After the strike: Where to?

Now that we have embarked on a great public sector strike led by teachers, it is time to assess not what was achieved — for that is primarily a labour relations matter — but the damage and impact on education.

Let me say upfront — it would be nice to see the day where teachers go on strike over the state of education, poor outcomes and unacceptable inequalities rather than pay packages. It would be nice too to see unions try a more imaginative range of tactics, to march on Sundays, to go on a hunger strike, to drive motorcades around the district office, rather than consider the damaging strike as the only weapon they have. It would be nice to see teachers march alongside NGO, Equal Education for books and libraries.

That said, one has immense sympathy for teachers. All over the world, strikes happen; who are we to say this one was wrong? It may be a disaster for education; it is not the end of the road.

Every day we put the fate of 12-million young people in the hands of 385 000 teachers. Do we give teachers the honour and respect due for such awesome responsibility, holding the future generation in their hands? Teaching is far from the ‘noble profession’ of which the ANC spoke of in its Polokwane resolution.

Poor pay
Teachers’ pay is poor. The Occupational Specific Dispensation was poorly applied: promises of improvements vanish as junior officials intensify paperwork rather than offer support, and negotiators seem more interested in balancing budgets than a decent wage.

Conditions in schools mean they are seldom nice places to spend a day. For many teachers, a staffroom is a luxury. On the tiny corner of a desk, paperwork must be completed; evidence files must be maintained; difficult children must be counselled and advised; and teachers must eat their lunch. Toilets for teachers are sometimes disgusting pits overflowing inside a plastic hokkie that leans dangerously to one side.

Shortages of facilities and equipment that impact on pupils also affect teachers. About 10% of schools have internet connections; maybe 8% have a functioning library. Even the one-laptop-per-teacher scheme requires teachers to fork out more from their own pockets than they receive in subsidy. Housing subsidies are almost a joke.

Teachers have been poorly trained. With a history of low-level mathematics in our dual education system, surprise surprise, there are not huge cohorts of well-trained mathematics teachers waiting to be deployed.

Resolutions taken at the teacher summit a year ago — for increased coordination amongst training institutions/universities and the teaching profession — are taking painfully long to emerge into public space. There are urgent district improvements and teacher support that is not reflected in actions or budgets yet.

Our education outcomes are almost the worst in the world. Pupils don’t get the basics of maths and literacy. They fail at matric and university. These aspects take on a racial dimension, with township and rural kids performing the worst.

No wonder teachers are demoralized and want to leave. Funda Lushaka bursaries and efforts of organizations like Teach SA are only tips of an iceberg that must still turn around to attract fresh talent into the profession.

Teachers and their unions fall into victim mode. Some regions of the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union sound desperate to strike, panting in public for so-called militant action. We hear other regions wash their hands of deep rural kids because of the ‘unfair legacy of colonialism’.

‘Start with our realities’
There are cases of principals threatened and moves to ensure that union officials or pals get the jobs. There is too much direct politicking in education and too little leadership and politics of public participation by the poor.

This current situation is the only one we have; these pupils and communities are where we are today.

We must start with our realities and work the situation as it is. While there is much wrong to fix, if we never rise above our circumstances we will never learn to fly.

This doesn’t call for miracles or a singular silver bullet that will solve it all. The only magic is at the coalface of learning, where teacher meets pupil and the intellectual assets of our nation are nurtured to grow.

Any teachers’ strike threatens results and outcomes, threatens to add instability and to deepen mistrust between departments and teachers or principals. Support of parents and the community could well vanish for years to come.

Maybe this is the lesson of the teacher strike. We need to improve pay and the working conditions of our teachers for education to be the national priority we want.

We also need to move on, to focus on our schools and books, to learn and teach as best we can, and together to find solutions so we can truly fly.

Graeme Bloch is author of The Toxic Mix: What is wrong with SA’s schools and how to fix it

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