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Five years and counting: My experiences as a township teacher in South Africa

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Lehlohonolo Mofokeng teaches accounting and business studies (grades 10 and 11) at a high school in Bloemfontein.

Notwithstanding multiple barriers that impede learner academic achievement, chief among them is that we are hardly ever held accountable as teachers. And I know of young teachers who have lost their flair and drive because of poor influence caused by toxic work environments.

This year, 2021, marks five years since I joined the teaching profession on a full-time basis. When you enter the profession, you do so, like any ambitious young person would, with high hopes and sky-high energy levels. The thought of transforming the lives of young people keeps your nails polished like a Miss Universe pageant contender.

As the years progress, knee-high motivation levels replace sky-high optimism levels. Because of often toxic and anti-progress organisational cultures in some of our schools, these young teachers see fitting in, thereby succumbing to pressure, as the only way they will be treated well by their colleagues.

I know of young teachers who have lost their flair and drive because of poor influence caused by toxic work environments. After all, every human being wants to feel like they belong and this is possible if we get along with every colleague around us, regardless of the consequences.

While emphasising the value of building relations, a fellow young teacher asked me these challenging questions to which I could hardly provide convincing answers: “I hear you, but how do you belong to a group of colleagues whose career aspirations and values are incongruent with yours? How do you remain committed to your call of duty while the dominant culture in your school is that of gossip, sabotage and hopelessness?”

Well, it’s possible to blend well with such people, but you have to have a strong character and stable convictions about your aspirations.

So, what has five years in teaching taught me? First on the list is that you are in charge of your professional growth. The school may have a committee responsible for teacher professional development, but it serves no purpose if teachers do not see value in exposing themselves to the latest novel trends in education.

Because of perceived limited career growth, prospects in teaching and the “I have arrived” syndrome, continuous teacher-initiated development is still a rarity. Available research clearly shows that teachers who prize continuous professional development tend to do better in terms of improving their classroom practice and inevitably learner achievement outcomes

I also take issue with how we account for our academic performances as teachers. Since my arrival at my current school, teachers, especially those teaching the lower grades, hardly ever account for their classroom performance in a manner akin to those teaching matric. Perhaps more worrying is that supervisors hardly follow up on the commitments we make to improve our results. Instead, in most cases where I have witnessed this, your records only come out when there is a visit by departmental officials — at which stage it is often too late to salvage anything. 

One thing I have noticed about teachers is that once we know that supervisors, including principals, hardly ever follow up on anything we say regarding our classroom practice, we discard from our memory whatever was discussed in these “accountability” sessions.

Notwithstanding multiple barriers that impede learner academic achievement, chief among them is that we are hardly ever held accountable as teachers. “Only when they know you mean what you say and say what you mean will they take what you say seriously,” said one friend when I shared this observation.

We have sufficient empirical evidence pointing to our country’s dismal academic achievement in the lower grades, but there is limited political will to rectify this. Adding insult to injury are the secondary school principals whose schools also have Grade 8 and Grade 9 learners. Some will blatantly tell you they will deal with whatever educational deficiencies are caused in the lower grades when these kids get to matric.

I mean, how can you straighten your building when the problem is your foundation? I know of schools where it is okay for a teacher to miss a Grade 8 class but not Grade 12. Seemingly more qualified teachers are assigned grade 12 classes while seemingly less qualified, or “unready” ones, are assigned the lower grades.

The past five years has also taught me that most of our parents are prepared to play an active role in their children’s education. They are waiting for us to show them leadership. The trick with this is that it drains more energy than we may be prepared for as teachers. Teaching under the Covid-19 pandemic was a testing experience for all teachers, but mine was made greatly rewarding because of the kind of support my learners’ parents afforded me.

Yes, we need serious intervention in terms of teacher classroom practice, but it’s lazy to attribute learners’ poor academic performance solely to teachers. It’s not enough to have a quality teacher in front of learners. You also need the support of your learners and their parents. Otherwise, that teacher will only be good on paper. 

Because of my preparedness to engage the parents on their children’s education, albeit tiring at times, I could deal with most of the disciplinary incidents that I had in my classes. Because of our collaborative efforts, I no longer had challenges with learners not doing homework. Close ties with the parents meant I suddenly had learners reminding me to give them homework — a rare tradition in most of our township schools.

Indeed, we are stronger together than any single brilliant individual. DM

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