Opinionista Michael le Cordeur 6 October 2020

Schools urgently need young, committed teachers

There is now an opportunity for a new approach with the appointment of teachers. Better career planning is needed so that experienced teachers can train their successors to be ready when they retire.

I was barely 21 when I accepted my first teaching position. I was thrown in at the deep end: Afrikaans for Gr. 10 and 11. The following year, the matrics were entrusted to me – some of them were older than me. 

Back then, some of the schools had so many young men on their staff that we could field a rugby team for the annual derby. But that was then. Nowadays, young teachers are as scarce as politicians without a tender contract. 

Now that all learners have returned to school, we are experiencing a serious shortage of teachers because not everyone can return due to underlying illnesses. Nationwide, about 22,000 teachers – and about 2,700 teachers in the Western Cape – worked from home. 

The general public’s sentiment about educators with comorbidities was unsympathetic. Some of the comments on social media were, “Teachers who stay at home should not get paid”, “Replace teachers with comorbidities with people who really want to go to school” and “Why can teachers sit at home and receive a salary every month but nurses have to work every day?” There were probably many other such remarks, most of which speak of ignorance and stereotyping. 

After 40 years of experiencing education from all sides (as a teacher, deputy principal, principal, circuit manager and now lecturer), I know that the vast majority of teachers earn their daily bread through hard, honest work. 

Yes there will always be those who exploit the system. We already hear of teachers who are too ill to teach, but apply to mark matric papers; who believe schools are dangerous places, while hanging out in busy shopping malls. But they are the exception and hopefully they will be… unmasked. 

Nevertheless, we have a responsibility to address the shortcomings in the education system. It has now been said several times that Covid-19 has opened our eyes to the shortcomings in our schools. One is that teachers’ average age is 47. In 2004 it was 42. We are therefore an aging teaching corps. 

So far we have been able to handle this, but with many teachers retiring out of fear of Covid-19, red lights should start flashing for governing bodies, education departments and teachers unions. Every year I sign numerous visas for young teachers who have to seek work abroad because they cannot be helped here. The most popular destinations are China, South Korea and New Zealand. One of my former students even teaches at a school in Madagascar. 

Yet young people were good enough to come to our rescue when numerous teachers could not return. There is now an opportunity for a new approach with the appointment of teachers. Better career planning is needed so that experienced teachers can train their successors to be ready when they retire. 

The ideal staff is one where the experience of seasoned teachers is complemented by the skills of the younger generation. There is room for both. It’s a waste of state resources to train teachers just for them to teach English to children in the East. We need them here. DM

Prof Michael le Cordeur is Chairperson of the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University.

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  • In 1967 I received a grant/loan from the then Natal Education Department to complete a BSc/UED at the then University of Natal. To repay it I had to teach for four years. I spent five years at Glenwood High School in Durban. 1) That system should still be in place today. 2) During those five years I spent at least two afternoons a week coaching sport, and also returned to the school on most Saturdays to support that extra-curricular activity. At worst 🙂 it would involve arriving at the school at 7 AM to board a bus in order to travel to Michaelhouse somewhere in the Natal Midlands. That bus would get back to Durban at 5 PM. If one of the pupils was injured and required medical treatment, it would be provided by Grey’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. The bus would then call at Grey’s on the return journey to collected the injured, and arrive back at Glenwood at 7 PM. On the 7th day we rested. 3) Schools also did not stop functioning 3-4 weeks before the end of the 4th quarter. (I completely understand that apartheid caused huge problems for the majority of South Africans. What I cannot understand is how it is that there are still schools in South Africa without flushing toilets, let alone sports fields and extra curricular activities.)

  • This is probably one of the most important headlines I’ve read in the DM but I think there is a lot more to the issue than the writer suggests. Yes, we need to fix the education system in SA, but that’s another huge debate. A senior HR employee in the SA Police once told that most people who join the force do so because they cannot find a job. A terrible statement and I have no way of knowing if it’s even vaguely true. But are we sure that the same cannot be said of teachers – that the only reason that graduates become teachers is because they have no alternative?
    I think it’s time to recognise the teaching profession for what it is – the most important vocation in the country. In its hands, it holds our youth, our country. Nothing is more important.
    We need to raise a new generation of professional teachers, prepared to take on the responsibility of educating the future men and women of this country, and proud to do so.
    And we need to recognise their professionalism and pay them accordingly.
    It will take more than our inept government to do so – we, as everyday South Africans, need to play a part.

  • I’m going to be vilified for this comment, but I feel it must be said… Whilst I have no doubt there are PLENTY of good and diligent teachers out there, there are conversely far too many who are lazy, and therefore not good at all! I went to a supposedly ‘very good’ school, but can count on one hand the number of good teachers over a 5-year period that I had! Somehow – and therein lies the problem – we have to find a way to identify the good teachers (even if they’re in their 1st year!!), and then pay them accordingly!

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