Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Teaching to transgress

By Athambile Masola

The public education system is failing in South Africa. This is nothing new. As the year comes to an end we will soon be bombarded with the matric results that will confirm the consequences of an unequal education system. We will all lament, shake our heads in despair, point fingers at the government for not taking education reform seriously and move on with our lives (unless one is a teacher or parent with a child in the system).

When we consider our public education system, it’s a mixed bag of complexities where the past of colonialism, apartheid and the failures of curriculum reform since the 1990s have collided causing an eruption of chaos in many schools. But we need to overcome this legacy. Everyone who has vested interests in the education system will posit what the solutions should be, ranging from “back to basics” pedagogy and the jettison of the outcomes based education curriculum. Others might suggest we ban teacher strikes and others, such as the ANCYL, will simply suggest a free and equal education system. The list of solutions is endless. I can never help but wonder, how many will consider the personal decision of becoming a teacher?

Part of the reason for the failures in our education system is the teachers. This is not to damn all teachers in the system, but we have a significantly high amount of poorly educated teachers and unpicking the complexities of professional development is not something the government has taken seriously. Until this is done, any reform will be like putting a plaster on a wound that needs stitches or serious surgery.

Getting new teachers into the system is not the sole responsibility of government and tertiary institutions or NGOs. It is every South African’s problem. This need not be a case of conscription or even patriotism, but where young graduates consider teaching as a profession for a few years. By virtue of their quality education, young graduates will not be limited and can leave the teaching profession and move on into the careers of their choice knowing that they have been part of the solution of changing the face of education in this country. This is not a question of “giving back” to the country in service, but rather paying forward and adding value to a system that is in serious need of reform.

Granted, teaching has been viewed as the noble profession people should not consider lightly. It ought to be “a calling” and not a result of necessity but rather a real passion for the learners and the project of developing young people. But we’re reaching a crises point where the number of teachers currently being produced does not match what is needed in schools. Every individual knows the importance of education whether or not they received a good education. What it takes for changing the profession is us, every South African who has the opportunity to create options for themselves and others by becoming a teacher.

What if we had more educators who truly believed that a poor education for working class children was unacceptable and demanded an equal education and better working conditions rather than better pay? What if we had communities who supported their schools and teachers and believed that it takes a village (community) to raise a child?

I have watched and even assisted friends apply to teach in Korea and China with the simple reason “it’s a better package”. This is true and a fair assessment when considering the perks for teaching in other countries, but I wonder how many of them will consider teaching when they return from their adventures abroad? We need good teachers to stay in the system and we need more educated young people to join the fraught system so we can change it from within rather than lament at more newspaper reports, shake our heads and simply move on with our lives.

In spite of the doom and gloom in the system, there are glimmers of hope that are created in classrooms with teachers who attempt to transgress the limitations. The simple and taken-for-granted process of watching someone develop and persevere is something we should consider being part of. This seems very simplistic given the bureaucratisation of the teaching profession. Perhaps that’s where the conversation should begin, how can we make it possible for more people to consider the teaching profession in spite of the challenges?

Athambile Masola is doing a master’s in education and will be a teacher in 2012. The title of this piece is borrowed from a book by bell hooks.


  • The Place of Sara Baartman at UCT
  • Committed to teaching in the midst of smog: Five turnaround strategies for rural schools
  • Some Remarks On A ‘Good’ University
  • Aesthetics of power and questioning what a ‘good’ university is