By Athambile Masola
I’ve been following the Limpopo textbook saga with half an ear. The furore unfolded while my learners and I were undergoing the arduous and exhausting process of mid-year exams. The debacle has been yet another crude reminder of the compromise of a constitutional right as well as the incompetence of the department of basic education which has placed the education of many children in jeopardy. Without the simple resource of textbooks, I think it’s safe to assume that little (if any) teaching and learning took place in schools in Limpopo.
Most of the commentary on the furore has focused on the department’s failures, the corruption and the tragedy of burning books (I shudder at the thought of books being burnt as it highlights the dismal education in our country where books have no value) and lately, the conspiracy theories about what really led to this demise. As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder: Where are the teachers?
Are the teachers in Limpopo so disempowered that they could not make a stand when books were not delivered as promised? Why are teachers in South Africa silent?
The silence suggests a level of disregard for education by teachers and the major teacher union in this country. Contrary to popular belief, teaching is a challenge and it becomes even more challenging when resources are few or non-existent as is the case with many schools in South Africa. However, teachers who are mostly affected by a lack of delivery are also the teachers who are part of a union that only makes a noise when the question of salaries is on the table. But when the real issues of ensuring teaching and learning in our schools are at stake, there is a deafening silence.
This suggests that most teachers seem to be okay with the lack of infrastructure in their schools; that teachers are okay without the basics in the classrooms (though we know that toilet infrastructure and enough classroom space are no longer considered as the basics). I would love to see a scientist who is relaxed when the chemicals do not arrive for the experiments they need to do in their lab or a doctor who is happy to perform an operation with insufficient anaesthetic or a builder who doesn’t have enough material to build a bridge and attempts to build it anyway.
The silence of teachers in the face of a shambolic education system perpetuates the idea that teaching is not a profession, but rather that the majority of the teachers in our schools are people who are happy to get away with doing as little as possible and receive a payslip they complain about at the end of the month. However, this assessment would be disingenuous to many teachers who work hard under very challenging conditions, who rise to the occasion, and who teach so that their learners achieve great results despite the lack and failures of government.
What further complicates this issue is the disparate nature of teachers as a community. The two systems of education — where one is for the rich with former model c schools and private schools and the other for poor people in townships and rural areas — means that there are two distinct groups of teachers who fight different battles. Teachers in middle-class contexts ward off interfering parents while juggling busy extra-mural timetables, teachers in poorer contexts have to deal with absent parents (for often complex reasons), crowd control and chaotic schools with poor management. The structure of teacher unions further exacerbates this challenge as they further entrench the differences among teachers.
I am not suggesting teachers unite as one homogenous voice, but where there seems to be no communication among teachers about the real changes that need to happen in order to protect the profession from the slippery slope into nowhere, there are very few gains that can be made in education.
This also raises the question of the parents: where teachers fail, why are parents silent? Teachers are supposed to be in loco parentis. Therefore, they need to become more vocal about the state of education as the future of the teaching profession in South Africa is in trouble. We do not produce enough teachers in South Africa and instead there’s a steady exodus of young teachers seeking greener pastures abroad.
The perceptions about teaching in this country further hinder many young people from entering the profession. Those of us who are in the profession are seen as failures (because there’s nothing easier than working with hundreds of teenagers every day or leaving school at 2pm, right?) or as I have personally experienced, I’m simply “going through a phase” and one day I’ll move onto a better profession. There isn’t any expectation that we need to recreate the teaching profession if young people are to consider it as a serious option and become part of changing the face of education in this country.
Citizens and parents need to start expecting teachers to be better. We have an education system propped up by civil society that simply shrugs its shoulders and accepts the status quo and expects teachers to abdicate from their responsibilities and do nothing about the state of their classrooms. For as long as we don’t expect more from our teachers and are quiet about their role in the failure of our system, we are all complicit in the failure of our education system.
Athambile Masola is a teacher at a high school in Cape Town.