/ 2 March 2009

‘Agents of change’

After a month back at school, you have hopefully established your rhythm for 2009. I hope that as you map your year ahead you will think about your role in protecting learners from HIV and Aids. As a competent teacher you can play a key role in HIV prevention.

I know there are many obstacles that prevent mainstream educators from achieving the best results. Some obstacles have been highlighted in the newspapers recently:

  • The shortage of 174 schools in Gauteng;
  • Concern over the shortage of teachers;
  • No classes at a Soweto school because pupils carried chairs and tables to a new building;
  • Some matrics are still without results, despite authorities’ promises;
  • Concern about late registration;
  • Poor education directly linked to the skills deficit; and
  • A dysfunctional system that fails the majority of South Africa’s schoolchildren.

    But what was equally newsworthy was the coverage of the top achievers. Bhukulani Secondary School in Soweto made headlines by achieving a 98% pass rate last year. Its early morning assembly was attended by Gauteng education MEC Angie Motshekga and ANC president Jacob Zuma, who described the school as the “pride of Soweto, the pride of the province and the pride of the nation”.

    I am familiar with this school. The principal has a doctoral degree and runs the school like clockwork. Small groups of grade 11 learners from the school regularly attend the annual Youth Programme at Monash SA, in which I am involved. A few years ago one of its learners made a deep impression on me. She was the compere at an event during the youth programme and proved to be a highly talented and confident communicator.

    But after matric she was unable to study further or find employment. One of her teachers told me she was deeply depressed and struggling to survive. It is a Catch-22 situation when the potential of talented young people can be quashed by poverty.

    Her situation contrasted starkly with that of another exceptional learner, Mpho Mutloane, who excelled at his primary school, particularly at mathematics, and was offered a scholarship at St John’s College in Johannesburg. It was like transplanting a plant from a small plot of ground to the Garden of Eden. At St John’s he was given the chance to grow and excel.

    Mutloane participated in a range of activities. He played basketball, hockey and soccer. He was a member of the bridge club and enjoyed ballroom dancing. He was awarded a Golden Eagle award in recognition of his 130 hours of community service. At the annual speech day Mutloane was awarded the ‘Headmasters’ Cup’.

    In his final year he achieved more than 80% in five subjects. He intends studying business science and received scholarship offers from various tertiary institutions, locally and overseas. He wrote: “I will be eternally grateful for the time spent at such a wonderful school.”

    The two learners stem from poor communities, but Mutloane was given a passport to opportunities. You can’t help wondering how he would have fared if he had continued his school career in a mainstream government school. I am not suggesting that government schools cannot compete with schools like St John’s. But you have to accept that there are weaknesses in the system that need to be tackled.

    Some schools need urgent attention. There is a school in Soweto where the library is little more than a storeroom and a librarian a pipe dream. How can we encourage the habit of reading, so important to academic success, under these circumstances? I taught at a Model C school where learners streamed into the library to collect books that had been bought specifically to suit their needs and interests.

    Later the English teacher, who had been allocated a number of lessons to devote to the media centre, was withdrawn to teach a full timetable of English and a vital resource almost closed down.

    I have seen learners at a township school gather at the gate at noon, “chilling out”, with a long afternoon ahead of them and no sports facilities or extramural activities available to them. A learner at an HIV workshop told me that it was considered acceptable to arrange “afternoon sex” while parents were away at work.

    Two white teachers I met had opted to teach at the school because they knew they would be free to go home every afternoon straight after school to spend time with their young children. This would not have been possible for them at the so-called white schools where every staff member is involved in afternoon or evening extramurals.

    Education should be the door to employment but this is no longer the case. The bleak picture, according to Stats SA, is that half of all matriculants failed to find work last year and already the likelihood of finding work has dropped to 7%, while a quarter million graduates are without jobs. The economic crisis, drugs, violence and the alarmingly high HIV infection rate in the 15 to 24 age group hang over us like a black cloud. Tragically, poverty-stricken areas are also HIV and Aids-stricken areas.

    It is time to recognise that a competent teaching force can serve as an agent of change in society. It is time to appreciate those educators who work full throttle against all odds and expose those who watch the clock. It is time to demand a better deal for our learners. It is time for parents to become involved in the education of their children for, as US President Barack Obama said in a recent speech: “Government alone can’t teach our kids to learn – parents have to teach. Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets.”

    If parents, teachers and the education department lift the standard of education in government schools and enable young people to pursue viable careers, they will find that grades will climb and the HIV infection rate will drop; a win-win situation.

    Joan Dommisse is an educator in the field of HIV-Aids. Contact her on 011 616 8404 or jdommisse@iburst.co.za