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An aspiration to retain young teachers as national teacher network is launched

An aspiration to retain young teachers as national teacher network is launched
A classroom. Image: Kenny Eliason for Unsplash

Many young South African teachers are considering changing jobs. Some are looking for other options within education, some are looking at augmenting teaching incomes with other work while others plan to leave the profession entirely. This is disturbing when seen against a backdrop of an ageing teacher cohort and projected teacher shortages. 

This is a finding of a survey of young South African teachers conducted for Teachers CAN, a DG Murray Trust initiative. Teachers CAN aims to grow a network of young teachers with the agency to influence their working environment at school and in the greater system with the common goal of ensuring quality education for all.

The survey was commissioned to shed light on the perceptions and experiences of young South African teachers as the first step in an evidence-based public advocacy campaign. About 400 young teachers across all provinces and in public schools across varied socioeconomic communities were surveyed. The report will be launched on 15 October 2022 in Cape Town to commemorate World Teachers Month.

The study has found that school culture and leadership are major influences on the quality of the experience of first-time teachers, and as such, are determinants in teacher retention. Furthermore, teachers talk of anxiety when first arriving at schools and note the need for a more structured bridge between university and the workplace. Many reported that they felt unprepared when walking into the classroom for the first time. “It’s not easy as a teacher when you assess and mark and your learners are failing. You do your support and everything but they still fail… That was one of my lows. It made me question myself. Was I on the right career path?”

While many report being well supported in schools, significant gaps in induction, mentoring and in-class support remain. Young teachers report that they would particularly value mentorship around the non-academic aspects of teaching, such as offering psychosocial support to pupils.

A Manifesto bringing young teachers together

At the heart of the Teachers CAN mission is the Manifesto which unites young teachers around five core values. Imagine a South Africa where all young teachers were able to: support pupils to reach their potential in all aspects of their lives; engage as equals and for equality in schools; innovate their own and school-wide teaching practices; play an active role in school structures; and connect to a wider world of social change.  While the Manifesto is an aspiration, young teachers report a mixed bag of experiences against each of its points.

Most teachers interviewed were supporting learners in myriad ways beyond delivering the curriculum, often at personal cost. Given the structural social issues in our society, many teachers feel the expectation to support learners is overwhelming given the other pressures of the job. “We have many roles… we are mediators, we are counsellors, we are acting as a parent in absentia of a parent. Last year, a child confided in me… I discovered that the child was being abused by a cousin,” says one participant.

Most teachers reported positive experiences with colleagues, but in qualitative interviews revealed that they were treated unequally in various ways. Many reported informal generational and gender-based hierarchies at schools and only half the respondents said they always or often felt valued and taken seriously.

“We are forced to call someone ‘mama’ at work… If they do something wrong, you can’t tell them… if you speak out they say you are very disrespectful,” says another respondent.

Given the prescriptive content of the education system, teachers have little agency in shaping the curriculum. However, the majority (71%) indicated that they “always” had autonomy to teach the curriculum in their own style. When this was expanded in qualitative interviews, two-thirds felt limited by oversight systems, and they would like more mentorship support to explore teaching methodologies. Some cited positive support experiences which talk to the importance of school culture in retaining young teachers in the system: “What is nice, every time a new teacher comes to the school they have a buddy system, you then have your ‘go-to’ person. The person I have is amazing.”

In terms of professional development about half of young teachers were enrolled in further studies. However, two-thirds reported that they do not get any study or professional development opportunities through their schools. Many who did get opportunities through the Department of Basic Education complained about the poor quality of this training: “They encourage us to go out and study… but they don’t guide or facilitate these opportunities… they just say it in passing. I would like to see more support and mentorship. They just leave you to work things out.”

Imagining a different world

The Manifesto imagines a world where young teachers are active in school decision-making structures.

While 27% reported participating in structures, in qualitative interviews it was revealed that young teachers often participate in non-decision-making structures such as matric dance, event, entertainment or learner reward committees. Many spoke of fresh ideas that they brought to schools through the committees. Says one participant: “When I arrived here the sports was dead. I joined the sports committee and immediately affiliated the school with athletics and we joined district competitions. Not every learner is good in class, and I wanted to open up other opportunities for learners.”

Teachers CAN imagines a world where young teachers are connected to a wider world of social change. The research revealed that while almost half the respondents belonged to church, sports or other interest groups, only about 20% were part of teacher networks outside of school. These were often WhatsApp groups that remained after their studies.

However, more than 60% of young teachers saw a role for themselves in a broader network of young teachers. Teachers in quintile 4 and 5 schools (catering to better-resourced communities) were more enthusiastic about joining an external network than those from quintile 1 and 2 schools. This could suggest that teachers in less-resourced schools are more overwhelmed and have less “bandwidth” for external activities. “Teachers are friends with teachers! I know a lot of teachers but I am not part of any formal network. My honours course has opened a network of teachers,” says a respondent.

There is considerable research on the poor performance of South African public schools, with additional research suggesting that those in leadership positions (circuit managers, subject advisers, principals) blame poor academic performance on everyone but themselves. While the pursuit of quality education “highly depends on the engagement, well-being, retention and performance of teachers”, undersupported teachers are often blamed for the failures of the system and many talk of leaving.

“I will be teaching for as long as I am building my side-business. We are under a lot of pressure, we are underpaid, we receive a lot of criticism. I’m busy with property on the side, renting, and I want to move into selling,” says one participant.

“There is a plan! I see myself moving into the department. Our education system is failing our kids. If I can go and make a difference at the inner workings of the system, even to fix one aspect of the entire thing…”

Teachers CAN aims to change this narrative of teachers being at the heart of the problem. It encourages the retention of young teachers while helping to build a more inclusive education system. If you are a young teacher reading this: your country needs you! DM/ML

To find out more, or to join the network, visit here or follow TeachersCANza on social media platforms.

This research was conducted by Social Innovations and Social Surveys on behalf of the DG Murray Trust. 

Kimon Phitidis is a director of Social Innovations, a social investment and research agency that is active in the public schooling sector. He is the author of Where Light Shines Through: tales of can-do teachers in South Africa’s no-fee public schools.

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  • Sam van Coller says:

    This is an outstanding contribution towards finding the road to improve our education system. Congratulations to all those involved in making it happen. Extremely unequal education is the linchpin of ever increasing inequality which is standing in the way of South Africa escaping from the morass into which it is heading. Our teachers are in the front line of an extremely tense and problematic education world and need to be supported so that they don’t feel the need to hold the country to ransom. The key step now is for the DG Murray Trust to fund two more pieces of research. The first should look at how Principals, Regional Directors and SGB’s see themselves in this high conflict situation. The second should look at what is needed to develop a co-operative relationship between the Department and the educator unions around a shared vision. Unless this road can be found, so many of our children will have no future and the country will reap the whirlwind. If the human energy of our teachers and children can be released and if young graduates are excited about becoming educators, our educators and children will surprize us all. The talent and energy is there – we need to get the institutional arrangements and leadership following a new c0-operative vision of social progress.

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