South Africa

Op-Ed: Crumbs of Ignorance for the Poor

By Maryke Bailey 4 December 2015

We have to choose sides: either we protect the incompetent, or we protect the vulnerable. Out of politeness we do not criticise bad teachers. At other times we are silent because so many teachers work so hard, and are so sincere, but sincerity is just not enough. Good intentions need to be coupled with competence. By MARYKE BAILEY.

There has been a lot of attention on the government’s inability to provide basic resources like textbooks. The state should be held accountable for its failure to deliver, but we need to move past our obsession with resources we can tick off on a list, and move to the deeper problem in our education system: the dearth of quality teachers.

We need to look beyond the textbook obsession for the following reasons. First, it assumes that all textbooks are of a good quality. Second, it assumes that the kids are literate enough to read them. Third, it assumes that the teachers are competent enough to use the books as a teaching aid. The 2012 Summary report of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (NEEDU) points out that in many schools’ foundation phase classrooms, “the state of the ‘reading corner’ suggested general apathy and disinterest on the part of the teacher to encourage reading.”

If we shift our focus on getting good teachers in the system, they will ensure that their learners get the necessary resources. The NEEDU report goes on to state that “[w]here principals and teachers understand the requirements of their subject they make a plan to acquire or create the appropriate reading material, and manage these carefully to serve succeeding generations of learners.”

My first teaching experience showed me how irrelevant resources were in comparison to competent teaching. The level of education that many of the kids had received in primary school broke my heart. Some of my classes averaged between 30% and 40% in reading and writing, and that included first-language speakers. I witnessed a Grade 8 so unfamiliar with books that he studiously began reading the publishing information, mistaking it for the first page of his literature book. It made as much sense as any other writing that he came across. For that boy, and so many like him, textbooks alone won’t create opportunities. Their hope lies in a teacher who knows what she is doing.

After I got over my first shock of teachers currently in the system, I was faced with the horror of what to expect in the future. I was given a BEd student teacher to supervise. I was so excited to help her, but she drove me to despair. There were kids sitting in my under-achieving classes who knew more than she did. English was her major, but she struggled with the language herself. It was clear that she did not enjoy reading for pleasure, and her language lessons were a disaster. This is where it gets tense. What right have I, a product of white privilege, to judge harshly this student who was trying to better herself? While both my parents are Afrikaans, I’ve been in English schools my entire life, and I’ve had access to the language of power. I’ve had it easy. What right have I to bring in my snobbish ideas about English education?

I claim the right because I stand for the rights of our children. Poor children exposed to sub-par teachers are victims of a gross injustice perpetrated against them by the state. It entrenches the systemic inequalities of South African society. Middle-class kids are already at an advantage when they start school due to their cultural and social capital. Should they come across a couple of bad teachers, their contacts and resources will ensure that the damage is contained. Poor kids have no such support. Incompetence is the rule, not the exception.

It’s simply not fair that the wealthy, the lucky and the politically connected get the teachers who can guide their children to excellence, while the rest have to struggle, or drop out, because their teachers are ignorant of high school basics. I think there would be a much more rigorous selection of teachers if politicians had to send their kids to the average state school. I wanted my student teacher to improve her own economic situation. I was glad that she was in university to get this opportunity. But I refuse to accept that we must sacrifice hundreds, possibly thousands of kids’ futures in order to give one person a pay cheque from the Department of Basic Education.

I claim the right to promote teacher excellence because I’ve seen the difference decent teachers can make. I found a kid bunking other classes to sit in my Lord of the Flies lessons. I’ve giggled with academically weak 16 years olds as we read Shakespeare’s raunchier language. I’ve seen comprehension marks improve by up to 40% in one year. Other teachers in the English department had similar success stories. Those were the teachers who loved English, understood it and inspired their learners. I therefore claim the right to speak up against ignorance, because I’ve seen the massive benefits excellence holds for disadvantaged learners.

Unfortunately, my subsequent encounters with student teachers have done nothing to rid me of my first impression. There are some fantastic teachers coming in, but they are a sought-after minority. I have encountered sincere, but weak students, and many that were lazy and unabashed by their lack of knowledge.

One particularly bratty student teacher once let everyone in the staffroom know that she was expected to teach Romeo and Juliet, but that her supervising teacher didn’t even bother to give her a study guide. How dare he expect her to understand Shakespeare? I was so embarrassed on her behalf. She was a first-language speaker and boasted a BA degree in English. How did she not get that expecting an English graduate to understand Shakespeare was like expecting a mathematician to understand maths?

I remember that particular incident quite vividly because it represents the biggest problem in our education system. We are entrusting our kids to the dregs of academia. Even worse, many of them are the lazy dregs. We live in a deeply unequal society, and giving our poorest kids the lowest achievers won’t level the playing field. It’s harsh, I know. But we have to choose sides. Either we protect the incompetent, or we protect the vulnerable. Out of politeness we do not criticise bad teachers. At other times we are silent because so many teachers work so hard, and are so sincere, but sincerity is just not enough. Good intentions need to be coupled with competence.

We need to make it a priority to plan for the future of education. We need to realise that the most important resources in a school are the teachers. As citizens, we need to start holding our government accountable for the quality of teachers it allows into the state system.

Government, universities, the private sector, teachers and education activists need to get together to start devising a plan that will ensure that we attract the brightest and most talented to the teaching profession, and focus on keeping them there. If 20 years ago we had made it a priority that only the best would be allowed to influence our youth, would our current education crisis exist?

The Soweto youth of 1976 understood their situation. They pointed out that they were “fed the crumbs of ignorance with Afrikaans as a poisonous spoon.” Kudos to our democratic government for taking away the poisoned spoon. But the quality of teachers in democratic South Africa keeps the essence of this slogan as relevant as it was 39 years ago. If you really want to test whether a country cares about its citizens, study the people who have been officially entrusted with promoting the welfare of the most vulnerable groups. Children trapped in cycles of poverty have an opportunity of a better life through education. However, as with everything else, the rich get the best resources, and government deploys the leftovers to the poor. DM

Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who took a hiatus from full-time teaching in 2015. During this time she has been involved in various education-related projects on a free-lance basis.

Photo: Children walk to school, near former South African President Nelson Mandela’s house in Qunu June 14, 2013. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.

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