Most South African teachers are familiar with what it means to teach in contexts of “abnormality”, unsafety and violence. They also know what it takes to function in crises and to assume roles and responsibilities that go well beyond the norms and standards of any educational policy. The more these crises accumulate — poor infrastructure and resources, poor parental support, high learner-to-teacher ratio, teenage pregnancies, racism, vandalism, service delivery protests leading to closure of schools, corrupt leadership and management, learner and teacher absenteeism, learner attrition (this piece of string truly has no end), and more recently, Covid-19 — the greater the burden of responsibility on teachers.
For young people, the disjointedness of this world has not only disrupted the way they socialise and learn, but has also derailed them from grasping the kind of world they are learning towards. Teachers, therefore, do not only have to manage the dual tasks of teaching and learning, but also have to keep young people motivated in and for a world that we are all still trying to understand. As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on 5 October, we should perhaps reconsider and reappreciate the enormity of what being a teacher involves.
Well before Covid-19 entered our lexicon, the onset of digitised teaching and learning had already been hailed as an inevitability. Most of us would agree that technology has become indispensable for learning skills, building knowledge, working, playing and connecting socially. We understand the need for thinking that is dependent on the algorithmic computations of technology; that we can no longer only rely on traditional forms of human imagination.
The nagging problem, however, is that we seemingly speak of this technological shift and indispensability as if all our educational spaces are the same. We have these conversations in a decontextualised unconsciousness, even when we know that to most South Africans, digital or remote learning is as much an oxymoron as the idea of “physical” or “social” distancing in overcrowded homes and communities.
The truth is that despite their unprecedented advances and capabilities, there are limits to digital technologies. I am not only referring to the rising concerns about how these technologies, and the screens on which they display, may be changing our brain circuitry, eroding our deep reading abilities, memory, and comprehension, with implications for our physical and mental health. I am also not only speaking about the blatantly evident schisms between historically advantaged and historically disadvantaged educational spaces, and hence the accompanying irreconcilable lived experiences of students.
My own online screen transports me into uncomfortable intrusions of the unequal lives of my students. While some look back at me from the confines of cosy, well-equipped rooms, others lean awkwardly across internet café counters — at least while their data lasts.
What I am especially concerned about, however, are the effects of our growing reliance on digital technologies on the kinds of citizens we are cultivating, and what this means for teaching. Quite explicitly, an online learning community is rid of the complexities implicit within any diverse group of people, thereby raising inevitable questions about the kind of people we stand to produce. In every way, physical spaces provide us with the presence, cues and tensions necessary for the cultivation of engaging with difference and diversity.
At stake is not only how to keep young people interested in particular subjects, but how to retain and keep them motivated within the very system of learning. The world around us is no longer what it used to be; we are drifting from one Covid wave to the next. For young people, this uncertainty is compounded by the blurred realities of social isolation, only accompanied by a screen.
As teachers, it is no longer just enough to be attentive to attendance and participation levels. It is becoming increasingly evident that the absence of these physical cues demands a pedagogy of deeper awareness and intensity. Teachers who understand the demands of their profession recognise the importance of relationships for learning to unfold. They recognise that much about how a student perceives and approaches a subject, depends on the teacher. Teaching, after all, is a mutually responsive practice. A teacher who has no interest in his/her subject or students will inevitably find a classroom of students that is even less interested.
While teaching relies heavily on content and pedagogical knowledge, it is the teacher’s attitude to his/her profession and students that transforms teaching into a craft of influence. In sum, this is where the how of teaching takes immense precedence over the what. Teaching, therefore, has to be responsive not only to the needs and expectations of students, but also to the world around us.
What our current and somewhat estranging world needs is teachers who can respond with sensitivity and care, while sustaining a hopefulness in those they teach. That we are physically disconnected implies that teachers have to place a greater emphasis not on connectivity, but on human connection as expressions of care and hope.
The influence of hope extends into cultivating positive teaching and learning experiences, regardless of contextual backgrounds and noise. In fact, as is often the case, the more dire the circumstances, the greater the presence of hope.
Hope holds the capacity to allow students to believe in themselves and to transcend their circumstances; it gives them the courage to look beyond what is immediately evident. Teaching with hope provides students with a confidence that they have a right to their dreams, especially in contexts and in a time when these dreams are seemingly at risk.
We should never forget that, no matter what the crisis, being a teacher means always finding the light. In the end, teachers are remembered not for what they taught, but for how they made their students feel. To my mind, there can be no better criterion of citizenship than making others feel good about themselves. DM