Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The politics of teaching

By Athambile Masola

There is a largely negative perception about teachers as being quasi-professionals, overworked, underpaid, intellectually complacent and, if they are members of the largest teacher union, often jeopardising the education of their learners by going on strikes. The image of teachers is also largely dependent on the school culture a teacher is working within, as well as the personal expectations teachers have of themselves as individuals. This highlights the politics of teaching — the lived experience of being a teacher.

The Norms and Standards for Educators 2000 document writes about teachers being “mediators of learning, interpreters and designers of learning programmes and materials, leaders, administrators and managers, scholars, researchers and lifelong learners, community members, citizens and pastors, assessors and learning area/phase specialists”. These norms and standards highlight the high expectations of teachers.

But most teachers fall short.

South Africa’s education system has been ranked fourth worst in the world. The complexities that plague our system have been discussed and debated endlessly. Among these are the failure of the ruling party in addressing the two streams of education, the effects of poverty on education, which further exacerbates the cleavage between the rich and the poor, the quality of teacher training and the urgent need for citizens to become more involved in finding solutions to the challenges facing many schools across the country. The role of teachers is often flagged, but a focus on the realities teachers face in classrooms is clouded by a discourse focusing on the bigger picture of policy and administrative failures.

Because of the two streams of education, we can argue that there are two sets of teachers in this country, those who are in privileged middle-class schools, contexts where they can meet the norms and standards listed above, and teachers in poorer schools who are falling short. However, this would be disingenuous and unfair towards those teachers who are resilient and have made a commitment to their learners in spite of the poor contexts within which they work. Much ink has been spilt on the exodus of teachers from South Africa, where people are seeking greener pastures in other countries.

Given this context, it is no surprise that many young people do not consider teaching as a worthy profession. As a first-year teacher I have been interrogated endlessly about my intentions for choose teaching in light of the negative perceptions that are held about the profession. I am perceived as a quasi-professional in a climate that discourages young people from considering teaching as a tool for transforming the education crises. Without new teachers in the system, how can education be transformed? The challenges in education not only need better administration and policies, but transformation cannot happen without teachers who are committed to changing their practices as well as holding fast to the basics that allow for teaching and learning to continue in schools.

The historical backlash against teaching adds to the negative perception as race, gender and age play a role in this complexity. For many teachers (especially teachers who are female and black), teaching was the default profession that people stumbled into because of sexist and racist apartheid legislation. People who became teachers in the 1970s and 1980s are still in our classrooms today with the hope of retiring soon. As a result, younger people do not consider teaching as an option because of the image of older, redundant and embittered teachers who are counting the days until retirement. Those who are still passionate about the profession are at the mercy of confused curriculum reforms, which have not been properly explained to them.

The textbook debacle in Limpopo raised the question about the role of teachers: what did teachers in Limpopo do during the textbook debacle? There are numerous examples of teachers being silent and simply accepting the status quo in their schools. I speak as someone who has never personally experienced education in the rural areas, therefore I do not know the extent of the constraints that teachers in this context face. However, this is an opportunity to ask ourselves how teachers in rural areas and townships can be agents of positive change, teacher-leaders, rather than subjects complicit in the chaos in many schools.

While looking for a teaching post last year I considered teaching in the Eastern Cape. There was no vacancy list available on the Eastern Cape’s department of education website. The Western Cape education department had numerous vacancy lists throughout last year and I was able to apply for a post in Cape Town in spite of my recognition that teachers are needed in the Eastern Cape. This experience demonstrates how maladministration can prevent young graduates from joining the profession if information about teaching posts is not made readily available in provinces that are in dire need of teachers.

Without a transformed teaching force, our current education system is not sustainable. Education is political and teaching is equally political if classrooms are spaces that are supposed to transform young people into reading, writing, counting, thinking, empathetic citizens of this country.

Athambile Masola is a teacher at a high school in Cape Town.

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