High levels of ill-discipline and violence characterise many South African schools. The landscape has seen the erosion of teachers’ authority, with teachers becoming victims of disrespect and even violence inflicted by learners, parents and others.
“We cannot overemphasise how troubled our education landscape is currently,” said Eddie Kekana, provincial chairperson of the South African Democratic Teachers Union in Gauteng, who added that the quality of teaching and learning had declined in some schools as a result of the attitude towards teachers. “Unless we resolve these challenges and find ways to protect and nurture teachers, we risk compromising the productivity of our institutions and development as a country.”
Kekana was speaking as a panellist at a recent Education Conversations seminar, which deliberated on the topic: Restoring our Teachers’ Dignity — Creating Enabling Conditions for Teachers. Education Conversations is a dialogue series hosted by the Kagiso Trust, the University of Johannesburg and Bridge, a nonprofit organisation working to connect innovators in education. It aims to encourage open debate to advance the agenda for an improved and better performing public education system. The emphasis at the seminar was on identifying constructive ways of improving teachers’ working conditions.
The banning of corporal punishment left many teachers feeling powerless in the classroom. Several contributors suggested that the change was poorly managed, with not enough being done to empower schools and teachers with viable alternatives. One promising alternative is restorative discipline. Anne Baker, of the Catholic Institute of Education, described how the organisation used the concepts and practices of restorative justice to develop their Building Peaceful Schools programme, which aims to protect children from the damaging effects of corporal punishment and support schools and teachers with effective alternative methods of discipline.
Restorative justice began formally in New Zealand’s criminal justice system when Maori elders called for an alternative to imprisonment for young men who broke the law that would help those harmed and make the perpetrators face the consequences of their actions.
In schools, the restorative approach removes the climate of fear that negatively affects teaching and learning and encourages the development of self-discipline. It works by strengthening relationships and managing conflict through repairing harm and building community. “It is about bringing safety, hope and dignity to all members of the school community,” said Baker.
Linford Molaodi, a science teacher who received the 2019 Best Teacher award, drew on his involvement in teacher professional development to talk about perspectives on the need for teachers to protect their professional identity and have the trust and respect of learners and parents. He believes that “we, as teachers, have brought many of the challenges we are experiencing on ourselves by how we present ourselves”, and that “before we can deal with other issues, we need to clean our own house”. This would range from teachers exercising restraint when presenting themselves on social media to ensuring that what they offer as teachers provides value.
Teachers who “only offer content” will not be respected. Now that learners are no longer dependent on their teachers to provide content, they “need more from their teachers”. Teachers need to have discussions with learners about issues, inspire them and develop their critical thinking abilities. In Molaodi’s view, earning trust and respect as a teacher includes keeping up with developments in information and communications technology in education, mentoring learners and contributing to the development of community.
The caring aspect of the teacher’s professional identity, particularly the “promotion of peace”, is another key factor in earning trust and respect. As pointed out by Baker, part of the challenge for teachers is that “we teach who we are” and that it is within the power of teachers to influence how they affect, and are perceived by, those with whom they work, especially children.
Both panellists and audience noted that schools are a reflection of society, and children are good imitators of the behaviour they see in adults. The socioeconomic effects of poverty and violence such as family disintegration and a rise in drug abuse, as well as negative social media influences, can lead to levels of ill-discipline that threaten the provision of education. Teachers cannot be expected to resolve societal issues of this nature, said Kekana, and called for a collaboration of stakeholders including law enforcement, the department of social development and community building organisations to address the problems and create safe school environments.
The relationship of teacher competence to teacher dignity was explored from several angles. An audience member noted the importance of competence for morale, and the role that factors such as clarity on expectations, being afforded the space and the resources to do the job and constructive feedback play in creating motivating working conditions. Others argued for more rigorous entrance requirements and processes for professional development to be authentic and relevant, as well as for easier access to professional development, including the option of online courses. Competence was also a key factor in earning trust and respect because it gives teachers the confidence to work more flexibly, critically and creatively when mediating learning.
There was much discussion on the experiences of young teachers, especially concerning the obstacles placed in their path by authoritarian leaders of the schools. Conditions are worse for young women teachers, who also have to contend with patriarchal attitudes. “Young teachers don’t have a say in the education system and its policies; we are being treated as external factors, yet it is our role to inspire learners, and to foster holistic development,” said Molaodi. He called for effective mentorship of young teachers and the establishment of a dedicated forum in the department of basic education to represent their interests.
This session of Education Conversations explored many of the issues that affect teachers’ dignity. The next step is to turn the ideas into implementable solutions.
Margie Vorwerk is with Bridge