salaries threaten student success

The widening gap between teacher salaries and the rising cost of living in Ethiopia has become a significant source of stress for many educators. With teacher pay remaining stagnant for years and limited incentive programs, merely getting by has become a struggle, leaving little room to focus on professional development and improving skills in the classroom.

Andinet Gebrekidan, a 34-year-old teacher at Misrak Goh School in Addis Ababa’s Kazanchis area, has taught high school and preparatory students for nearly 10 years. For him, the essence of teaching lies in motivation and high standards – without which, delivering quality education is difficult.

However, Andinet’s dedication to teaching is now threatened as he faces growing frustration about his career prospects. “Students are also reluctant to learn unless the teacher is passionate about the subject,” he said.

The major challenge for teachers like Andinet and many others is the widening gap between earnings and costs of living.  With teacher salaries stagnant for years combined with Ethiopia’s limited incentive programs, finances have become a stress point.

Meanwhile, inflation has raised the price of essentials while shortages make supplies hard to find – leaving instructors struggling just to get by rather than focus on improving their skills.

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Andinet earns a 9,000 birr gross monthly salary. But costs in Addis, especially housing and commodities, consume most of what he makes, he says.

“The reality is, no matter our efforts, potential for financial gains remains constrained. Like many colleagues, I now face serious economic hurdles. Rising prices paired with meager rewards for our work have diminished motivation for many educators,” Andinet noted.

With teaching often associated with financial constraints that limit career progress, frustration over compensation has affected morale among teachers and, in turn, students.

Andinet’s struggle reflects larger issues facing Ethiopia’s teaching corps. Multiple instructors who have dedicated their careers to the profession voiced similar frustrations with compensation and benefits and are considering other paths.

Stakeholders argue that prioritizing teachers’ effectiveness and contributions through support is critical, given their role in developing the next generation. As Ethiopia undergoes political and educational reforms, many argue that supporting teachers is paramount to ensure quality education. 

Over the years, the government has taken steps to boost teacher welfare and nation-wide education standards.

The General Education Quality Improvement Program for Equity (GEQIP-E) launched in phases focused on learning enhancement at various levels.

Initiated in 2008, phase one centered on resources like textbooks while phase two, initiated in 2013, targeted quality uplift through educator development. In 2019, phase three of the program was introduced, centered on marginalized groups’ learning and equity promotion.

However, challenges remain that require additional efforts to resolve fully. Administrative measures like pay bumps, housing assistance and benefits have aimed to better working circumstances.

To address housing needs, residential projects were initiated by the government and salary adjustment policies implemented. Various policies to raise salaries with the goal of attracting and keeping talented instructors in the education system, have been formulated.

Teachers Association president Yohanes Benti noted the body has advocated for teacher interests for over 50 decades, starting with housing demands.

“It’s important to note benefit issues differ from curriculum changes. Even when curricula change, benefit questions remain relevant. While the administration began addressing these issues following demands, challenges still persist,” Yohanes says.

The Association has worked toward solutions for two decades but the government has only housed 110,000 educators to date despite the late Prime Minister Melese Zenawi initially receiving their requests.

In 2016, the Addis Ababa City Administration Education Bureau granted approximately 5,000 teacher’s condominium houses in the capital. There are over 700,000 teachers under the Association’s umbrella, with even more unaffiliated educators.

Despite efforts, gaps remain.

Henok Assefa, a grade 12 teacher at Bole Secondary School since 2007, said the City Admin provides a 3,000 birr housing allowance, which is far below current market rates. Henok also expressed frustration over the threshold of 16 years teaching experience to receive a home, leaving many unhoused.

“Despite efforts to provide housing, allocated homes don’t match the numbers needed,” Henok told The Reporter.

The long-standing issue of salary increments also arises.

Ethiopia established a promotion ladder system in 1987 allowing pay boosts based on performance and education level. Salary hikes occurred in 2004, 2008 and 2011 but demands continue due to rising costs.

The government acknowledges the importance of incentives alongside educational reforms. But Yohanes says, “It is always useful to see incentives combined with changes in government practices.”

While various measures addressed Ethiopian education and policies, its problems are deep-rooted and multifaceted according to Birhanu Nega (PhD), Minister of Education. To effectively tackle underlying causes, he stressed the need for a robust plan to overhaul current poor incentive packages for teachers.

Insufficient financial support and unaddressed demands could negatively influence student achievement and expectations. For instance, the 2023 Grade 12 national exam results elicited mixed analysis and discussion, regarding the sector as a whole. While some linked poorer outcomes to educators, others highlighted resource shortfalls, unmet institutional benchmarks, instability, and instructor competency as contributory factors as well.

Birhanu underscored in an exclusive ETV interview the need to evaluate the education system and teacher performance using varied lenses based on public feedback. He proposed supplemental financial support alongside skills building as a potentially impactful approach for optimizing teacher work.

The Minister stated that “recognizing and rewarding exemplary works with extra incentives could be a substantial lift to morale” while allowing for more manageable expense coverage in supplementing base salaries.

Experts note upgrading nationwide quality education is challenging without proper teacher remuneration, particularly as the administration transitions its strategic focus from access to standards.

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