Poor schools can get a head start
South Africa’s education system is a “national catastrophe” and a “crisis”, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga declared earlier this year.
The minister’s troubling assertion was the point of departure at a recent Teacher’s Upfront seminar. Yet, whereas the minister spoke of “pockets of disasters”, the seminar sought to explore a different take on the education system – stories about creative initiatives that have led to successful schools.
Three champion educators addressed key issues relating to school leadership and teacher development and the effect they have on effective schooling.
Siphiwe Mthiyane, a senior lecturer at the school of education at the University of the Witwatersrand, opened the dialogue with a keynote address that highlighted the importance of effective school leadership, a prerequisite for high-quality education.
He presented his research on school leadership practices that have worked in some of South Africa’s most impoverished areas. He drew attention to five schools in rural areas near Durban, which, despite operating in severely deprived areas, are performing at levels comparable to those of functional schools in well-resourced communities.
Mthiyane said the key is leadership – “a school stands or falls on its leadership”. His research yielded findings on several successful school leadership strategies, from the benefits of decentralised decision-making to the value of in-house professional development.
His data highlighted the importance of monitoring teaching and learning. A vital component of effective school leadership is leading what goes on in the classroom, he said. “How are you a leader of a school if you don’t know what is happening in the classroom?”
A panellist, Anthea Cereseto, the principal at Parktown High School for Girls, also flagged building a culture of classroom observation as an important initiative for teacher development specifically, and school development more broadly.
Cereseto described the practice of peer observation among teachers at her school and linked it to the improvement of teaching and pedagogical skills.
She highlighted two areas of teacher development that need critical attention: the crisis of inadequate teacher content knowledge and novice teachers’ limited practical experience.
Cereseto said student teachers “shouldn’t get out of the university system until they have adequate knowledge”. Teachers must possess “subject-specific pedagogical know-ledge”, and “more time should be spent on the practical aspects that new teachers need to know when they get into the classroom”.
She advocated longer practical training and better supervision, a view shared by Sean Nkosi.
Nkosi, a postgraduate student and writing centre consultant at the Wits school of education, offered some ideas on how preservice teachers could be better trained and prepared. He said there is a disparity between what new teachers are taught at university and what they are expected to know when they graduate.
He called for “more room to apply what has been taught” and “stronger relationships between schools and universities” to ensure that preservice teachers are given ample opportunity to practise their teaching skills in the classroom.
The role of empathy in the development of teachers was another pivotal focus of the session. Nkosi spoke about conflict management in schools and about how often in
cases of conflict the focus is “often on the learner who is seen as the victim and the teacher is often the perpetrator”.
The constant casting of teachers as offenders, he said, is a common source of anxiety among new teachers, who fear they will not be supported by their schools.
Nkosi added that a significant part of teacher development is learning to manage conflict by teaching teachers to relate to their pupils effectively.
As an educator, recognising differences in teaching and learning styles, as well as being able to connect with your pupils, is vital to ensuring a positive outcome.
Cereseto gave an enlightening take on the issue. She described the disciplinary practice at Parktown High as a process of “restorative discipline”, not “punitive discipline”. This form of disciplinary action, she said, focuses on “maintaining good relationships and not adversarial relationships between learners and teachers”.
Aubrey Ngobese of the Eastgate Primary School gave a public school teacher’s perspective on healthy teacher-pupil relationships. She described her pupils’ difficult and impoverished backgrounds and stressed the role of the teacher as counsellor. “Our kids come from dysfunctional families and it is my job to offer guidance and bridge the gap.”
Importantly, pupil psychosocial support is recognised as a key component in building a healthy learning environment. This support may be understood as a continuum of positive relationships, which sees the development of transformational leadership skills in school leaders, who then encourage the development and training of teachers (both new and veteran), who in turn build and support trusting relationships in the classroom.
The needs of the child, this dialogue’s overarching focus, should be addressed at all levels through the development of the school as a whole organisational system.
Sound school governance and leadership, ensuring teachers have a good understanding of curriculum changes, increased subject and practical knowledge, and nurturing a positive ethos between pupils and teachers are all markers of the successful schools that were under discussion.
Sarah Lubala is a knowledge manager at Bridge. The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education