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My aching teacher’s heart: An urgent plea to the government to prioritise education in this unprecedented time

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Maryke Bailey is a history teacher who is taking a hiatus from full-time teaching. She has been involved in various education-related projects, including some sessional lecturing and delivering professional development programmes.

Our education system was sick and vulnerable in 2019. In 2020 Covid-19 pummeled it and kicked it while it was down. The rioting and looting of the past week have traumatised our nation further and hit our education system over the head. It is affecting our children’s mental health and their constitutionally protected right to safety and security.

We live in a fragile country. Fragile, vulnerable, traumatised, injured and abused. Our nation, our people, our institutions have been fighting, surviving, gaining ground and then losing it, coping, dying, regenerating and collapsing for decades. 

There are isolated pockets of peace and security behind the high walls of the wealthy, the powerful and the connected. But for the majority, there is the bitter daily struggle of survival, of finding hope, of fighting despair. And while the human spirit often triumphs, we also know and have to confront the fact that too many lose the battle on a daily basis. Violence, poverty, hate, fear and antipathy are signs of a weakened, vulnerable society lurching from one day to the next.

Is there hope?

There is always hope.

Already a Facebook group “RebuildSA” has 44,700 members. Photos are being shared on social media of community members helping to clean up the looted areas, and of single individuals tackling the shattered shells of last week’s prosperity and Covid-era normality with a single broom.

And this stirs my soul out of the sorrow and blackness and desolation. Many felt that Cyril Ramaphosa’s speech was underwhelming. I understand this. I think many wanted hardened action, clear indications that the situation is under control. But here the enemy is not simply a jailed man and his cronies outside. The enemy is not only the virus or terrorist insurgents getting closer and closer to our borders. Our enemy is also us: our splintered, fractured and reeling communities. There is no easy solution. There is no silver bullet.

When I listened to Ramaphosa’s speech I realised I was waiting with bated breath for a silver bullet. To hear him say, as in that first speech last year when Covid-19 hit and we were told methodically about what was going to be done, that there are clear plans. But as his speech unfolded, I also realised something else. The speech had lots of subtext, and this was possibly being missed by many of the people that the speech was meant to reassure. The language was academic, formal. It was well suited to an address at the UN, but for ordinary South Africans, who have very little knowledge of our country’s history and an appreciation for the complexities of the situation, and for many who do not deal with such high-level language on a daily basis, was the speech meeting the nation where it’s at?

And this made my teacher’s heart sore. Ramaphosa alluded to IFP-ANC violence and while I exclaimed out loud, “Oh wow! He went there!” I was also wondering how many people picked up on the allusion. It was subtle. It was a little reminder that this is not the first time that divisions have been exacerbated to try to keep accountability at bay, and it reminded me that this was not the first time that Ramaphosa has had to work with this situation. But this was not said explicitly. And I can bet that there is enough historical illiteracy in our country that this allusion was missed by many, particularly among the youth.

And then, with my teacher’s heart beating, I started thinking of my students, and of my friends’ and family’s students, and our nation’s students — present, past and future. And my heart just wanted to stop and collapse in on itself.

I teach at a resourced school with many kids from privileged backgrounds. I can see how Covid-19 has affected them. My Grade 8s are not where they should be, or rather, where the over-full curriculum thinks they should be, and there are social skills and norms that have had to be relearnt after long periods of social isolation and too many hours of looking at a screen. 

I can feel the anxiety and the pain and the fatigue, and it is so hard having to step in and stop the kids from hugging a peer in distress when we are physically at school.

And then my weeping heart thinks of the kids I have not seen. I’m supposed to give English enrichment classes to Grade 9s from a neighbouring school. Covid-19 has caused disruptions, so it has not been possible to see them, and when an opportunity was provided, I had to first assess them to see what level I should pitch the enrichment at. I set a comprehension test at a Grade 8 level, with a basic feel-good article containing language that Grade 8s should be able to understand. About 60 Grade 9s wrote the assessment. One child got 60%, a few scored over 40% and most sat between 10% and 30%.

And these marks were also reflected in their Maths assessment, with most sitting around 10%.

And then I got angry. Because, yes, there is always hope. But we cannot exploit hope and the goodwill of our people to pay homage to the high-flying, unrealistic and damaging dreams of a few out-of-touch decision-makers. These children are living in dire circumstances and often making it to school is the triumph for the day. Their parents are desperately trying to ensure that they get to school and stay in school, with the belief that they are learning and getting an education. And they are not. They will join the ranks of the unemployed youth and add to the despair of our country.

When they return to school, these children — to fall in line with the demands of the curriculum — will need to catch up on work that is meaningless to them, because you can bet with all certainty that if they cannot understand what they are reading, and they cannot manage data and understand mathematical concepts, they are not learning anything meaningful in other academic subjects. 

History, Geography, Science, Biology, Economics, Business, yes, there is even Tourism as a subject, but these will all be meaningless.

Our education system, for many reasons, was sick and vulnerable in 2019. In 2020 Covid-19 pummeled it and kicked it while it was down. The rioting and looting of the past week have traumatised our nation further and hit our education system over the head. It is affecting our children’s mental health and their constitutionally protected right to safety and security. 

While it is possible for children to learn when they are hungry and in distress, it is much, much harder and it takes much more support and time to reach educational goals.

And you know what? While it would make much more educational sense for schools to take the time to work with the trauma of the past year when they get back, the structure and demands of the curriculum and our assessments, and the severe back foot that the majority of the kids will be on, will mean that many schools will have to pretend that this week, this year, hasn’t happened and just jump straight into teaching because our assessments are high stakes and we need to ensure our kids get through. 

And even if, which is a big “if”, time was created to confront this painful period, too many schools and teachers are simply not equipped to manage this trauma. School counsellors and psychologists are a luxury many only dream of.

When this has passed and we start picking up the pieces, I implore our leadership to prioritise education — not by funnelling more money into iPads and computer centres, but by bringing together the best people in the field of education (and include a sizeable contingent of the best teachers currently in the classroom from a range of schools) to plan a new, realistic and flexible path of reconstruction for our education system.

My heart aches for our country and its children. I have hope. I think many teachers have hope or will find it again. But please, do not exploit it or use it as a plaster or a feel-good story. Use our hope and our goodwill to help our leaders reflect, research, experiment and innovate. 

Remove unnecessary obstacles to learning and use our hope to resuscitate our education system and to get started on the long, hard journey of rebuilding. DM

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  • “I implore our leadership to prioritise education”. One could argue that the “leadership” prefers people to vote with their hearts, not their brains. Is this perhaps one reason why education ranks so low in every respect?

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