Recently I have been observing Grade 1 classes in Grahamstown schools in preparation for my Masters thesis. This has helped me get a feel for the reality in many classrooms and the thoughts of teachers in the impoverished schools in Grahamstown. The surrounding context of these schools is not the lush green lawn and playground safely bound in a security tight fencing. Some of the schools I have been to do not even have sporting facilities, no jungle gym or swings for the younger children. The view from the classrooms are the mudhouses and shacks some of these children walk from everyday, derelict “homes” that are at the mercy of any whim of the Grahamstown weather. I have made various observations from visiting these classrooms and interacting with teachers who are doing the most important job in South Africa with the least recognition.
Today I was with a teacher who has been in the profession for 41 years! And this is her final year in the classroom, she's retiring with another colleague of hers who has also been teaching for a similar period. Another teacher I spoke to earlier this year has been a teacher for over 30 years...both in Grade 1 classrooms consistently. What I'm beginning to realise is that most of the teachers in Foundation Phase are much older and starting to retire. What does this mean for the classrooms in South African schools? This is even more frightening as few young black people are not interested in becoming teachers to educate the masses of African language-speaking children in in their mother tongues. I wonder why we bother advocating a mother tongue education in the formative years if the numbers we have in people who are trained and qualified to do the job do not meet the demands.
Apart from talking to the teachers about their experiences I’m also learning about their practice and what it takes to teach children how to read and write-often many walk into these classrooms with little or no knowledge of these skills. Being able to read and write is something I think many of us take for granted. Something as simple as reading an sms needs the skills we learned way back in Grade one. I still remember feeling like a writer in Grade one when the entire school magazine was made up of our stories. Apart from the fact that I was not educated in my mother tongue (this only happened in my third year at varsity), I was still able to express my creativity and put a few sentences together to form a coherent story. I had the privilege of a school library that was made accessible to all learners everyday and a community library in walking distance that supplied me with the kind of books I need to get as much exposure to reading as possible. This is not the case for many of the learners I saw in these classrooms. School libraries and even a classroom library is non-existent, where there is a library in the community, the librarians face the problem of encouraging learners to read books purely for enjoyment and not just the functional purpose of school projects. Observing in classrooms I realise that this was not possible for all children. The classes are as big as 40, the teacher uses creative means of monitoring each child in the classroom regardless of the fact that legislation proposes a ratio less than this. Having 40 children in a class means that the teacher is not able to know if all the children in the class are able to read. In another classroom I observed how language becomes a barrier to learning in a classroom where English is used for teaching and learning especially if the teacher does not have any knowledge of the learner’s mother tongue. It’s a pity some parents cannot make the time to visit their children’s classes the way I have been able to as I think they would feel differently about having their children taught in almost a foreign language to their children, albeit it is the supposed global language (and this is very debatable), English.
It’s frustrating reading about the dismal failure rates in South African schools in mostly rural and township schools when the matric results are released. It’s even more frightening seeing how the calamity begins at a Grade 1 level as I’ve been witnessing this past week. The purpose of this insight is not to berate the teachers but share my experience of the conditions in South Africa’s classrooms. It is not a surprise that the results from an international reading study, PIRLS, in 2006 showed that South Africa was the worst performing country when our Grade 4 and 5 learners where included in the study. The test was administered in the languages that the children where exposed to in their classrooms and learners who were being taught in Afrikaans were the better performers, followed by those learning in English and learners taught in African languages were at the bottom. Not only were South African learners reaching below the mean set out in this study, we were worse off than countries who weren’t spending as much as we are in education.
I’m making many claims in this article: we need more teachers for education in the formative years, we need more teachers who can teach in the African languages in South Africa, we need smaller classrooms, we to make literacy an important part of our education by having communities that support literacy through mobile or community libraries, we need civic involvement in education where the results become everybody’s problems and not just the teachers. And I’m sure we all agree on these imperatives, but underlying them all is the need to address the inequalities we see in our communities because until this is done, our classrooms will be a reminder of how we are failing masses of the children in South Africa.