There are very few professions that are referred to as “a calling”. The few I know: teaching, being a doctor (traditional healers included) and becoming a religious teacher. There are super-spiritual connotations with the idea of “a calling”. The first time I heard about the idea of “a calling” was in the context of someone becoming a traditional healer. The idea is that one is called by the ancestors and they are bestowed with special gifts from the ancestors in order to help people through spiritual and physical healings. There is very little choice when one is “called” because “a calling” suggests fate, destiny.The idea that some professions could be “a calling” came much later, but the idea also has the same connotations of “specialness” because someone who has been called to be a teacher has special gifting that allows them to be a teacher, often in the most difficult circumstance.
Mme Shape Msiza is a teacher who thinks of her role as a teacher as “a calling”. She has been teaching for twenty years. She teaches English at Ponelopele Oracle Secondary School (POSS) in Ebony Park, Midrand. In 2012 she was the winner of Top Gauteng Teachers Awards in Ekurhuleni under the secondary education category. Since she’s been the Head of the English department (at POSS) she has achieved 100% in English amongst Grade 12 learners. In an interview with the BBC she describes her teaching style as one she comes out of her shoes as a teacher and becomes a parent which allows her to talk to the students about their social lives. Her love and passion for her students trumps her ambitions for financial gains as she reflects: “most cases teachers are not seen as a people who can be rich or who can be rich because the salary is not good. You never have money as a teacher! So we need to see it as a calling. You need to compromise.”
She influences the lives of her students beyond the classroom as someone who is involved in a myriad of activities that have a holistic approach to a child’s education. She helps students with real life matters so they are ready for the real world when they leave school. One of the challenges she mentions is that it is not easy being a teacher. Children are not what they used to be because even when a teacher reprimands a students it does not mean the students will be respectful. Some students are involved with drugs, others drop out of school because of pregnancy and others are child orphans with no adult supervision in their life. In a school of just over a 1000 learners, 20 girls often drop out because of pregnancy.
As part of expressing her commitment to her students (and her calling) Mme Msiza commits to her learners by giving them extra lessons as she is concerned about those who lag behind during class time. In spite of her efforts at being a teacher she expresses a concern that many students are reluctant to become teachers when they leave schools. Those who are successful at the end of matric come back to the school to share their experience in other career paths, but not teaching.
Mme Msiza’s story is a complex one given the context of education in South Africa. More specifically, when we consider the image we have of teachers in most township schools; how many teachers who have 40 or 50 learners in their class (many of whom they never get to know and may never get to teach meaningfully) consider their experience as a special vocation, “a calling”? Mme Msiza is open about her low salary as she chooses to invest in the lives of others rather than pursue a lucrative career. Yet we know that many teachers from township schools are the ones found guilty of disrupting schools and striking in the name of better salaries.
I am conflicted when I read about Mme Msiza’s work in her school. Personally, I haven’t experienced teaching as “a calling”. I chose to be a teacher. I don’t know if it is my fate or part of my destiny. Does this make me a bad teacher? What is the difference between a teacher who sees their role as a teacher with “a calling” and one who does not sees their role as a teacher with a degree of specialness, “a calling”? I think this question alludes to a class dynamic at play in the teaching profession: teachers who teach under difficult circumstances such as township schools or rural areas need to feel special given the circumstances they find themselves within. One can only be “called” to become a teacher if they choose to teach under dire circumstances where their learners build resilience and are often let down by the education. What makes them continue being teachers? Is it the weight of the “calling” or a question of choices available to them? How about teachers in private schools: if one is in a privileged context with a different set of challenges and different choices available, do they share the same sentiments of specialness in the form of “a calling”?
This blog post is part of the #Teacher Tuesday blog project, which seeks to discuss the issues emerging in the Unesco Education for All Global Monitoring Report. This is week 9 of the project (ten teachers over ten weeks).