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As South African teachers celebrate World Teachers’ Day it is important for them to share observations on how to enhance the profession and their classroom offerings. The Teacher spoke to Alice Mwale-Yarborough about what she thinks of the teaching profession. She has 34 years of teaching experience, most of which was spent in US schools before she came to South Africa eight years ago. She has since retired to establish her own education foundation, called OMI.

Having been exposed to different education systems in the US and the neighbouring states, which one would you recommend for South Africa and why?

In my view South Africa has to define what education is to it and for it.  What works in the US and UK or Australia, India or Japan is not [necessarily] good for South Africa, because it has to be implemented in its totality for it to work well. South Africans have become lax and as such, some of these systems that require much discipline will fail, a case in point being outcomes-based education (OBE). 

South Africa has to stop adopting solutions others have discarded. Instead it should bring together educators who know the challenges they are faced with on a daily basis. These are the people who should be the policy writers, in consultation with their colleagues on the ground.  If, for instance, we say that our teachers are not competent then we should look at the institutions that produce them. Are these institutions preparing our teachers correctly? How do we train teachers via correspondence when teaching is hands-on? How do you use 100-year-old psychology to solve today’s problems?  I think we should follow a model that makes our children get 100% in exams each and every time, because they have been taught how to apply the theory into practical terms. 

Education commentators argue that South Africa should invest a lot in early childhood development (ECD) to help learners lay a solid academic foundation, do you agree, and why?

I agree because when a child learns early s/he is less likely to forget the lessons.  The investment should start when children are at crèches or earlier, with [a] focus on serious academics being taught. Children should start school at three when they are still curious. Too often we want our children to “play while learning” until they are seven years old, and do not focus on developing the academic mind early. There has to be a balance between the two. Our children show us every day that they are curious in their early years. This is the time when we should fill them up with as much information as possible. 

How do South African teachers compare with their counterparts from other countries that you have been to?

South Africa has some of the best teachers, who are dedicated to producing the best in their learners.  For instance, my view of the township teacher has changed, since working with them and watching their dedication to their learners — even on Saturdays and Sundays —often without extra remuneration. However, many have lost the desire to be the best because no matter how hard they work, it is always the negatives that are highlighted. Very few positive stories come out of education. 

As a result of this and the poor training in our universities we are not producing quality teachers. Our teacher training is not evolving to suit and accommodate this [new] South Africa. 

There has to be a higher standard of a passionate student who goes into teaching. Teaching should not be a dumping ground for those who just barely passed their matric exams. Teaching is a calling and not everyone is suitable for this noble profession.

You left teaching to open your own education foundation; what contributed to this decision?

It was my desire to see better results from our children, who have been conditioned to think that they are not good enough to achieve better than 40% in important learning areas. Secondly, I felt that I would be more useful to my country if I could help where the real learning challenges were — in townships.

What does your foundation do?

It focuses on providing assistance to grades eight and nine in terms of classroom intervention and hands-on teaching, [and providing] supplies needed for the learning of mathematics such as scientific calculators and mathematical sets. We felt this contribution would go a long way as children need tangible tools to be able to perform. We also do school assemblies for empowerment and motivation on a more personal level.

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Thabo Mohlala
Guest Author

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