Teachers deserve a better pass mark

Eighth National Congress of SADTU provides a platform to present challenges facing education

Nkosana Dolopi, The New Age, Johannesburg, 17 October 2014

The South African Democratic Teachers' Union recently concluded its 8th National Congress, the highest decision making structure of the Union. The Congress provided a platform for members from all parts of South Africa to share everyday experiences of the school environment and to work out policy proposals in response to their problems.

We take our work very seriously. A teacher is a highly valuable individual in society. Teaching is a sacred profession.

We are conscious of the special historic circumstances of our country, when "development" must above all mean human development, which is the job of the teacher within society.

It is only a few years since we launched, jointly with other stakeholders, our quality learning and teaching campaign.

This initiative explicitly recognises that education is a societal matter. It is also well understood that human development cannot be the sole responsibility of teachers.

We are consequently surprised to notice an emerging narrative in our society that seeks to blame all the ills of our education system on teachers, or as it was put by our minister of basic education, on "bad teachers".

Undoubtedly, the buzz-word at this year's Congress was "de-professionalisation".

Delegates representing 75 % of the teachers in the country expressed strong sentiments about what they viewed as their reality.

Delegates identified a number of factors that lead towards "de-professionalization" of educators. The new "blame the teacher" narrative and in particular SADTU members is counter-productive. It devalues the teachers' profession. This is what delegates to our 8th Congress referred to as "de-professionalization".

The teachers that are now being castigated are the same ones who work under the worst conditions. There are school infrastructure limitations. There is late delivery of "LTSM" (Learning and Teaching Support Materials).

There are multigrade classes. The pupil/teacher ratio is unfavourable. There is an administrative burden because of the lack of support staff. There is school violence and lack of parental involvement makes discipline difficult to achieve.  There are socio-economic problems facing pupils.

We know of the teacher who must face a class of up to 80 learners in one period in the Eastern Cape. We know of the teacher in the Western Cape who is afraid to go to his own class because of gangsterism. There is drug-addiction-driven violence in school.

We know of the group of female teachers in Limpopo who must accompany each other to the bushes to relieve themselves due to a lack of ablution facilities in school.

We also know of the sacrifices that have to be made by teachers who are allocated to deep rural schools without receiving any rural allowance.

Despite these challenges, teachers are still hard at work.

Most of them go an extra mile, sacrificing time with their families to take on extra classes even at weekends to cover the curriculum.

South Africa is probably one of the few countries in the world that relies heavily on extra classes in the mornings, afternoons, weekends and during school holidays to cover the curriculum sufficiently, especially for senior classes.

It is not a rare occurrence in our country for teachers to dip into their own pockets to make provision for destitute pupils.

The "blame the teacher" syndrome is demoralising to teachers.

The labelling by analysts and by bureaucrats eventually becomes a barrier towards achieving better education outcomes.

It undermines teachers' relations with pupils, and with their parents.

Worse still, by diverting attention from real problems, the "bad teacher" stigma denies us the opportunity, as a nation, to address the real challenges facing us in education.

The anti-teacher propagandists are forcing people to ignore real, systemic challenges.

Informed literature shows that socio-economic status is a predictor of student performance. According to a study conducted by the Stellenbosch Economic Working Papers, teacher subject knowledge has a less impact on learner performance than pupils' socio-economic status does.

Research indicates that when schools have a functional library, fully stocked and with a fulltime librarian, laboratories, computer centre, storage facilities, enough toilets, a playground, sports facilities, a school hall, a staff room, a kitchen, an administrative centre, water and electricity – academic development of pupils follows.

As teachers we are for responsibility and against mediocrity and laziness but the generalisations that come with the "blame the teacher" narrative are absolutely baseless.

South Africans should resist the temptation to isolate and blame the teacher for our ills in education. Let us revisit our commitment to the quality learning and teaching campaign. It identifies all our roles and responsibilities.

Working together, we can achieve more.

Nkosana Dolopi is the Deputy General Secretary of SADTU