To be or not to be [a teacher]... that is the question...

Last week I had an interview for a teaching post at a private school. I applied because I could and I didn’t think I would get an interview because I don’t have experience teaching in high school. When I was informed I was selected for an interview I had a pseudo-melt down...why had I applied to a private school in the first place?

I decided I wanted to be a teacher when I was 18, in 2005. The decision was based on the belief that being a teacher was a guaranteed opportunity to add value to someone’s life (assuming the job is done correctly). It was also part of a reflection I had been going through at the time seeing as I had been at the same school for 12 years and had great teachers throughout that period(not to deny the fights and tensions with some of the teachers). What I didn’t appreciate fully at the time was the fact that the education I had received was not the norm in South Africa.

Moving to Grahamstown and volunteering at a school in Joza meant coming face to face with the ugly reality of education in South Africa. I never knew that school could close down because toilets had not been fixed. Learners would miss school because of SADTU meetings during school time. Learners were expected to learn in classrooms that had no windows. Resources didn’t arrive on time in order for learning to take place at the beginning of the year and teachers could decided willy nilly whether they were going to arrive at school and teach or not. I met learners who could not read and write in high school because they had floated through a system that didn’t ensure they had the basics to move onto the next grade. This was anomalous with the education I had received and I was infuriated. I began exploring the idea of being a teacher in a school unlike the one I was raised within. I decided I would become a teacher in a township school and be the change I wanted to see in the world. I was not going to reproduce the system by going back to my alma mater and I definitely wasn’t going to teach at a private school and be complicit in the social inequalities as they are played out in education.

The decision to teach has always been coloured with ethics because I see teaching as a tool to be part of transforming South Africa. But being an aspiring teacher and witnessing the level of dysfunction in some schools I have had to consider making a selfish decision: whether to teach at a good school where I can gain experience and knowledge in an environment where teaching is valued as a profession or to be a martyr in a school where the government treats teachers as though they were doing society a favour by being teachers. The schools I have observed in led me to wonder about what change a new eager teacher like me could make in a culture that reproduces and entrenches the lack of opportunities for working class children. It has become the norm to give working class children a bad education in spite of the expectations in the curriculum and the constitution about social justice and equality through education. I still wonder whether a new teacher like me would survive in an environment of chaos, where teaching and learning are compromised daily, not only at a school level but at district, provincial and national level.

Should I be unselfish and enter the second tier of education because it needs good teachers in spite of the reality of the challenges that teachers are facing? I have had numerous conversations with teachers asking me what I want to do after the Masters is complete. They have all been dumbfounded by my consistent reply that I want to be a teacher. The obvious irony is that unlike them, I have options and made the personal choice to consider a career in education that may not necessarily limit me to one classroom for more than 20 years.

In contemplating what teaching and education have come to mean to me, I find that I’m in a rock and a hard place: to take a risk in a school where there are no guarantees for supporting new teachers or a school with a historic and present privilege in a society with a widening gap between the rich and the poor. And whether I decide to teach at a private school or not, I might need to consider the bigger picture rather than the immediate decision of where to teach next year. I don’t have to worry about the outcome from the private school just yet, but simply keep my heart open to any opportunity that will add value to my journey as an aspiring teacher.

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