A Discussion with Mateus Elias Messa, Professor and Adjunct Pedagogical Director, St. Ignatius Loyola Secondary School, Tete, Mozambique
With: Mateus Elias Messa
June 21, 2017
Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Fellowship, in June 2017 undergraduate student Harshita Nadimpalli interviewed Mateus Elias Messa, a math professor and adjunct pedagogical director at St. Ignatius Loyola Secondary School (Escola Secundária Inácio de Loyola, ESIL), a Jesuit secondary school in Mozambique that primarily serves disadvantaged rural students. Messa outlines the dynamics and challenges of teaching Portuguese to students who are inclined to speak their local language and discusses the student experience at ESIL.
Can you please tell me your name and about what your role is in this community at ESIL?
My name is Mateus Elias Messa, and I’m a professor at ESIL. My bachelor’s degree was in math and physics, which I completed at the Pedagogical University in Manica, and in addition to being a professor in this school, I am also the pedagogical director.
What is your role as the adjunct pedagogical director?
The role of the adjunct pedagogical director is to control the part of the school pedagogy—how to give classes, how and which professors give which classes, basically this.
And what do you think differentiates a Jesuit education and separates it from other schools that may be secular or government schools? Do you have examples to show this? How does the Jesuit education affect the culture and mentality of the youth here?
I started working as a teacher last year, and this is my second year here, so since this is my first school, from what I perceive, there is an advantage and comfort for students and us here in this school. Each professor is well prepared for his or her area, and there isn’t too much interference, because at some other schools there are many interferences from the political government, etc. But here we are only concerned with the educational area, and I think that is something that is really positive. I think there is also a difference in the rigor. We are concerned with rigor, and we aren’t worried about whether a student retains the information so much as we are with knowledge. In other schools, I think maybe the control is a lot less. At the end of the year, the students have to have something to put in the teacher’s hand; otherwise it is difficult to pass the class. Here, thanks to the influence of the Jesuits, this isn’t happening, and we are thankful for that. This is one of the big differences from other schools. Also, the teachers that are here are here to assist during the obligatory study time for the students, whereas at other schools they are not there during this time and are doing other things, so this is another thing that ESIL does well [compared to other schools].
What do you think are distinct challenges or opportunities that indigenous students face in the local education systems?
One constraint I think students have is the boarding house. Many live far from the school, and the boarding house doesn’t have the capacity to absorb all of these students. They live in neighboring villages with others in places that might not have favorable conditions for a student to be comfortable. They are without potable water, without energy, and have to use a lantern at night to see and study. So this is a big challenge that our students face. Eventually we hope to grow to a boarding house that can hold about 90 percent of the students at this school. Because until now we have about 50 percent or less who are in the boarding house.
Academic challenges—sometimes we have a lack of didactic materials and the quantity of material is less, especially with Portuguese learning materials, because the students have to learn Portuguese, so the issue of the Portuguese language is something serious and also has an effect on other [academic] disciplines. The classes are held in Portuguese so if they don’t understand Portuguese it is difficult to understand math, history, or whichever other discipline. So I think that the idea that the school is advancing needs for students to advance at home, and it is not an easy solution and requires the professors contributing their time [outside of class]. We are planning to give extra classes in the free periods when the students don’t have class. If a student takes classes in the morning we will give extra classes in the afternoon, and vice versa. So basically a student will always be occupied with studies, which will positively contribute.
Do you speak Chichewa?
I have a lot of serious problems speaking Chichewa, but I can understand what is being spoken. My province is Manica, which doesn’t speak Chichewa. It speaks Tewe, Shona, and its own language, Cibalke. It diverges a lot from this language, so that’s a huge challenge for me to be able to understand Chichewa. At least now I can understand Chichewa, although it is hard to communicate. Sometimes when I'm in my office people will come in who don’t speak Portuguese, so it’s obligatory for me to adapt and use Chichewa.
And since you don’t speak Chichewa, do you think it is difficult to teach [in Portuguese] to students who don’t understand Portuguese well?
Yes, I have serious difficulties. First speaking as a teacher of math, many of the students come from schools where they have gotten to the eighth or tenth class without any basic mathematics. Math is like a house—without a good base, it is difficult to raise it. Consequently it will not last a long time. So these students cannot move to the tenth class without having the knowledge of math they need from the eighth class.
Do you think there is a difference in your teaching ability from those who speak Chichewa and can explain to students in Chichewa?
Well, there are very few teachers here who speak Chichewa. There are few natives. Probably only about five. I would say at least 60 percent of the teachers do not speak Chichewa. No, I don’t think there is a difference.
For example, let’s say we are solving an equation and trying to find something like the least common denominator. Not knowing those basics make it complicated.
So with this language barrier you’ve mentioned, how does ESIL try to resolve this?
First, we try to perceive and understand the problems. And every 15 days or twice a month, the teachers sit down and discuss the reality of the students and the teachers and our integration in this school. This is something that we can overcome. At other schools there isn’t this same coordination. This is something that we have discussed in these meetings, and the teachers are willing to give extra classes to deal with this challenge.
What do you think is the role or progress of ESIL’s integration into the community in this area?
I think as a teacher, the relationship is good. I think it is healthy to always be in communication, and we have the materials we need. So I think there is a healthy communication right now.
What does social justice mean for you?
I think it is an ambiguous expression, but I’ll try to explain how I perceive social justice, in this case in an educational area. I don’t think I’m a philosopher, but my point of view is that it is a form of government in which our own students and people have an opportunity to contribute to the school’s functioning.
Do you have an example of this sort of participation that has occurred at ESIL?
In the short time I have been here, there has been a lack of dictionaries for English. The noise about this issue arose from the students themselves, who presented this problem to the term director. And through this information, it came to me, as the pedagogical director, and now we are working to get more dictionaries so they are sufficient for the students we have. It was a sort of verification that we are listening to what they say.
And who is the term director?
It is a teacher who is chosen based on some criteria. It is a teacher who teaches this term so they are familiar with how it works, and he is like the “father” of the term. No matter what program arises, before it reaches the pedagogical director, before it reaches the school director, the first person who has knowledge of a problem is the term director. Normally the term director will be presented with a problem during the break between classes that is 45 minutes long, to see, weekly, how to improve the functioning of the term, in a meeting with the students in charge of their class.
Which of these concepts is most important to you in your work here—education, social justice, religion, or development?
I think they are interconnected concepts, but I give more weight to education, because everything that you listed above can contribute in our education. So I think education is the central point.
Why did you choose to work in education?
It was my dream for a long time to be a teacher. I’m a teacher because I’m a person who likes to always be in communication with others, and in this area we are always in communication with the students and are always learning and truly always speaking to them. I think that scientifically I am growing. You have to have a lot of patience and always be growing.
Can you share with me a moment that inspired you in your time here at ESIL?
One thing is the way that professors are treated here. When I first arrived here, I was surprised to see how they treated young professors, too, in the first days of class. One week later, I was asked to take the position of adjunct pedagogical director. It was an expression that helped me to see students, professors, and the educational experience aside from age, and people were patient and helped me to understand many things. Until now I’m still learning, so at first it was very difficult, but now it is better to fill this position.
How do you think you personally, as the adjunct pedagogical director, contribute to the vision of the school?
It’s certain that the role of being the adjunct pedagogical director is not easy. As the person who has to be the connection between the professor and student, I have to observe how the students are doing, and if they are good, how professors are giving classes, the strategy and methodology that the professors use to help our students. If something goes wrong I have to see if it’s on the part of the professor [not teaching well] or on the part of the student. I have to work directly with the teachers and I’m always in the class, helping someone or the other. It is not easy work.
How do you think that ESIL can continue to improve? Whether it is criticism or positive feedback?
I think ESIL is a young school, and comparing it to a math graph, it is growing exponentially, and that is a great happiness. To contribute to a good environment in ESIL, one thing is the area of teachers and employees—they should have access to dignified residences where their families can live and they can live with their families. Because to study, or to work, right now I am away from my family. Family is really far, and sometimes we need to satisfy certain necessities. I think psychologically, this worry and preoccupation can reflect negatively in the classroom. So I think that having houses where families can live will result in excellent work for the professors.
For the students, as I said it related to the boarding house, and having all of the students here to facilitate our work with them.
Do you see a difference between students who live in the boarding house and those who have to travel each day?
Yes, I do. There is a great difference between boarding students and traveling students. Due to the conditions, these [traveling day] students don’t have energy, they can’t read…sometimes the students in the boarding house act like children, because to study, there has to be some kind of pressure. For the students who come from far, there isn’t anybody who is giving them this pressure. In the boarding house, however, there is a lot of time when they have to sit and study that is obligatory, but it is something that is beneficial for their own futures.
Is there a difference between the boarding students and other students in Portuguese language speaking ability?
The difference in the level of perception and speaking—I agree that there is a small difference, yes. Because here we have a union of students from different places, and in the boarding house there are students who don’t speak Chichewa. So be able to communicate with others you have to be able to speak Portuguese. So in this way they improve their Portuguese. An example is that this year we had a student in eleventh grade who practically couldn’t speak at all in Portuguese in the first trimester, and now after being in the boarding house, in the second trimester, the student can express better and respond to questions. So this shows that the boarding house brings some advantages.
How does ESIL try to reinforce the Portuguese language through academic programs while also permitting the cultural preservation of each student’s native culture?
I think in trying to preserve the culture here, some songs and church things are conducted in Chichewa. In class Portuguese is mandated, but if students speak Chichewa on the patio [or outside of class], there is no punishment. In classes, they can’t speak Chichewa because there are professors who don’t understand Chichewa, so to avoid any problems there, they have to speak Portuguese in the classroom. I think this is one way we are showing that we are trying to preserve the Chichewa culture. Also in extracurricular activities, the students show traditional dances of this culture, so I defend that there is a cultural preservation here. Because this is my first school I don’t have a good reality of other schools, but as a student who passed through other schools, at the school where I completed eleventh and twelfth grades, speaking the Portuguese language was an obligation. Outside of the classroom also—if the teacher found you speaking something other than Portuguese outside of the classroom, there would be a problem. The punishment was cleaning the bathroom, or something like that.
Culture is something extensive. So with dances, traditions, we value that.
Do you think there is a resistance on the part of students to learning Portuguese?
There is a high level of resistance because the students are always speaking Chichewa. There are very few times that they are speaking Portuguese out of the classroom.
How did the colonial and civil wars affect this area and education here?
The civil war had gone on for 16 years and after that the phase had ended. But recently, we have had some noise and military confrontation that resembles war in 2015—a serious and major noise. Luckily, our school was not attacked, but it shook up some neighboring communities. It didn’t arrive here because we have the idea that ESIL is not concerned with politics, and we are only worried about education, not politics, and we don’t mix the two things. That is one of the things that probably helped is escape this and kept us away from it. But I will say that in this moment we live with fear—in a neighboring community nine or 10 kilometers away, some politicians were held and killed. Very close to us. So it is a phase that we are in fear. But luckily all of this political noise doesn’t effect ESIL too much, and the students feel safe.
Did it affect your family personally?
Yes, mainly my parents, who are in the center of the province of Manica. They were living in rural areas and were obligated to abandon their fields and farms, and that’s how they were affected negatively. For them this was a hard moment, and for me too, because in 2015 when these problems came up my wife was living with my parents, and I had to make arrangements to visit them monthly, and it was a risk. I was working here knowing that my family was in danger. So that was a moment that was a bit difficult.
If you could change the education system without any limitation, what are two or three things you would change about the education system in the country?
In general terms for the country, some things I would like to change for quality of education are that teachers are more autonomous in their educational area so that they feel more valued. There are some schools that are not worried so much about the performance of their own students and teachers. They do superficial work just for the sight. They are too worried with the percentage of students who must pass their class, and they are not worried about the knowledge the students acquire. If a professor gets a slightly lesser result but is concerned with the [real] learning of his students, this professor is criticized: "Why are you doing this? You need to pass these students." So professors adulterate and tamper with the grades, and invent them, and the moment they do this, they lose motivation to work in the classroom. This significantly affects the quality of education in our country. So for us to change this point, I think the central educational administrators need to create a way for the teachers to be more autonomous and value their power.
What do you think is the future role of Jesuit education in this region and country?
I think in the province of Tete, this is the only community school—a school that is separate but works in the national system of education. I think that the Jesuit system of education and policies should be a point of reference on the district and provincial and national level. In the time I have been working here, the comments that come from outside are really good feedback that set it apart from others. Another thing is that professors feel and work comfortably here. In other schools they feel a great weight. I think this [Jesuit education] is a focal point of good development of our country and of each individual person in this case. So I think continuing like this and the things we do, in acquiring scientific knowledge but also the correct formation of a person with the correct societal values, will be a positive thing. The students learn how to do something, and in this province and area in general it is very common for students to finish the twelfth grade and are unable to enter university or move forward in a way that is helpful for them. So here we are not just teaching them math or science, but also something they can take forward with them in the agrarian area. We teach them agrarian techniques and creative things such as how to be self-employed. So this is something important that differentiates us from other schools.
Is there anything else you would like to share that you think would be useful for me to know about these topics?
I think it would be really good for students from other schools and places to have an exchange with students here to learn from. In the past year we had the opportunity to compare our educational policies with a foreign organization, and we discussed some points that we could improve on, and I think we grew quickly after that. So I think we can use people of good faith who are interested in an educational experience or exchange with us at ESIL.