South Africa, learn to love your teachers

The only thing a school needs to function well is excellent teachers. This is my chief response to the results of matric 2014.

An excellent teacher will make a plan with a chalkboard under a tree. Too much time is wasted discussing resources and the improvement of underperforming teachers, while too little is done to keep good teachers in the state schooling system.

Where state education is ­successful, it is running on the goodwill of a few outstanding teachers. Once their enthusiasm dwindles, our education system is doomed.

There is much the government can do to prevent teacher burnout – but parents, who are key ­stakeholders, can play a significant role in keeping our system functioning.

Excellent teachers are rebels who constantly fight the system. Public education promotes a pedagogy that puts teachers to the test and neglects true learning. It provides poor-quality resources and hush-hushes any criticism of the system. Why else are teachers not allowed to speak to the media?

The unending battles and time pressures the staff of high-performing schools endure, as do ­individual teachers in underperforming schools, are taking their toll. The state gives them no official preferential treatment. In fact, they become easy targets for education officials, who will point out missing bureaucratic requirements rather than confronting the complex issues of failing schools. What prevents good principals and teachers from giving up or settling for mediocrity? What incentive is there for them to keep fighting?

Daily decisions
Tough decisions need to be made daily on whether, as a teacher, you sacrifice quality and tick all the boxes, or ignore the ridiculous official demands and try to educate your pupils. Do you drive initiatives that will cause your colleagues to resent you? Do you give up too many hours of your personal time every month to create worthwhile learning resources, or accept the glaring gaps in state assessments and textbooks? Do you gear yourself up to defend your actions against your province’s department of ­education, begrudging parents, jealous colleagues and your neglected family, again and again, or do you take the easy way out?

Parents can support functioning institutions and individuals by understanding teachers’ constant challenges and difficult decisions, trusting in their actions, offering their time and showing their appreciation.

I am not saying that parents should not question their child’s school or teacher. Of course they must, and should, hold High School X or Ms Y accountable.

But hear their side of the story and be patient. True education is a long, slow process. It is not always reasonable to judge learning on a few test scores.

If a school produces passes of good quality consistently, trust that the members of the school’s management know what they are doing and let the school get on with it. Respect their experience and consider any advice they might offer. Give them the freedom to be flexible and encourage other parents to give their trust to the school or an isolated teacher. Collaborate with the principal to find practical ways in which the school can keep its good teachers.

Support good teachers by cutting them some slack. Teachers are human and they will say or do idiotic things from time to time. Naturally, teachers must take responsibility for their performance, but don’t insist on making a big deal out of every minor mistake.

Mobilising for education
As a parent, you can mobilise for education. You do not have to join the school governing body. Join the parents’ association (they have more fun anyway) or create one, or volunteer to help out where you can. Let Mr Z know that he can call you when he has transport problems with his extramural activities. You do not need to commit yourself every week, but maybe there is one afternoon a year when you are able to save a good teacher some time and energy, and keep them motivated to stay for another year.

Get behind teachers when they are enforcing school rules, even the seemingly petty uniform code. I know dress codes touch nerves about individual freedom and personal expression, but when we place it in the context of our greater ­education crisis, objections to uniforms become insignificant.

You accepted the dress code when you enrolled your child. Let the teachers have this one. Confiscate your child’s jewellery and refuse to pay for haircuts or colours not allowed by the school. People are fighting an entire system for the benefit of your child’s future, so it can make a big difference if there is one less irritating battle they need to fight.

Finally, keep excellent teachers motivated by showing your appreciation. Some evidence beyond marks on report cards helps teachers believe that their actions make a difference.

Encourage your children to express their thanks by modelling your own appreciation. Consider writing a letter to teachers who had a positive effect on your child last year. This will remind Mrs A why she loves her job, and inject Mr B with energy and inspiration as 2015 takes off.

The future of our education system is grim. There are some ­sterling new teachers coming into the schools, but my experience of most of the student teachers I have come across is soul-destroying. There is no guarantee that the majority of our teachers are going to get better in the coming years. Yet among the incompetence and indifference are the beacons of excellence.

Parents can play a pivotal role in keeping these individuals in the system through their support. You might not have time to fight the degradation of the entire public schooling system, but by trusting outstanding teachers and finding the time to send a token of your thanks, you can help to maintain the quality we do have.

Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who has taken a few months off to work with Phemba, an NGO she helped to establish that aims to inspire teacher excellence in South Africa. Phemba runs a mentorship programme for first-year teachers

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