I am often asked how my job in administration at a mission school in Ethiopia impacts the bigger picture of missions’ work, as well as why I don’t share more about my work. Below is a way to put what I do in context within a mission organization and vision. As to why I do not write much about the specifics of what I do, it is that most people find my work boring or the thought of it overwhelming. Administrative work has a special gifting I’ve been told, just as teaching a kindergarten class would not be my gifting!
Administrative work in a mission school is planning, implementing, and communicating the procedures and systems of the school, for staff, students, and parents, in light of two main difficulties faced in developing countries. That is recruiting and retaining qualified staff and keeping the tuition at a rate that is affordable to the communities that the school was established to impact and support.
If we look back at the history of many of mission schools, they were established at a time when mission work was becoming a priority for Western churches. Mission schools were not the focus but a result of the growth of missions and missionary families. These families needed education for their children and local schools were either not available or not equipped to provide the education needed for missionary children to re-enter the school systems in their home countries.
For this reason, missionaries in the early and mid-1900s sometimes left their children halfway around the world when they followed their call into missions. As the value of education became more of a norm, mission organizations started to build and staff boarding schools to fill this need. The mission school in Ethiopia was one of these boarding schools and mission children as young as 7-years-old were brought to the boarding school, going months without seeing their parents.
Today, the value of the family unit has meant that most missionaries are no longer willing to put their young children in boarding school. New mission organizations are creating partnerships with established mission schools around the world to ensure that the children of missionaries will have the quality education that they need when returning to their passport countries. Homeschool programs have also provided additional options for families.
This brings us to the struggles facing mission schools which all relate to the need for education. In Ethiopia, the public school system is far behind what we have in the West. The rate of population growth however is much higher, which means that the government cannot keep up with the demand for education, and in turn with the number of schools or teachers.
Government schools are free for all Ethiopian children but with few resources schools may run two shifts with as many as 50 students in a classroom, putting immense strain on teachers and the limited resources. Due to this, private schools are in high demand. There are new private schools opening every year, and these schools run from very basic to those managed in partnership with foreign governments for the children of diplomats. The costs of these schools are all across the board as well, from a few hundred dollars per year to many thousands per year.
Mission schools cater to the children of missionaries and others working in missions, as well as local church families, and then admit local and other foreign students to fill the limited slots available. Mission schools generally always offer a foreign-based curriculum, which is accepted by the schools and universities in the Western countries that the students come from or want to go to. Often this is the Cambridge curriculum (UK based), which is the most transferable based on the demographics of student populations from around the world.
Finding qualified teachers locally who can teach foreign-based curriculum (especially if it is not locally used) can be very difficult when there is such a shortage of teachers in a country struggling to upgrade its level and systems of education. Finding foreign teachers is also not easy, especially as most mission schools do not provide a salary (and only some in country benefits).
Because these schools were started by missionaries for the mission community, support raising for staff has been their business model. The need to raise support to receive a salary causes some recruits to back down or sends current staff back to their passport country earlier then planned, to complete a home assignment to raise more support, or to leave the mission field completely.
Yet mission schools are also not able to pay for foreign staff to come and fill their staffing needs as that would result in a huge increase in tuition, which would mean that the very families and communities they seek to support would suddenly no longer be able to afford the school fees. Thus, turnover of foreign staff at mission schools is very high. Some leave for family reasons, some are moving onto other things in other countries (or in the same country), and some are no longer able to meet the demands of a full-time job and the work of support raising, alongside the regular commitments of family. Turnover during these Covid years has increased as well.
Administrative staff are affected by all these aspects of working at a mission school. Preparing and updating the handbooks, work manuals and policies, that keep the school running, but also recruiting and communicating with new staff, which is more intensive when bringing people from around the world, as they must gather the documents needed for the visa, work permit and residency requirements in advance of arrival in country. Once in country, new mission staff go through onboarding not only of school and work, but also cultural orientation. This is of course an ongoing process, but introductions about cultural dos and don’s and expectations, as well as the basics of how to get around, where to shop, finding a church and what to expect if you need medical care start from day one.
Education opens doors and provides opportunities. This applies regardless of where you live or what your level of income might be. All parents desire to provide their children with the necessary education to succeed in life. Mission organizations have long been involved in supporting the development of education. In turn, when you support the staff member of a mission school, whether they are a teacher or a administrative staff, you partner in the learning of children and the opportunities that their education provides.