Farewell, and thanks for the tea bags

There’s been a lot for me to reflect on in the last while. It’s not just that it’s the beginning of another year and so a time for new resolutions and all that. It’s also because I am moving on from the Teacher.

My first story in this newspaper appeared back in June 1997 when I was still working as a freelance journalist. All in all, I’ve been at the Teacher full time for seven years, first as sub-editor, then reporter and finally editor.

It’s certainly been a learning curve and a privilege in my last role as editor. But what I’ll remember most fondly about my work here are the many journeys I’ve been on around the country in search of stories. For budget reasons, in my first excursions I would usually be alone with my camera, often sleeping in the back of my bakkie at camping sites (so if I looked quite rumpled when I arrived at your school, now you know why).

Besides the stories I found, what I experienced on these journeys will always stay with me. Whether it was farm schools in Tarkastad or Olifantshoek, rural schools in Mojaji or Matatiele, or upmarket religious schools in city centres, what they all had in common, almost without exception, was the warmth with which school communities welcomed me. Stranger that I was, teachers would freely give of their time, their thoughts and their scarce tea bags to share a thing or two about their lives.

These experiences of meeting so many humble and courageous educators have been invaluable to me. Often I left the most ramshackle and impoverished of school environments feeling humbled myself by the almost superhuman perseverance shown by teachers who continue to give their best in spite of lacking just about everything. It would give me a particular sense of outrage on their behalf when certain politicians branded teachers as lazy drunks.

It was also a heartening demonstration of how kind the world and the people in it can really be, in thankful contrast to the picture of a brutal, crazed society the media constantly paint for us.

But as I looked through the past issues of the Teacher — as far back as 1996 when it first published — something else struck me. Year after year, the education system has been struggling with much the same issues: the divide between rich and poor, an overambitious new curriculum and pedagogy, few opportunities for teachers to improve their skills, shocking gaps in support structures, struggles with discipline — Yes, the same unhappy list with which most teachers are horribly familiar.

There seems to be some recognition in the education corridors of power that both OBE and C2005 for the General Education and Training (GET) band were close to disastrous experiments. Although there’s been no official acknowledgement of this (much less a public apology), the National Curriculum Statement (NCS), coming into the Further Education and Training (FET) band this year, quietly backtracks from some of the approaches that defined those designed for the GET band. For one thing, the Department of Education is doing FET teachers the favour of being very specific about content — avoiding the chaotic scenes that plagued the lower grades for years as teachers grappled to work out what exactly was expected of them.

The new senior certificate exam, due to be held for the first time in 2008, is also being held up as an exit exam of higher standards than the present one, which hopefully will have the effect of improving the general credibility and value of the matric exam. Whether 10 years of poor quality education in the GET phase can quickly be rectified in the final two years of school remains to be seen.

But the NCS is one of several positive developments that continue to give me hope that our education system will successfully see through the hard times. I also take heart from the more candid approach to education problems from Minister of Education Naledi Pandor. It’s preferable to the cocky spin- doctor approach of yesteryear because, as most would agree, if you want to fix a problem, you first have to admit there is one.

As far as the future of the Teacher goes, I know it to be a gallant little newspaper with a big identity of its own that still has a way to go before it reaches its full potential. I have become a subscriber and will be keeping a beady eye on the world of education through its pages (the new editor has still to be appointed, but keep watching this space).

I will continue to be involved in print media and education in my new job, but for a different set of newspapers. So, until we meet again, thanks for the memories — it’s been great.

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