Why we must find the good in our teachers
Finding where the fault lies in South Africa’s school system is about naming the problem and identifying the causes, without fear or favour, writes Graeme Bloch in his latest book, TheToxic Mix:What’swrongwithSouthAfrica’sschools andhowtofixit. This is an
WE ALL know the difference a single good teacher can make. The classroom, and the magic that happens at that coalface of interaction between learner and teacher, is the starting point for all else that happens in education.
But there is evidence of low subject content knowledge on the part of many teachers. Especially in the fields of maths and science, this is hardly surprising.
Teachers do not seem to be very good at planning, at phasing the work they have to teach, at deciding how to get through the important and core aspects of a year’s work. While there is some blame placed on textbooks not always being available, this is probably exaggerated. Rather, teachers simply do not know how to use a textbook and are even less adept at knowing how to get students to engage with the books.
Evidence shows that in black schools especially, much time is often wasted. Out of a working week of 41 hours, on average 15.18 hours are spent on teaching (the remaining on administration, sports, formfilling and time-wasting activities), compared to 19.11 hours in former white schools, with less time in rural than urban areas as well.
The basics of pedagogy are often absent. Certainly, at foundation levels, there is an absence of basic reading aloud, of continuous writing practice by learners, and use of techniques that would ensure that the foundations of literacy and numeracy can be put in place.
This deficit bounces all the way up the system. It is not so much a problem of formal qualifications, because on the whole teachers have managed to upgrade at a formal level over the 15 years of democracy. Rather, it is a lack of the core abilities to teach, even when the will is there.
Certainly, teaching has to be the only profession that is not subject to a formal system of accountability and monitoring. The Integrated Quality Management System (IQMS) has become an ongoing victim of poor and adversarial labour relations.
The IQMS was an agreement reached in the Labour Relations Council in 2003, but that is still in 2009 the subject of discussion and finalisation. All sorts of structured and formal processes, from personal growth plans to staff development teams to school improvement plans, have been formalised and their role defined. Most often, though, such imperatives have added to bureaucratic procedures and paperwork.
The introduction of a new curriculum statement in 2003 to replace the OBE-rooted Curriculum 2005 led to a flurry of courses and training schedules.
Often these were no more than three days of orientation coupled with a cascading-down model to try and ensure replication.
The new National Curriculum Statement (NCS) streamlined and simplified curricula into learning programmes with a continued emphasis on assessment throughout the year. The system put increased pressure and load on teachers.
The NCS and OBE have not fundamentally changed teachers’ teaching practices, despite much confusion about OBE and a surprising degree of acceptance by many teachers.
OBE allowed the good and childcentred teaching of the better schools to remain or be enhanced, while in the poorer schools it neither assisted nor turned around the poor quality of much teaching.
It did somehow boost teachers’ self-image through its focus on the empowered teacher as education leader and facilitator.
It finally reached the matric years with the Grade 12 class of 2008, variously described as “guineapigs”or as “pioneers”. They in any case seemed to perform as well (or as badly) as in previous years, with a slight matric pass rate decline to 63 percent.
Still, the existence of OBE has rather acted as a red herring for much confusion and complaint and an excuse for more elaborate jargon and form-filling.
This has not necessarily contributed to a better quality of education. We know how widely OBE is blamed for a real frustration at difficulties in charting the course forward.
Another red herring is the elimination of corporal punishment. In our society, it is violence and abuse that are core problems.
Even if one could beat pupils, there would still be a need to have a range of responses to ill discipline and a full repertoire of support and punishment. Violence could never be a first resort.
So the problem has to do with something else, something happening among pupils, as well as teachers’ lack of preparation for ways of dealing with this.
It needs to be made clear that this is not confined to the poorer schools because various examples of bullying or corporal punishment in government schools in the suburbs have also come to light.
Teaching is a difficult and com- plex, multifaceted and multilayered art and science. Despite the shortfalls many teachers do much good work.
I want to quote a heartfelt letter that was in the Cape Times on February 23, 2009. Vincent Hendricks from Elfindale in the Cape Flats points out that many teachers have been faithful to their teaching and their schools.
“I have been at my beloved Athlone High for 22 years and have enjoyed teaching English and geography to students for Grade 8 to Grade 12. I am sure I speak on behalf of thousands of good teachers who love their calling to teach, and everything that goes with the vocation – the diligent preparation, dynamic lessons, setting up tests and assignments, marking of papers and sports coaching, to mention but a few areas…”
He goes on to say that teachers are expected to be “policemen, sexologists, criminologists, psychologists, drug counsellors, doctors, nurses, sports coaches, tour guides, peacemakers, pastors, fundraisers for the state” and, of course, to do their primary job of teaching – “or is that to assess or be a filing clerk?” he asks. No wonder he is angry; he earns a gross salary of R13 888 per month. He asks about the high student/teacher ratio, talks about the teacher “retrenchments” and their impact, and complains about student discipline.
Reasons for some of the learners’ errant behaviour are dynamic and complex. These include abuse in certain homes and in the community, and behaviour at home that is violent, crude and sexual.
There is a general lawlessness in our society. Certain politicians, pop stars and sports stars are poor role models for our children. Some learners come to school with lots of attitude. Can the teachers change the behaviour of all the children? Education and good manners begin in the home.
He ends by pleading with the pub- lic not to generalise about teachers. “There are many good teachers left in the profession and we are doing a sterling job. It will be nice to hear something positive about teachers.”
He is right; you cannot keep beating down on a profession and expect it to produce of its best, to feel inspired to take on critical tasks and ask questions of itself, its goals and its practices.
Yet if we do not get it right – in the classrooms, with teachers, in the schools and districts where support should be paramount, and in the society where so many of the problems are located – we are simply reinforcing the inequalities of our society, and smashing the hopes and dreams of the new post-democratic generation that rightly expects to be given access to the possibilities and real aspirations from the world today.
Graeme Bloch is an education specialist at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. Toxic Mix will be on bookshelves from next week.
OPEN SEASON: The condition of Uitsig Secondary School mirrors the societal problems that bedevil education.