Beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teach­ers

T.O. Molefe

CityPress - - Careers & Voices -

Early in my for­mer ca­reer in the cor­po­rate world, I was men­tored by a man who warned me not to ac­cept that there were “good” and “bad” em­ploy­ees.

Even though he had been a di­rec­tor at the company for some time, he was still bat­tling to com­mand re­spect from fel­low direc­tors and ju­niors alike.

This was common at the peak of cor­po­rate South Africa’s to­kenism, where the few black direc­tors like my men­tor were seen as va­cant fig­ure­heads through whom com­pa­nies could project an aura of pro­gres­sive­ness. The good BEE rat­ing they got out of it didn’t hurt ei­ther.

My men­tor cau­tioned that “good” and “bad”, when ap­plied to em­ploy­ees, were forms of lin­guis­tic sub­terfuge. The words masked ei­ther prej­u­dice or the in­sti­tu­tional fail­ings that in­hib­ited em­ploy­ees from per­form­ing to their po­ten­tial. Of­ten, they masked both.

I thought of this when I read that Ba­sic Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Angie Mot­shekga had laid the blame for poor-per­form­ing schools at the feet of “bad teach­ers”. Her rea­son­ing was, rightly, that teach­ers are the heart of a school. If you look at the best-per­form­ing schools, they’re guar­an­teed to have teach­ers who are ded­i­cated and hard-work­ing.

Through their dili­gence, knowl­edge pulses through ev­ery class­room and into the hearts and minds of pupils.

But in her pre­sen­ta­tion at last week­end’s an­nual con­fer­ence of the SA Prin­ci­pals’ As­so­ci­a­tion, Mot­shekga re­port­edly said the con­verse was true. Schools that per­form badly do so as a di­rect re­sult of “bad” teach­ers who she said were those who did not com­plete the cur­ricu­lum, were not in class and did not un­der­stand what they taught.

Bizarrely, she also seemed to dis­miss the fact that the so­cioe­co­nomic con­text of the com­mu­ni­ties in which schools are lo­cated has a di­rect bear­ing on their per­for­mance.

As with all good acts of shift­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity, there is some truth to what she said. For ex­am­ple, in a re­cent aca­demic pa­per, ed­u­ca­tion re­searchers Hamsa Venkat and Nic Spaull an­a­lysed the re­sults of the sub­ject mat­ter knowl­edge of na­tion­ally rep­re­sen­ta­tive tests for Grade 6 maths teach­ers of the South­ern and East­ern Africa Con­sor­tium for Mon­i­tor­ing Ed­u­ca­tional Qual­ity. They found 79% of Grade 6 maths teach­ers had sub­ject mat­ter knowl­edge be­low that pre­scribed in the cur­ricu­lum their pupils are ex­pected to master.

But the teach­ers with the high­est lev­els of sub­ject mat­ter knowl­edge were con­cen­trated in the wealth­i­est schools and those with the low­est were in poorer schools.

This should in­di­cate that a school’s per­for­mance shares a di­rect, if not causal, re­la­tion­ship with the so­cioe­co­nomic cir­cum­stances of the pupils’ par­ents and the com­mu­nity it is lo­cated in.

It’s prob­a­bly more ac­cu­rate to re­place “good” and “bad” with “wealthy” and “poor”. This will make it more ob­vi­ous how fool­hardy it is to blame the teach­ers. They, too, are prod­ucts of this ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and the teacher train­ing and de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes over which Mot­shekga and Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Blade Nz­i­mande have po­lit­i­cal ac­count­abil­ity.

If the av­er­age teacher’s sub­ject mat­ter knowl­edge is poor, the prob­lem lies in the sys­tems of ed­u­ca­tion that pro­duced them and the con­tin­u­ing ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes that keep them up to date on the sub­jects they teach.

And if I was the av­er­age teacher, my faith in Mot­shekga’s abil­ity to dis­charge her re­spon­si­bil­i­ties with re­gard to th­ese would have shrunk to the size of a raisin after her “bad teacher, bad school” com­ments.

To be fair, Mot­shekga ac­knowl­edged her depart­ment had a lot of work to do on teacher train­ing and de­vel­op­ment.

But you can tell a lot about a so­ci­ety by the way it treats the peo­ple charged with ed­u­cat­ing its chil­dren.

I’m not con­vinced South African teach­ers are treated fairly and I’m not con­vinced we know enough about them and the things that af­fect their abil­ity to be ef­fec­tive.

To ad­dress this, Mot­shekga’s plan is to de­velop teacher pro­files that would form the ba­sis of the depart­ment’s on­go­ing teacher train­ing and de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes. That th­ese don’t ex­ist yet is fur­ther ev­i­dence that if we have to blame poor-per­form­ing schools, the depart­ment and Mot­shekga should shoul­der a large por­tion of the re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Venkat and Spaull also sug­gest that train­ing and de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes must be pro­filed and eval­u­ated. But beyond th­ese, we must re­mem­ber that the best teach­ers are stu­dents too.

Alarm­ingly, we know almost noth­ing about the in­di­vid­ual per­sonal cir­cum­stances that pre­vent teach­ers from be­ing good stu­dents.

No words ex­ist ca­pa­ble of hid­ing how badly this re­flects on all of us.

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