Don't blame teachers for failures

Blaming and shaming South Africa’s schoolteachers will do nothing to heal the country’s dysfunctional education system.

Teachers are themselves part of a society marked by deep wounds and they need urgent government and other support, not vilification. These were key points that emerged from the inaugural session in April of the “Teachers Upfront” series of dialogues.
A collaboration involving Wits University’s school of education, the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education, the education NGO Bridge and the Mail & Guardian.

The series aims to support teachers as the key agents in quality education. Dr Mamphela Ramphele, formerly vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, celebrated what she called “a noble profession” when she delivered the keynote address to about 100 educationists. She recalled her own most influential teachers—her mother, her father and her science teacher in grades 11 and 12, who was responsible for her passion for science and her choice of medicine as a career.

Our dysfunctional education system is one consequence of a “deep woundedness in our society”, she said. Apathetic and self-destructive behaviour throughout society, at individual, community and civil service levels, is a symptom of the wound—one inflicted by apartheid’s rupturing of the connectedness that defines us as human beings, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s failure to tackle the socioeconomic infringement of human rights.

Many teachers too are so deeply wounded that they cannot function, Ramphele said. Healing circles at schools to find ways of re-establishing lost connections would be one way of supporting teachers, rather than blaming and shaming them.

Yael Shalem, professor in the Wits school of education, developed this when she spoke about teacher morale. Four variables are beyond the control of teachers, she said.

  • “Access to learners who are cognitively well prepared for schooling, are physically healthy and whose homes are a second site of acquisition;

  • “Meaningful learning opportunities in the past and in the present and a reservoir of cognitive resources at the level of the school;

  • “A well-specified and guiding curriculum; and

  • “Functional school management that mediates the bureaucratic demands on teacher time.”



Between 60% and 70% of South Africa’s teachers do not benefit from any of these four variables, Shalem said. “We must therefore challenge the commonly held view that school failure is a result of teachers’ inefficiency,” she said. Rather, it is time to flag “the intractable pattern of inequalities produced by the close association between children’s cognitive development and family poverty, adversarial market conditions, bureaucratisation of teachers’ work and a radically new curriculum”.

Phumi Mthiyane, a teacher at Realogile Secondary School in Alexandra, Johannesburg, was the third and final formal speaker. Drawing on her experiences in a challenging township school environment, she attributed much of her success to a teaching mindset that is “open, humble and willing to change”.

The Wits school of education had involved Realogile Secondary in “an inspiring project” that included Mthiyane spending two weeks at secondary schools and a university in England. Wits research projects based at her school have made new resources available, including training and support.

For her, “the role of teachers is to be an inspiration to learners” in the face of challenges that include the fast pace of educational and social change, as well as the personal difficulties faced by many teachers such as HIV/Aids, debt, loss of motivation and working in dysfunctional schools. “We deal with angry learners who fight every day due to anger from home. Boys can’t be disciplined by a male teacher because he represents a father who is not around,” she said.

Mthiyane made a plea for mental health services: “We need an in-house psychologist in each school for issues arising every day with our learners.” One suggestion that many present at the session endorsed was to inundate the media with positive images of teachers to counter the blighting perception that they are not committed.

Also raised was a review of the state’s resource allocation to ensure that the necessary prioritising of dysfunctional schools does not inadvertently incapacitate middle-category schools by under-resourcing them. The current school curriculum reforms involve a content specification strongly directed from above. This could remove from teachers the most interesting part of their work and further demoralise them.

There should be space in the system for teacher-led development driven from within rather than stipulated and required from without. “Fear does not make us work; being inspired does,” Mthiyane said.

This is a shortened version of an article first published on April 8 in the Mail & Guardian

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