/ 29 April 2024

SA’s teachers deserve more than criticism … here’s how we can support them

Pupils Freeze While State Of The Art School Remains Unoccupied
Rather than pointing fingers at educators for poor results, let’s shift the narrative and empower them to do more with less. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Thuli Dlamini)

Nomvuzo Notutela has more than 26 years of experience as a teacher at schools in the Eastern Cape. She loves her job but she says it is trying at times, especially considering the limited supply of textbooks and educational materials. 

At her current school, Lunga Primary in Mdantsane, outside East London, there is no library and few books are available. She admits, “It is hard being a teacher, especially at rural and township schools.”  

 Teachers such as Nomvuzo are often in the firing line, criticised for poor educational outcomes. But they are doing the best they can. And the situation is often worse in isolated and underprivileged areas, such as some in the Eastern Cape, where there is a well-publicised shortage of qualified teachers and many schools lack electricity and adequate toilet facilities, let alone libraries. This adds to the burden teachers already face with overcrowded classrooms and scarce resources.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many newly qualified teachers start working at schools with limited orientation or onboarding processes. With just a teaching degree, and only 15 weeks of practical experience in a classroom, they are expected to hit the ground running in the most challenging of circumstances. Many find themselves in a school with classrooms containing children from different grades or having to teach subjects for which they are not trained.  

Dealing with such situations requires different methodologies and teaching practices — which most South African teachers have not been exposed to.

Help for teachers must be targeted and practical

Resources to assist teachers in these situations are few and far between. There are, for example, a few short courses, such as the Psychological First Aid for Educators in Times of Crisis designed by the UCT Schools Development Unit to help educators deal with the disruptive effect the Covid-19 pandemic has had on teaching and learning, but mostly teachers are left to fend for themselves.

This year, the Chief Directorate of Teacher Development in the Eastern Cape, in partnership with Oxford University Press South Africa, is stepping up to try to change this. They are rolling out a practical teacher development workshop programme to upskill and fortify teachers in the province. It makes use of older, experienced teachers in peer-to-peer learning environments to share knowledge around issues such as how to make multigrade classrooms work and how to address the different needs of learners. 

The series of 125 workshops is reaching 11 500 teachers for grades one to nine and concentrates on teachers in the language and maths fields, as these are the key focus areas for the Eastern Cape Department of Education. 

In the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study report, it was revealed that 81% of grade four pupils in South Africa can’t read for meaning. These disappointing results have been largely attributed to the pandemic and the loss of teaching days, as well as the disruption caused at schools across the country.  

The next best thing to experience 

Noluvuyo Buqa, Oxford University Press’s provincial manager for the Eastern Cape, says a big benefit of this kind of development training programme is that novice teachers with minimal teaching experience gain confidence by learning real-life strategies from peers. 

“There is no college or university that will ever train you on experience. To have this intergenerational exchange of knowledge is absolute gold in terms of upskilling and developing teachers,” she says. 

A seasoned teacher has learned, often through trial and error, how best to group children in a classroom and how material can be presented so that it sticks. For instance, when it comes to improving reading and writing abilities, evidence shows that higher learner engagement with reading material directly correlates with an improvement.

This underscores the need for foundation teachers to engage children with whatever resources they have and to use different learning methodologies and techniques to get their message through. In the absence of actual books, teachers who understand this have resorted to novel solutions, such as writing their own stories to help children with reading and comprehension. 

But how are teachers supposed to know about this if it has not formed part of their training or experience? 

Workshop attendee Phathiswa Hendricks, a teacher from the Nelson Mandela Bay District in the Eastern Cape, said being introduced to different ways of teaching the curriculum has given her fresh ideas and confidence about how to engage with her learners. 

Another teacher, Zameka Gwayise, from the OR Tambo Coastal District, said that even after one workshop, she was able to use different teaching strategies for different learners. “It showed me how to deal with a system that is always changing.”

More motivated teachers are also better teachers 

Noluvuyo notes, “Teachers know their subjects and how to present the educational content. But they need help to navigate the diverse needs of learners, especially in situations where resources are constrained. Having more flexibility and creativity to use different methodologies as the need arises could lead to better learning outcomes.”  

While it is early days in terms of measuring the outcomes of this intervention, the improvement in teacher motivation is already a step in the right direction.

The more engaged teachers are, the more they can learn on an ongoing basis, and ultimately, it is the learners who reap the rewards. Noluvuyo believes this is one of the reasons why teacher development is important. “We can already measure our success in terms of the changes in teacher behaviour.”

The importance of empowering and upskilling our teachers in this way cannot be overstated. As South African education economist and researcher Gabrielle Wills says: “You cannot win a war unless you train your army. Our teachers are the key agents for change with respect to providing quality learning and education for children.”  

Lucia Ndabula is the national education manager at Oxford University Press South Africa.