Teachers, pull yourselves together and prepare your lessons


The article by Bongekile Macupe, “Varsity doesn’t prepare us to teach in rural areas” , creates the impression that teachers in rural areas are suffering, lack resources and basic tools and are inadequately prepared for what they face in reality.

This may surprise some teachers and others outside the profession, but teacher training, especially that done at university, does not prepare you to teach in any specific context, condition or situation. To get to understand my argument, I offer an analysis of the three teachers profiled in the article.

In the 1980s, teachers-in-training were exposed to the “hidden curriculum”, the hidden messages that were conveyed by apartheid education. We were alerted in our education training to the fact that messages — such as white superiority and racial separateness — were conveyed without being explicitly stated.

My analysis of the three teachers, who each find themselves teaching within the setting of the rural school, reveals the hidden messages of their comments.

Teacher No 1

Nomsa Mateyisi (not her real name), teaches physical science from grade 8 to 12 in the Mount Fletcher area of the Eastern Cape.

  •  “We don’t have water, electricity and roads.”

This is a common approach of teachers, starting with what they don’t have. I dispute such a notion: there are roads but they are dusty ones, not tarred. Our teachers must stop complaining about what they don’t have and focus on what they do have and how to use those resources.

  •  “Mateyisi says that on average she teaches classes of 86 pupils at a time and never fewer than 65. With such a big class you can’t give any of the learners individual attention. There are just too many.”

This is the reality of most schools in South Africa and teachers have not realised that creative solutions are needed for “crowd control”. Questions that teachers should consider are: Should every child be seated while in class? How can I manipulate the furniture to create a more favourable learning environment?

The secret lies in preparedness. Every lesson needs to have been carefully planned and materials have to be prepared to keep the pupils’ attention. The teacher should not be trying to teach verbally for the entire lesson.

  •  “Then there are the textbooks — or rather the lack thereof. Without them, effective teaching and learning becomes a pipe dream.”

Again Mateyisi gets it wrong, because she is conditioned and is seemingly completely and exclusively dependent on the South African classroom bible, the textbook. Teachers are allowing the textbook to dictate to them what is taught and how it is taught.

The textbook, which the pupils may have, is only a tool in your hands and it is the teacher’s responsibility to carefully prepare proper, unique lessons for their classes.

  •  “Mateyisi argues, access to better technology could help. Tablets, like they have in Gauteng.”

Again Mateyisi falls victim to focusing on what she does not have, rather than what is available. Tablets will not automatically improve the teaching, learning or the performance of pupils. There are several negative “unintended consequences” to the mass handing out of tablets in Gauteng.

  •  “A curriculum that speaks to the pupils in rural areas should be developed.”

This is at the heart of the problem of teaching in South Africa. What Mateyisi is demanding is actually her responsibility. It isn’t that a new curriculum with a focus on the rural child needs to be developed but rather it is her duty to interpret the syllabus and adjust it according to a world that the rural child can relate to.

This task is done when a school and its teachers sit together to plan and individual teachers then prepare context-specific lessons.

Teacher No 2

Sipho Mbhele (not his real name) teaches on a farm in Warden in the Free State.

  •  “The biggest hurdle continues to be teaching in a multigrade classroom. Having to teach grades 4, 5 and 6 in one class is no walk in the park. There are three teachers at his school for 60 pupils from grades 1 to 9.”

Sipho misses the opportunity he has with only 20 pupils in a class (though in three different grades), a teacher-learner ratio that resembles those of expensive private schools. It is a wonderful opportunity to have roughly seven pupils from each grade, allowing those groups of seven to gel into formidable teams through carefully selected activities, tasks and projects, which cannot be done in Mateyisi’s overcrowded classes.

It is all about careful planning. The pupils are automatically in three groups and they need to learn to work on their own while the teacher is dealing with one of the other groups. A teacher with initiative and drive can turn that classroom into a dynamic environment with multiple approaches, leading to wonderful outcomes.

  •  “Yes, the department gives you guidelines on what work you should cover for each of the grades. But there is only so much you can cover in an hour.”

This reveals some of the deep-seated problems in our schooling. Because so many of our rural teachers are completely textbook-bound and do not prepare lessons, they have to talk for the entire lesson. This leads to fatigue setting in after 90 to 120 minutes of talking. The teacher’s energy levels drop and then “lessons” for the rest of the day deteriorate and very little gets done. This is one of the reasons for the problem at schools where only two to three hours of real teaching takes place in a day.

  • “There is no rural external assessment; it’s the same for all schools.”

This is true, but if Mbhele introduced the complex concepts using local examples, the pupils will eventually be able to compete with any other child in the country. Again the problem is that the teachers have not prepared unique, specially adapted lessons for the children in their care.

Teacher No 3

Sarina Vogel is a retired principal of a farm school in the Free State, where they had three teachers in multigrade classes.

  •  “In my class I would have a separate blackboard for each of the three classes I taught. The grade 4s looked to the front, the grade 5s looked to the back and the grade 6s faced the corner. You must be prepared. I used to give a speed test to the grade 4 class, and class work to the grade 5s, while I taught the grade 6 class. You rotate. You do your bloody work.”

Vogel saw her teaching as a challenge and was excited about her work. In her own words, she mentions being prepared. Some creativity goes far in rural schools with limited resources.

  •  “For example, you can’t give children a task and say they must go research it. Where will they get the research? So, instead you bring the resource material to class and give the children a chance to prepare and go through it. And then the next period you can make them do the task.”

Vogel solved the problem of “we don’t have this or that” or “this is not possible in our school” and the many other excuses we hear from teachers in rural, township and other poorly organised classrooms across our country.

In my book, Dysfunctional Schools in South Africa: Reflections and a Turnaround Plan, teachers like Mateyisi and Mbhele are described as walking around with a victim mentality.

They are unable to take charge of their own lives, classrooms, schools or their profession, and are victims of their average training and lack of great role models. They attend workshop after workshop, return to their schools highly motivated but, within days, fall back into old habits of dysfunction. They hold good qualifications but fail to grasp the most basicrequirements of being a professional teacher.

The major revelation to both Mateyisi and Mbhele is that, indeed, their university training did not train them to teach in rural schools. In fact, the training they received did not train them to teach anywhere.

Furthermore, the notion that a “rural curriculum” needs to be developed is at the heart of the problem of South African schooling. It is the professional duty of every teacher to interpret the syllabus, by using at least three textbooks, complemented by newspapers, journals, charts, maps and — the most neglected of resources — the schoolyard and the local environment, to develop relevant, context-rich lessons for the specific pupils in the school.

Teachers need to open their eyes and link what they have in the classrooms, schoolyards, villages or townships to make their lessons real, relevant and interesting.

This process of proper planning and preparation does not happen in most South African schools. Teachers have never been given time to complete these important processes before walking into any class. This is the reason I propose a radical solution, which includes a substantial national school shutdown to give teachers and schools enough time to do proper and effective planning and preparation.

Vogel obviously comes from a different world and was a self-actualised teacher. In control of herself, her classroom and her school, she was decisive and her life as a professional encroached on her personal life.

She brought resources such as newspapers, magazines, potatoes or whatever household goods were needed for her lessons from her home. She solved the problem and did not blame anyone or proclaim the need for tools that others in Cape Town or Gauteng might have.

Why schools are dysfunctional

Some reasons for the collapse of the school as an organisation are:

  •  Despite holding proper qualifications, the principals and staff have little or no experience of a well-functioning school in terms of planning, structure and programme management.
  •  Dysfunctional schools lack proper planning (in terms of both schools and the curriculum) and they struggle from year to year in crisis mode. The structure of the school lends itself to a dysfunctional programme.
  •  The school and district leaderships, trainers, lecturers and teachers are mostly products of the dysfunctional schooling system themselves — and do not know anything else or anything better — or they originate from the functional schooling system so they are unfamiliar with the challenges of dysfunctional schools.
  •  Teachers operate as though they are victims. They do not believe they have the competence to manage their classrooms and schools.
  •  School principals lack the will, self-confidence and decisiveness to use their powers to manage and lead their schools and school communities properly.

University teacher training provides only the basic tools to enter the profession. All cabinet makers have the same tools — such as a chisel, hammer and drill — but the best and successful ones use their creativity and hard work to produce beautiful, unique wood products.

A professional teacher needs to develop their teaching abilities withvarious activities such as working and planning with colleagues, collecting and purchasing resources (some from their own pocket) to enhance their lessons.

Last, teachers need to use the school holidays (at least a few days a year) to plan and prepare so that they can be in control of the situation when school start. Otherwise they will be on the back foot, struggling and playing catch-up or remaining in crisis mode, as happens in the majority of schools.

Bersan Lesch is a former teacher in the Western Cape, a lecturer and curriculum adviser in Limpopo and author of Dysfunctional Schools in South Africa: Reflections and a Turnaround Plan

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