Thursday, July 19, 2012


This is a piece I read recently at a youth conference hosted by Re-think Leadership, Unconventional. I was part of Sacred Slam

I watch them when they think no one is watching

I eavesdrop into their conversations when they think no one is listening

Mostly I hear questions, wrapped, hidden, neatly tied with jokes and frivolous talk like ribbons and bows on Christmas presents

So when he walks into my classroom

Shuffling his feet

Bag slung over his shoulder

Shoulders slumped and lost in his over-sized blazer

He has a quizzical look on his face.

I greet him with a smile even though I’ve been warned not to smile as a new teacher, it gives too much away.

I smile to hide my own anxiety about being in this space.

He ambles to the back of the classroom, dramatically drops his bag on the floor with a bang

Slumps into his chair, stares at nothing in particular while waiting for the class to fill up

He doesn’t return my smile and slowly I avert my eyes back to the paperwork on my desk.

Finally the question behind the quizzical look is revealed.

“Ma’am, why are we doing this?”

I pause before I answer him and scan the numbers on my spreadsheet because human potential has been limited to numbers, a pass and a fail.

“I don’t know ” is the answer that I give him

I imagine him as he sat, biting his nails trying to remember all that was stuffed into his brain in order to be reproduced on the blank paper in front of him with the tyranny of time as the clock ticked for two hours, no talking, only the sound of pen on paper.

Has my answer let him down?

Was he expecting an answer because that’s what teachers do, they have all the answers right?

I can see he is disappointed by my lack of knowledge

Maybe I should have told him that “This” is a game and the rules are unfair because they were written by people who are no longer alive or even part of this game.

This is where it’s supposed to begin

The mixed messages about being an individual while wearing a uniform that makes you look like the person standing next to you

This is about the expectation that you must be the best you can be amidst the peer pressure of being as average as you can be

Or is it below average? Because on paper only 30% is expected from you...So you only have to contribute 30% of your energy and brain cells because it’s only just for marks.

This is where people like me, teachers, think they should tell you how to be in the world.

This is about preparing you to be the leaders of tomorrow, forgetting that you ought to be leaders everyday...

This is about rules, structure, order, working longer and harder, preparing you for the real world

This is about redressing a legacy of Bantu education in the new South Africa where young people still leave the classroom without being able to read and write...and thinking? That’s just asking for too much!

This is a playground where the swings, the skipping ropes, the slides and see-saw have been replaced by the many rooms with four walls, passages desks, chairs, books, and if you are really lucky you might have textbooks, science labs, computer labs, smartboards, lockers, tuckshop, library, homework, noticeboards,

And playground politics are about dodging detention, bullies, neat hair, tucked in shirts, wanna-be rebels who are too cool for school, boys feigning manhood, girls pining to be women.

This is about limitations and endless possibilities if the beauty hidden in the young mind could be set free

This is about asking the right questions and making an effort to work out the answers for yourself and not relying on the textbook or the memo or even the person sitting next to you

This is education, teaching, the classroom, the school, my passion and my nightmare...

[context: after exams we give back the marks to the learners before they get their reports. The point is to give kids the chance to hackle over their marks and verify if teachers have calculated term marks properly. So the scene above happened on the day we had to do this with the kids and one of the Grade 9s asked me the question and I extended the question to being about school in general.]

Friday, July 6, 2012

where are the teachers?

I’ve been following the Limpopo textbook (and now workbook) saga with half an ear. The furore unfolded while my learners and I were undergoing the arduous and exhausting process of mid year exams. The debacle has been yet another crude reminder of the compromise of a constitutional right as well as the incompetence of the Department of Basic Education which has placed the education of many children in jeopardy. Without the simple resource of textbooks, I think it’s safe to assume that little (if any) teaching and learning took place in schools in Limpopo.

Most of the commentary on the furore has focused on the Department’s failures, the corruption and the tragedy of burning books (I shudder at the thought of books being burnt as it highlights the dismal education in our country where books have no value) and lately, the conspiracy theories about what really led to this demise. As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder where are the teachers? Are the teachers in Limpopo so disempowered that they could not make a stand when books were not delivered as promised? Why are teachers in South Africa silent?

The silence suggests a level of disregard for education by teachers and the major teacher union in this country. Contrary to popular belief, teaching is a challenge and it becomes even more challenging when resources are few or non-existent as is the case with many schools in South Africa. However, teachers who are mostly affected by a lack of delivery are also the teachers who are part of a union that only makes a noise when the question of salaries is on the table. But when the real issues of ensuring teaching and learning in our schools are at stake, there is a deafening silence.

This suggests that most teachers seem to be okay the lack of infrastructure in their schools; that teachers are okay without the basics in the classrooms (though we know that toilet infrastructure and enough classroom space are no longer considered as the basics). I would love to see a scientist who is relaxed when the chemicals do not arrive for the experiments they need to do in their lab or a doctor who is happy to perform an operation with insufficient anaesthetic or a builder who doesn’t have enough material to build a bridge and attempts to build it anyway.

The silence of teachers in the face of a shambolic education system perpetuates the idea that teaching is not a profession, but rather, the majority of the teachers in our schools are people who are happy to get away with doing as little as possible and receive a payslip they complain about at the end of the month. However, this assessment would be disingenuous to many teachers who work hard under very challenging conditions, they rise to the occasion and teach so that their learners achieve great results despite the lack and failures of government.

What further complicates this issue is the disparate nature of teachers as a community. The two systems of education—where one is for the rich with former model c schools and private schools and the other for poor people in townships and rural areas—means that there are two distinct groups of teachers who fight different battles. Teachers in middle class contexts ward off interfering parents while juggling busy extra-mural timetables; while teachers in poorer contexts have to deal with absent parents (for often complex reasons), crowd control and chaotic schools with poor management. The structure of teacher unions further exacerbates this challenge as they further entrench the differences amongst teachers. I am not suggesting teachers unite as one homogenous voice, but where there seems to be no communication amongst teachers about the real changes that need to happen in order to protect the profession from the slippery slope into nowhere, there are very few gains that can be made in education.

This also raises the question of the parents; where teachers fail, why are parents silent? Teachers are supposed to be in loco parentis therefore they need to become more vocal about the state of education as the future of the teaching profession in South Africa is in trouble. We do not produce enough teachers in South Africa and instead, there’s a steady exodus of young teachers seeking greener pastures abroad.

The perceptions about teaching in this country further hinders many young people from entering the profession. Those of us who are in the profession are seen as failures (because there’s nothing easier than working with hundreds of teenagers everyday or leaving school at 2pm right?) or as I have personally experienced, I’m simply going through a phase and one day I’ll move onto a better profession. There isn’t any expectation that we need to recreate the teaching profession if young people are to consider it as a serious option and become part of changing the face of education in this country.

Citizens and parents need to start expecting teachers to be better. We have an education system propped up by civil society that simply shrugs its shoulders and accepts the status quo and expects teachers to abdicate from their responsibilities and do nothing about the state of their classrooms. For as long as we don’t expect more from our teachers and are quiet about their role in the failure of our system, we are all complicit in the failure of our education system.