/ 5 October 2023

Schools need teachers with diverse identities

Douniamag Safrica Education Refugee Migrants Conflicts Demograph
Mix and match: Teachers from different backgrounds bring other views into the school to the benefit of learners, teachers and parents and prepare the scholars for adult life in a diverse society. Photo: Gianluigi Gurcia/AFP

Although not as widespread as learner migration, teacher migration from historically disadvantaged schools to historically advantaged schools in South Africa is driven by the same imperatives as those for learners. These include better-resourced schools, smaller classes, more opportunities, safer school environments, more learning support services and, in some instances, a higher salary, augmented through the school governing body. 

The deep-seated disparities that continue to characterise our schools, despite substantive educational reform, have put into play not only migratory patterns away from historically disadvantaged schools (for those who can afford it) but have entrenched the latter as deficient spaces of teaching and learning.

Dyadically, historically advantaged schools, by virtue of their well-resourced spaces and opportunities, benefit from associated perceptions of quality education and academic achievement. That these perceptions might neither be fair nor true, has done little to stem the tide of attraction presented by these schools. 

As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on 5 October, we should also acknowledge that inasmuch as our schools have desegregated, most have retained their historically designated teacher and learner demographics. This means most learners continue to attend schools in line with historical race-based constructions. 

Where schools have shifted in their learner demographics, the teacher body does not necessarily reflect this change with the historical composition often remaining intact. It is, therefore, not unusual to find diverse schools in terms of learner demographics taught by a teacher corps that does not reflect this diversity.

Much of the debates on our desegregated schools continue to centre on intersectional tensions between access/participation; external inclusion/internal exclusion; and assimilation/integration. These debates have largely been focused on the experiences of minority group learners as they attempt to navigate their way through spaces dominated by unfamiliar cultures and environments. 

Limited research exists on the experiences of minority group teachers in desegregated schools. Part of the reason for this are assumptions that because teachers work with colleagues in professional contexts, they are therefore less likely to experience any forms of discrimination, marginalisation and racism. 

Another reason might be the reluctance of teachers to participate in research projects, which focuses on their experiences in desegregated settings — even when anonymity and confidentiality are ensured — mostly because of fears of victimisation, or non-promotion. 

Emerging research, however, reveals that minority-group teachers are exposed to the same marginalising risks as minority-group learners. Once appointed, and granted external access, minority-group teachers face continuous struggles and barriers to be included and recognised — rendering the challenge of remaining within these schools greater than trying to get appointed in the first place.

While “whiteness” is generally associated with qualification and competence, “blackness” and minority groups are synonymous with incompetence — not only in terms of subject knowledge, pedagogical proficiency and classroom skills, but also in terms of what it means to be a teacher. 

It is, therefore, not unusual for minority-group teachers, even when they have years of teaching experience, to be assigned with mentors. In turn, attempts by teachers to bring their diverse identities into an existing ethos are met with resistance, which makes it difficult for them to engage holistically with their peers and learners. 

While manifested differently, the same fields of racial/cultural/ethnic/religious/linguistic tensions that are used to keep minority-group learners out of historically advantaged schools, are also used to exclude minority-group teachers. Hence, we find that “black” schools appoint “white” principals, while “coloured” schools refuse to appoint “black” principals. “Black” teachers are not only excluded from “white” schools; they are also excluded from “coloured” and “Indian” schools. 

Debates and concerns about the experiences and under-representation of minority-group teachers are certainly not new.  In the United States, for example, it has long been an issue of national importance, with numerous scholars and commentators arguing that there is a growing mismatch between the degree of racial/ethnic diversity of the learner demography and the teaching corps. 

There are immense benefits to learners, teachers and parents if a school’s teaching cohort reflects that of a learner body and is representative of society. Demographic parity to counter the disparity between the racial and cultural backgrounds of learners and teachers, is equally important for minority and majority-group learners. 

Emerging research suggests that minority-group teachers can produce more favourable academic results on standardised assessment, attendance, retention, as well post-schooling enrolment for minority group learners than “white” teachers. Typically, minority group teachers have personal experiences with a culturally disconnected curriculum, the under-resourced conditions of their own schooling, and a heightened awareness of educational injustice and racism. 

Compared with “white” teachers, minority-group teachers have more positive views of minority group learners, including more favourable perceptions of their academic potential and higher expectations of their learning potential. This argument does not suggest “white” teachers cannot be effective teachers of minority group learners, or that only minority group teachers can effectively teach minority group learners. 

The contention, however, is that the demographic discrepancy between the racial and cultural backgrounds of teachers and learners may contribute to a failure to provide minority group learners not only with opportunities to learn, but also with experiences of inclusion and belonging.

Teacher diversity is critical to teaching and learning, schools, and the cultivation of a democratic society.

First, teacher diversity allows for the inclusion and articulation of different life-worlds and perspectives, which stands to benefit all learners, teachers, parents and, hence, society.

Second, teachers from different backgrounds provide points of resonance and aspiration for minority-group learners. 

Third, the more learners are able to engage and learn from those who are different to themselves, the greater and deeper their preparation for engaging with difference, not only at school, but later as citizens in a pluralistic society. Concomitantly, the less diverse a teacher corps is, the greater the risk of a perpetuation of existing hegemonies, stereotypes and prejudices. 

The entire point of schooling and education is to prepare young people for their roles as upstanding citizens. Schools cannot shy away from the knowledge and obligation that while schooling is temporary, education is not. Schools ought to provide the space and ethos where democratic practices are not only made visible in the inclusion of diverse learners and teachers, but where the very ideals of democratic citizenship — that is, equal recognition, inclusion, and respect — are preserved. 

It matters therefore what learners are taught, and it matters who teachers are. Stated differently, young people learn not only by what and how they are taught, they also learn from whom they are taught. 

It is often not enough for learners to learn about different ways of being and acting; they must be able to participate in those differences. It is only when learners witness and participate in diverse and dissenting contexts, that they learn about themselves and others; they learn that they do not have to be and act like others to find a sense of belonging. 

Nuraan Davids is professor of philosophy of education and chair of the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University. This article is based, in part, on her chapter in To be a Minority Teacher in a Foreign Culture: Empirical Evidence From an International Perspective (Springer, 2023).