/ 26 September 2007

The crisis of teaching

The majority of public schools in our country can be regarded as sites of a moral panic that highlights criminality, vandalism, bullying and violence, as well as ‘drop-out” and academic failure.

Middle-class kids experience an education that is largely unchanged in terms of quality and resources from pre-1994 practices, but there is evidence that working-class and poor kids, who attend public schools in the township and rural areas of South Africa, are increasingly alienated and disaffected.

The majority of their teachers are confused and angry because they are being asked to do the impossible: to bear the brunt for the non-delivery of a quality mass education system for all that was the promise of the new government. And this they are expected to do for a salary that places a qualified teacher on a par with semi-skilled or untrained workers in the labour market.

In the climate of Gear, which reflects contemporary international fiscal politics, there is an emphasis in educational policy on individualism, accountability, choice, competitiveness, managerialism and vocationalism that favours individual capacity versus the public good. Public education finds itself in a profound crisis as the schools for the disadvantaged are broadly expected to compete on equal terms with middle-class schools. In the process the public good is largely neglected.

Teachers are the messengers and deliverers of new policies that are promised to be in keeping with the ideals of democracy, equity and redress, but the reality of delivery is far from the promise. In general the relationship of teachers to the new policy regime is complex and contested.

The new policies are not directly connected to the teacher’s own experience and ‘common sense” understandings of what a ‘good education” is — either in terms of their own educational backgrounds or in terms of their experience from years in the classroom. Few teachers have the general educational background to deliver progressive conceptions of classroom practice adequately given their own experience of unadulterated teacher-centred or textbook-bound classrooms and largely rote learning pedagogy.

Planned and informed ‘constructivist” teaching assumes a great deal with regard to the teachers’ educational background and skills, and if those skills are lacking it leaves the teacher without legitimacy and the learners without structure. Formal knowledge does matter!

Unstructured and unplanned ‘progressive education” robs our youth of the elements of literacy and numeracy that they need for the lives of empowered adults in a modern society and lacking in the skills that might find them a place in the job market.

The new policies cast teachers’ roles in technological terms. They are seen as ‘delivery agents” of a pre-planned policy that they had no hand in shaping. Aside from that, teachers have not been adequately trained for the new policies. If they have had training, it has taken place in short workshops that assume a technical formula will be adequate to equip teachers for the complex tasks necessary for teaching in new and innovative ways. But the new policy initiatives require massive injections of educational resources — in terms of specialised teacher skills, school resources, books, libraries, laboratories, extra or specialised classrooms and so on — if they are to be viable and promote effective learning.

These policies also necessitate a flexible policy with regard to teacher/student ratios in public schools if they are to have any chance at all of succeeding. Of all the reforms implemented since 1994, not one has dealt with this issue despite the fact that it represented a major element of the critique of apartheid education.

All this is taking place in an educational environment that has been starved of new recruits for nearly a decade. Some reports argue that there is currently a shortage of 35 000 teachers nationally. Teacher bursaries were withdrawn nearly a decade ago on the misguided assumption that South Africa had an oversupply of teachers (bursaries have been reintroduced this year, although in limited numbers and only for certain subject areas).

The closure of the colleges of education in 2002 led to a massive loss of staff and expertise from the area of teacher education for which we will all have to pay the hidden costs over time. The new innovation of assistant teachers is a band-aid strategy to cover up the degree of crisis that exists in many classrooms.

If progressive notions of education, which were celebrated during the era of Peoples’ Education, are to have any chance of success it is essential that schools and teachers be placed in positions to make critical decisions about the nature of classroom and curriculum practices. To dictate such practices from above is to court disaster.

To assume that underprepared teachers can deliver educational programmes based on conceptions of progressive education in simple and easy terms is to misunderstand the complexity and the challenges of meaningful classroom teaching, and the particular challenges of working-class schools and children where teaching is as much about personal relationships with students as it is about ‘delivering knowledge”. Indeed it is the gross underestimation of the difficulty of the task that teachers face that lies at the bottom of the crisis we are facing.

And it is a crisis, to be sure — not just because we seem to be facing a new era of industrial action in this sector, but because teachers, who are the custodians of our youth, are widely alienated from the public and the government they serve. Many of them are also alienated from the union that is supposed to be their mouthpiece — as it is so deeply implicated in the cause of their problems as a result of its status as a key member of Cosatu in the alliance partnership — that any real criticism and meaningful debate over policy is inhibited.

The teaching profession is in profound crisis because teachers are angry and consider themselves to be undervalued and underpaid. Teachers are the most maligned, frequently criticised, widely misunderstood and grossly underrated professional group in our society. They have not been given a substantive chance to be heard when it comes to establishing priorities and setting goals for policy reform. Yet they are blamed when things go wrong.

There is wide agreement on the basis of international research that top-down policy solutions, which seek to bypass teachers, and the complex problems of peda-gogy and human relationships in schools are not going to bring the desired results. Equally, policies that neglect teachers’ know­ledge and insights are not going to work. External managerial solutions to these problems and the manipulation of teachers’ work from outside the schools are deeply damaging to schools, teachers and students.

There can be little doubt that if we do not address the cause of alienation and disadvantage in our schools we will bear the consequences in terms of increasing alienation of students from schools and education, escalating drop-out and crime rates, substance abuse, intergenerational unemployment and entrenched poverty.

Unfortunately the issues that were on the table in the industrial bargaining chamber between the teacher unions and the government during the recent strike seemed to entirely neglect these substantive educational policy issues, which are fundamental to the education of our future generations, and favoured traditional, short-term, direct wage negotiations.

‘As we sow, so shall we reap.”

Peter Kallaway recently retired as professor of education at the University of the Western Cape. He is the editor of The History of Education under Apartheid: 1948 to 1994 (Cape Town, Pearson Education)