A delicate balance
If teachers do not demonstrate responsibility, learners’ rights are compromised. And teachers’ rights themselves exist in a framework of clearly defined responsibilities.
These fundamental principles formed the basis of the discussion at the fourth in the series of Teachers Upfront meetings, held two weeks ago at the University of Johannesburg. The series is a four-way partnership between the Wits School of Education, the University of Johannesburg’s education faculty, the Bridge network and the Mail & Guardian.
Teachers should show energy and a sense of responsibility in a profession that we as a society, in turn, have a responsibility to value, the meeting agreed. That would assist teachers in the motivation they need to make a difference by taking personal responsibility for the quality of their teaching.
Muavia Gallie of the Education Management Association of South Africa began the discussion by suggesting that, for the teaching profession to be viewed in a positive light within the larger society, the responsibility teachers owe to both their learners and the profession itself must be evident.
Poor results damage learners’ rights
“If teachers don’t adhere to their responsibilities there should be consequences for their rights, but the system is structured in such a way that this is not the case,” he said. As a result, whereas South Africa spends hugely on education, with teacher salaries taking up a large percentage of this spend, we achieve terrible learner results.
Poor results in themselves damaged learners’ rights, said Renny Somnath of the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union.
“While the social pathologies inherent in the previous system have been changed and we are on the right path with access to education having improved, the lack of quality education means the curtailing of learners’ rights,” he said.
For Somnath, a central role of schools is to educate learners on their rights and responsibilities, and good teaching shows learners how to behave and how to learn. He insisted, though, that teachers need to be supported and motivated in their work and that more stakeholders need to be involved in that.
But rights have also helped create a climate of fear in schools, said Sol Mashiloane, chairperson of the Alexandra Education Council.
“Teachers’ rights have come to dominate the discourse of teaching and learners fear teachers’ rights because of the consequences of teachers going on strike when their rights are compromised.”
Teachers have responsibilities towards learners just as parents do, he said, recalling a time when teaching was seen as a vocation. Because it involved attending to learners’ problems, it used to be taken for granted that the job extended well beyond teaching hours, Mashiloane said.
Context determines quality
The discourse on rights has come a long way, said University of Johannesburg senior researcher Salim Vally. It should be understood to describe not only the right to education but also what kind of education and to what end. Education is about skills, knowledge and values and context determines quality.
“It is irresponsible to have a society where teachers cannot afford proper housing and do not qualify for loans,” Vally said. “It is irresponsible to have poor working conditions for teachers, it is irresponsible for districts in our country not to have district officials or ones who are too overcommitted to do their job effectively and it is irresponsible for teachers not to work with commitment to their profession.”
Those are “core principles” on which all South Africans should unite, Vally said. We need to work collectively to ensure that teaching is seen as a profession with status and we must neither forsake our public education system nor allow education to be commodified.
Illustrating how complex the relationship between rights and responsibilities can be, Anthea Cereseto, principal of Parktown Girls’ High in Johannesburg, said the right of the teacher to dignity could be infringed by learners who are ill-disciplined. At the same time “teachers need to ensure their right to dignity is respected by instilling in learners an understanding of that”, she said.
Good teaching is the best discipline measure, Cereseto said. If that doesn’t work, other measures are necessary—but they don’t always work. Repeat offenders at her school who have accumulated demerits are expected to do community service, but there are some who refuse to do so and some who still owe hours from last year. The education department will not act and so the hands of the school are tied, she said.
Governmental programmes needed for suspended learners
“There are no governmental programmes for suspended learners and this lack of support means that teachers’ rights are compromised. It is disillusioning for teachers when their rights to teach are interfered with by learners who do not behave like responsible students.”
She argued that an emphasis on rights could hinder quality learning and said there are too many young people in South Africa who are alienated by a lack of quality education. The key to turning the education system around is changing the attitude of teachers, she said.
“We have gone too far [on rights] and we are not paying enough attention to teachers’ responsibilities. For example, as a teacher I should be prepared to give up time to get a professional development top-up every so often. I should want to do it and account not to my principal or the head of department, or the MEC, or the minister, but to the learner.
“Teachers’ rights are easier when teachers are doing a good job; rights will be respected when responsibilities are looked after,” she said.
The audience agreed with her that teachers’ rights are now overemphasised but also questioned how realistic we are in how much we expect of teachers. There is much valid criticism of teachers, audience members said in discussion, but how much support do good teachers get from society and the media?
Even our good teachers are becoming tired and demoralised. We don’t value the profession enough; teaching is seen as a last career resort and universities often don’t prepare trainee teachers adequately, contributors to the discussion said.
The meeting agreed that we need to be collegial and co-operative in education and should not expect market principles to operate in schools.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer of the Bridge education network. For dialogue and debate related to the ‘Teachers Upfront’ series, see www.bridge.org.za