Mandisa* considered leaving teaching after only four weeks in the job. She had always wanted to teach and after graduation was impatient to get into the classroom. But within days of starting as a grade five teacher at a primary school in Belhar, outside Cape Town, she felt overwhelmed.
Discipline was a huge challenge and gaining the respect and the best efforts of the children was a constant struggle. But most difficult for Mandisa was the switch from her purely theoretical studies to dealing with the daily tests of working at an under-resourced school in a disadvantaged community.
Mandisa's story is not an uncommon one in South Africa. Most teachers start out on their careers with a passion for learning and feeling optimistic about the difference they can make. But, in South Africa, the realities of our schools, and in particular insufficient resources and support, ensure that all too often this early enthusiasm and commitment turn to demoralisation and frustration.
This is a personal tragedy for the teachers affected and is also a major and growing headache for the government. When precious experience is routinely shed from the teaching workforce, efforts to improve attainment are seriously undermined.
The Primary Science Programme, a nonprofit organisation in the Western Cape with nearly 30 years of experience in providing training and support for teachers, has found the most challenging years for a teacher are usually those immediately following qualification.
Historically, figures show that the attrition rate has been notably high for the 25- to 29-year-old age group. In other words, newly qualified teachers vote with their feet and decide after just a few years to pursue a career elsewhere.
Those who remain are often demotivated and disillusioned. One study found that nearly three-quarters of teachers in the Western Cape have considered leaving the profession owing to low morale, excessive workloads, low job satisfaction and the attraction of other careers.
This naturally affects teacher attendance levels. In 2012, teachers were absent for close to 7.5-million days — an average of 19 days a teacher, the highest rate of absenteeism among teachers in the Southern African Development Community.
Teacher retention is a growing problem in South Africa and around the world and the causes are complex. Many newly qualified teachers never make it as far as the classroom or choose to teach overseas, put off by the depth and nature of the challenges in South Africa's schools.
The recent ANC manifesto maintains that the number of qualified teachers graduating each year increased from 6 000 in 2009 to 13 000 in 2012. Yet official figures suggest that, from January to March 2012, fewer than 4 000 qualified teachers aged 30 and under entered the public service as teachers for the first time.
A key issue, which has been given much-needed prominence by Equal Education's dogged campaigning, is the condition of our schools and classrooms. There is little in teachers' training that can prepare them for this. It is one thing to learn pedagogic theories and the latest curriculum requirements, but quite another to be confronted with a class of 60-plus children, many of whom have learning difficulties, who are expected to learn in cold, leaking classrooms without desks or sometimes even chairs.
Another crucial factor in teacher motivation and efficacy is the level and nature of workplace support on offer. In 2006 and again in 2011, the department for basic education produced strategy documents highlighting the need for meaningful induction and mentoring programmes for new teachers. But action has lagged behind good intentions.
The Primary Science Programme has, however, found that access to the right support and resources during this crucial period in a new teacher's career can make a big difference.
In 2010, the organisation set up the Joint Mentorship Programme, offering regular guidance and support to first-time teachers from a team of experienced mentors.
Mandisa was one of the first mentees, receiving targeted training and in-class support over a two-year period. The programme covers all aspects of a teacher's role, from teaching strategies and classroom management to school policies and administration, and how to build good relationships with children, parents and colleagues.
Participating in the mentorship programme has meant a transformed classroom experience for Mandisa. She has rediscovered her confidence and enthusiasm for teaching, and believe she now has the practical skills and strategies to succeed.
The Primary Science Programme has now created a practical handbook for first-time primary school teachers. TeachSmart contains information, advice and hands-on resources. To be launched at the end of March, the handbook aims to equip new teachers with the tools they need to navigate their first few years in the classroom successfully.
TeachSmart tries to plug a gap that the government itself acknowledges must be dealt with on a national and systemic basis.
Our policy-makers know it does not make sense to subsidise the training of large numbers of teachers who rapidly leave or never even enter the profession.
More seriously, left unaddressed, this problem will continue to threaten continuing efforts to raise attainment and to give all children in South Africa access to the educational opportunities they deserve.
* Not her real name
Rebecca Hickman is a policy and advocacy consultant who specialises in education. Zorina Dharsey is director of the Primary Science Programme. For more information on the handbook TeachSmart: A Practical Guide to Success for First-Time Teachers and for Schools, go to www.psp.org.za