Universities are intent on developing competent, reflective, knowledgeable teachers who are ready for the classroom, but the system for which they are being prepared is often not nurturing of and receptive to them — which is all too often the reason they leave the profession early.
This contradiction, which highlights the need for transformative school leadership, emerged last week at the latest Teachers Upfront seminar, the first in the third series of these dialogues. They are hosted by the Bridge education network, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education and the University of Johannesburg's education faculty.
The seminar's theme was: "How institutions are trying to improve the quality of teachers produced."
Speakers focused on the approaches higher education institutions and the Gauteng education department are taking to ensure the quality of teaching through all stages of teacher development, including induction, preservice and in-service training.
Professor Sarah Gravett, dean of education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), leads two research projects commissioned by the department of higher education and training. The projects are focused on the establishment of teaching schools, one of which is already in place at the university.
She spoke about the "case method" of teaching, which allows student teachers to contemplate the variety of ways in which the unpredictable unfolding of teaching happens.
The "cases" are real-life stories written by teachers about events in their lives and present actual teaching dilemmas. These cases "are felt by students to be the most valuable aspect of all the strategies and interventions in first-year modules and capacitate students to invoke appropriate conceptual lenses and integrate different course themes", Gravett said.
She also discussed teaching schools. Her faculty's teaching school was founded in 2010 as a public school jointly by the university and the Gauteng education department.
"The objectives for establishing the school were to serve the education needs of young children in close proximity to the university's Soweto campus, to develop a site for the education of teachers of young children — with school teachers taking on the role of teacher educators, working in tandem with UJ academic staff — and to enable child development studies and research on performance in the school curriculum," she said.
Student teachers in this school spend time with the same group of pupils from grade R to grade three. This gives them a deep understanding of child development. The university has conducted research on the establishing of teaching schools at all teacher education schools in South Africa. As a result of this work, the university will propose that teaching schools need to have the status of special schools, and can now assert that these schools have the potential to integrate theory and practice, and to enable a deep understanding of child development.
Dr Lee Rusznyak, co-ordinator of the BEd degrees at the Wits school of education, described Wits's efforts to focus on research-led and research-informed teacher education, to collaborate with other universities to build the sector and to engage with policymakers.
"Our core job as teacher educators is to ensure students are knowledgeable, skilled and committed and are ready to provide quality education to their very first class," she said. She described teaching as a knowledge-based practice that requires thinking before, during and after lessons taught.
"From their first year of study, student teachers' attention is drawn to the importance of their understanding the content knowledge in their subjects, to think about the diverse learning needs of the children in their classes and to select, sequence and represent content knowledge in appropriate ways," Rusznyak said.
The Wits teacher education programme gets student teachers to engage with content knowledge as well as with the children who need to learn it and with how to teach in a way that is understandable.
Rusznyak and Gravett agreed that student teachers hold powerful preconceptions about what the practice of teaching entails and that teacher educators need to provide opportunities for student teachers to access and interrogate these initial conceptions.
Rusznyak claimed that "many student teachers have a confused understanding of what it is to teach, often conflating enabling learning with managing a classroom. Our challenge is to get them to develop a more nuanced understanding of the complexities of teaching".
For Gravett, "student teachers' preconceptions will be dominant in their teaching careers if they are not addressed and engaged with critically."
"Through a carefully structured initial teacher education programme, we want to see graduating teachers considering both what they teach (the content knowledge) and who they teach (the diverse needs of pupils) in making decisions about how they teach," Rusznyak said.
Set against these stories of reflective development was Jonathan Williams and Ingrid Harris's description of the Gauteng primary language and mathematics strategy. An initiative of the Gauteng department, its role is to improve the quality of teaching in the province through on-the-job training and support.
The strategy focuses on the teaching of language and mathematics in about 830 participating primary schools to ensure that 60% of pupils in the province will perform at 50% and above in the targeted subjects. It involves providing scripted lesson plans and resources to teachers in schools that have been declared as underperforming, and the use of coaches "to be critical friends to support teachers to help them enhance their content knowledge", as Williams and Harris put it.
"When schools were declared as underperforming, we had to ensure we met a standardised level and so we developed lesson plans, which are not provided in isolation as they come with resources and are part of a package, to target the average pupil and also to guide teachers as not all teachers are adequately prepared and qualified," they said.
The primary language and mathematics strategy is a detailed and thorough intervention that involves assessment, teacher training and monitoring. The annual national assessment scores show that the strategy is making a huge difference in pupil performance. However, Williams and Harris conceded that it is a very expensive intervention and that district officials and school management need to be included in order to ensure the sustainability of the intervention over time.
Although one of the strategy's four pillars focuses on working with school management teams and districts to support school management, the central role of the school principal as an agent of the intended change seems not to be emphasised in the intervention.
In a context where, as Gravett said, "mentoring for new teachers is simply not happening in schools and it's hard for universities to get schools to do their part and ensure they are partners in teacher education in order to ensure that young teachers stay in the profession", it is vital that the principal be supported to provide the environment for competent teaching, without which public education will fail. The effective principal at the centre of the school system can be a powerful positive force while drawing on the resources offered by the authorities and other stakeholders.
Barbara Dale-Jones is chief operations officer at the Bridge education network