Are South Africa’s teachers adequately prepared to discuss the difficult questions? The increase in reports of racism at schools raises difficult questions for all of us. How do these incidents reflect on our society? And what role should parents, schools and teachers play to entrench a human rights culture in the classroom?
A few weeks ago, I discussed some of these difficult questions with life orientation (LO) teachers from private schools across the country and asked them to complete an anonymous survey. Out of 121 teachers that participated in the survey, only 28% indicated that they were adequately trained to teach citizenship education, a core component of the life orientation syllabus. If 72% of private school teachers require more training, what is the situation like in public schools?
Given that citizenship education provides students with the ability “to demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of the values and rights that underpin the Constitution…” it is imperative that we find ways to support teachers so they are able to facilitate meaningful discussion on the Constitution.
The life orientation teachers I encountered were passionate and committed to their subject. They recognised that despite the attention given to maths and science, life orientation needed to be taken just as seriously. One of the learning outcomes for life orientation is citizenship education, which gives students the ability “to demonstrate an understanding and appreciation of the values and rights that underpin the Constitution in order to practise responsible citizenship, and to enhance social justice and environmentally sustainable living”.
Most teachers believed that their students were able to demonstrate this learning outcome by the end of matric. However, teachers acknowledged that only 27% of their students took the life orientation subject seriously and that most of their students had never read the Bill of Rights. When I asked the teachers whether they had read the Bill of Rights, approximately 75% indicated they had read most or part of this chapter of the Constitution.
I then engaged teachers on some of the difficult questions that many South Africans continue to struggle with: abortion, gay rights and the death penalty. Approximately 69% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that gay people should have the right to marry. Out of the 121 teachers surveyed, about 63% believed a woman has the right to choose an abortion. When teachers were asked whether a murderer should receive the death penalty, 41% agreed or strongly agreed.
Compared to most South Africans, the attitudes reflected by the life orientation teachers can be optimistically viewed as being more closely aligned with the values in the Constitution. Based on a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) survey, 75% of South Africans support the death penalty, 78% are opposed to same sex relationships and 56% are opposed to abortion. The values gap between those enshrined in the Constitution and our personal values as South Africans is significant. Consequently, while teachers are expected to deal with these difficult questions in the classroom, they also struggle with these issues in their personal spaces.
How do teachers reconcile their personal values with the constitutional values they are expected to teach? And what happens when teachers supportive of the constitutional values encounter students who are not? By recognising that the values enshrined in the Constitution are contested and that most South Africans continue to struggle with the Bill of Rights, teachers have a real opportunity to create a space for dialogue and facilitate debate and discussion in the classroom. But, in order to do so, teachers must be adequately trained.
While cases such as the violent rape of a black student by four white students in a Northern Cape school are exceptional, corporal punishment administered by teachers resulting in the hospitalisation of their students is more common. In addition, racism and discrimination in classrooms appear to be increasing. Consequently, it could be argued that subtle and overt acts of racism as well as incidents of corporal punishment contribute to a culture of discrimination and violence in schools. This culture of violence is symptomatic and reflective of our broader society. And so the perpetuation of this culture in schools needs to be urgently addressed.
What is evident is that in order to reverse this culture of violence and discrimination, human rights education must be given priority alongside maths and science in our schools. Teachers need to be adequately trained to facilitate meaningful discussion on the difficult issues both inside and outside the classroom. This may seem like an unfair burden and responsibility placed on our already fragile education system and underpaid teachers. But it is a responsibility we must embrace. If we fail to do so, we will continue to see an increase in violence and discrimination in our schools. A society with excellent maths and science knowledge is critical. But a society that demonstrates an understanding of justice, empathy and human dignity – values that the Constitution demands from all of us – is absolutely fundamental. DM
Kayum Ahmed is the executive director of HumanRights.org.za
More information about the Know Your Constitution (#KYC) Campaign can be found at www.humanrights.org.za. The #KYC Campaign provides free copies of the Constitution in all 11 South African languages on any mobile phone using the Mxit platform. Download Mxit and search for the HumanRights.org.za app.
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