Don't blame teachers for failure
Blaming and shaming South Africa’s schoolteachers will do nothing to heal the country’s dysfunctional education system. Teachers are themselves part of a society marked by deep wounds and they need urgent government and other support, not vilification.
These were key points that emerged from the inaugural session last week in the “Teachers Upfront” series of dialogues. A collaboration involving Wits University’s school of education (which hosted the session), the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education, the education NGO Bridge and the Mail & Guardian, the series aims to support teachers as the key agents in quality education.
Dr Mamphela Ramphele, formerly vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, celebrated what she called “a noble profession” when she delivered the keynote address last week to about 100 educationists. She recalled her own most influential teachers—her mother, her father and her science teacher in grades 11 and 12, who was responsible for her passion for science and her choice of medicine as a career.
From them she learned about taking responsibility, striving for excellence, what it means to be a leader under tough conditions, compassion and ubuntu, Ramphele said. Teaching is about “pushing students to the threshold of their minds” and being a teacher is about “giving of one’s faith and love”.
Our dysfunctional education system is one consequence of a “deep woundedness in our society”, she said. Apathetic and self-destructive behaviour throughout society, at individual, community and civil service levels, is a symptom of the wound—one inflicted by apartheid’s rupturing of the connectedness that defines us as human beings, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s failure to tackle the socioeconomic infringement of human rights.
Many teachers too are so deeply wounded that they cannot function, Ramphele said. Healing circles at schools to find ways of re-establishing lost connections would be one way of supporting teachers, rather than blaming and shaming them.
Yael Shalem, professor in the Wits school of education, developed this when she spoke about teacher morale. But she noted first that we should avoid talking about teachers as a homogenous category—there are not only race and gender differences but also vast socioeconomic inequalities in South African society at large.
‘Dual economy of schooling’
The work of teachers in well-resourced schools differs intrinsically from the work in impoverished areas. Shalem stressed that a “dual economy of schooling exists between those children who have a second and third site of knowledge acquisition”, such as access to books and the internet at home or tutorial support, and “those children whose only site of learning acquisition is the school”. Four variables are beyond the control of teachers, she said.
- “Access to learners who are cognitively well prepared for schooling, are physically healthy and whose homes are a second site of acquisition;
- “Meaningful learning opportunities in the past and in the present and a reservoir of cognitive resources at the level of the school;
- “A well-specified and guiding curriculum; and
- “Functional school management that mediates the bureaucratic demands on teacher time.”
Between 60% and 70% of South Africa’s teachers do not benefit from any of these four variables, Shalem said. “We must therefore challenge the commonly held view that school failure is a result of teachers’ inefficiency,” she said. Rather, it is time to flag “the intractable pattern of inequalities produced by the close association between children’s cognitive development and family poverty, adversarial market conditions, bureaucratisation of teachers’ work and a radically new curriculum”.
Phumi Mthiyane, a teacher at Realogile Secondary School in Alexandra, Johannesburg, was the third and final formal speaker at last week’s inaugural session. Drawing on her experiences in a challenging township school environment, she attributed much of her success to a teaching mindset that is “open, humble and willing to change”.
The Wits school of education had involved Realogile Secondary in “an inspiring project” that included Mthiyane spending two weeks at secondary schools and a university in England, including where she learned new teaching methods involving technology. And Wits research projects based at her school have made new resources available, including training and support.
In addition, Alex FM, a community radio station, has given the school a weekly discussion slot every Tuesday at 5pm. To prepare for these, learners serving on the school’s representative council of learners research issues facing teenagers and parents such as discipline, and pornography on cell phones. Participating in these radio slots teaches learners valuable lessons about community involvement, Mthiyane said.
For her, “the role of teachers is to be an inspiration to learners” in the face of challenges that include the fast pace of educational and social change, as well as the personal difficulties faced by many teachers such as HIV/Aids, debt, loss of motivation and working in dysfunctional schools.
“We deal with angry learners who fight every day due to anger from home. Boys can’t be easily disciplined by a male teacher because he represents a father who is not around,” she said.
Mthiyane made a plea for mental health services: “We need at least one in-house psychologist in each school for issues arising every day with our learners.” And she stressed that teachers’ own needs and personal circumstances must be attended to—without that, teacher development is impossible.
“We must be aware we are role models for our learners because learners can fail to listen to us but they can never fail to imitate us,” Mthiyane said. The discussion that followed these speakers attested to the complexity of a teacher’s role and how difficult it is to transform the profession’s image.
One suggestion that many present endorsed was to inundate the media with positive images of teachers to counter the blighting perception that they are not committed. The country should also have a national TV channel dedicated to improving teachers’ content knowledge and profiling excellent teaching practices.
Also raised was a review of the state’s resource allocation to ensure that the necessary prioritising of dysfunctional schools does not inadvertently incapacitate middle-category schools by under-resourcing them.
The current school curriculum reforms involve a content specification strongly directed from above, the discussion heard. This could remove from teachers the most interesting part of their work and further demoralise them.
There should be space in the system for teacher-led development driven from within rather than stipulated and required from without. “Fear does not make us work; being inspired does,” Mthiyane said.
Katalin Morgan is managing editor of the journal Education as Change and publications and design consultant in the faculty of education, University of Johannesburg.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer at Bridge, an NGO that links educationists (www.bridge.org.za). The next “Teachers Upfront” dialogue will be held at the University of Johannesburg on May 31. For more info, call 011 559 3503