Opinionista Lehlohonolo Mofokeng 17 July 2020

Give teachers the respect they deserve and make it a desirable profession

When a university published a list of careers for which a sizeable number of its first-year students had applied and none saw teaching as their preferred career, I knew we were in trouble as a country.

In recent years, the government has intensified its efforts to recruit teachers into the system. Notably, one thinks of the Funza Lushaka bursary scheme. However, are they attracting suitable students who have the right attitude, skills and talent to withstand the pressures that accompany the teaching career? While in training, what mentoring and coaching initiatives are in place to keep these students motivated and ensure they remain in the system? It’s not enough to legally bind them to serve for the duration of their contracts, as is currently the case – we could do with innovation here.

Until teaching as a career entices young people who are academically strong, psycho-emotionally balanced, highly motivated, resilient and have a keen interest in human development, South Africa should brace itself for a steep journey ahead.

When Jean Lubuma was young, he wanted to be a maths teacher because both his father – teaching maths at a primary school – and his high school Grade 11 teacher had inspired him. By the end of his schooling career, everyone knew that he would become a mathematics teacher. That’s the story Lubuma, former Dean of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Pretoria, tells when asked about his childhood career aspiration. How many such examples still exist in South Africa? The current picture says only a handful.

When one university published a list of careers for which a sizeable number of its first-year students had applied and none of them saw teaching as their preferred career, I knew we were in trouble as a country. It is clear from this that a career in teaching doesn’t appeal to the majority of our people, especially the youth. The Teaching and Learning International Survey (Talis) agrees. Its telling research discovered that teaching was the first choice only of 49% of the current teaching force – the lowest among participating countries, with the average at 67%. This doesn’t make for great reading for a country that desperately needs more top teachers.

Singapore understood that if it was to become a global economic superpower, it had to invest in its people. To attain this, it recruited its academically strong citizens into teaching. Its Education Ministry “carefully selects prospective teachers from the top one-third of the secondary school graduating class”.

Sadly, we cannot say the same about South Africa. My interactions with most fellow young teachers reveal that they chose teaching out of desperation rather than passion. Failing to meet minimum entry requirements of their preferred disciplines, they chose teaching. Disappointingly, many faculties of education in South Africa fuel this practice with their relatively weaker selection criteria, making it easy for academically weaker candidates to get in. When we succeed in attracting the best young teachers, we fail to keep them long enough.

In equal measure, it’s hard to ignore the contribution of the media to this problem. Teachers do not get the credit that they deserve in this country. They mainly form part of the national discourse when they have been outperformed by their learners or when they lack pedagogical content knowledge.

Poor working conditions, incidents of violence and disrespect by learners to which some of our teachers are often subjected, fuel this blaze that is already hard to extinguish. Add to this some parents who think it is our responsibility to teach their children what they should at home – discipline and respect for others.

This complicates things for us to create conducive learning environments in which every learner is afforded quality education. I also know of a number of highly talented young teachers in this country who have quit their posts because of harassment by principals and departmental heads. Like these young teachers, a friend recently confessed his readiness to leave the profession owing to deliberate frustrations caused by colleagues and an immediate supervisor. This speaks to wide management and leadership gaps that exist in some of our schools. In our midst, we also have teachers who discourage their top learners from becoming teachers, citing reasons such as meagre salaries and high stress levels that accompany the profession.

The more we push academically strong learners away from the profession, the deeper the hole we dig for ourselves. During their mandatory visits, there are student teachers whose reasons for becoming teachers are met with strong criticism from seasoned teachers because these veteran teachers feel the student teachers could be doing something “better” with their talents. If we cannot be good ambassadors and custodians of our profession, who will be? The fact that you graduated top of your class in matric doesn’t mean you should pursue a degree in any of the professions that are deemed prestigious by society.

In equal measure, it’s hard to ignore the contribution of the media to this problem. Teachers do not get the credit that they deserve in this country. They mainly form part of the national discourse when they have been outperformed by their learners or when they lack pedagogical content knowledge. Against this backdrop, here are my suggestions on how we can attract more top talent into teaching:

  • It is the responsibility of every teacher to act in a way that doesn’t bring the name of the profession into disrepute.
  • As teachers, in any way possible, let’s be so excellent in how we teach that anyone who thought teachers were mediocre reconsiders their perception.
  • Given the power of the media to influence human behaviour and perception, media houses can profile exceptional young teachers who are already in the system to share their experiences with the public and how they continue to excel despite the odds.
  • Every faculty of education applicant needs to be the subject of a rigorous selection process with the understanding that only the best students are admitted. Why is it that other disciplines do this but not education?
  • The Department of Basic Education (DBE) needs to intensify its efforts to incentivise teachers who meet certain targets across all grades. In my years of teaching, I have seen how a teacher’s attitude positively transforms when they know there is a reward, not punishment, for a job well done. Congruent with this is research that shows there is a positive relationship between the teachers’ financial well-being and their on-the-job satisfaction – by implication, performance. Because of high morale, they will start to speak well of the profession.
  • The DBE needs to accelerate its efforts to fix infrastructural backlogs that still bedevil the majority of schools facing multiple deprivations.
  • Faculties of education need to intensify their efforts to recruit top learners from top schools. This will mean building stronger relationships with the surrounding communities and schools.
  • We need more initiatives like this fellowship through which top student teachers aren’t only funded but are given continuous holistic support by exposing them to opportunities that strengthen their commitment to teaching.

Next time someone talks you into choosing a career other than teaching  – solely because they don’t see it worthy of your talents and competencies – remind them of Oliver Tambo (one of Africa’s finest leaders), Sechaba Mahlomaholo (former Dean of Education and Harvard-trained researcher), Sheryl Suzanne Crow (musician), Maya Angelou (a poet whose words transformed the world), or Chinezi Chijioke (the CEO of Nova Pioneer schools). All of them served as teachers who went on to become big names in their own right. DM

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