Beyond ‘good’ and ‘bad’ teachers

2014-10-14 06:45

Early in my former career in the corporate world, I was mentored by a man who warned me not to accept that there were “good” and “bad” employees.

Even though he had been a director at the company for some time, he was still battling to command respect from fellow directors and juniors alike.

This was common at the peak of corporate South Africa’s tokenism, where the few black directors like my mentor were seen as vacant figureheads through whom companies could project an aura of progressiveness.

The good BEE rating they got out of it didn’t hurt either.

My mentor cautioned that “good” and “bad”, when applied to employees, were forms of linguistic subterfuge.

The words masked either prejudice or the institutional failings that inhibited employees from performing to their potential. Often, they masked both.

I thought of this when I read that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga had laid the blame for poor-performing schools at the feet of “bad teachers”.

Her reasoning was, rightly, that teachers are the heart of a school. If you look at the best-performing schools, they’re guaranteed to have teachers who are dedicated and hard-working.

Through their diligence, knowledge pulses through every classroom and into the hearts and minds of pupils.

But in her presentation at last weekend’s annual conference of the SA Principals’ Association, Motshekga reportedly said the converse was true.

Schools that perform badly do so as a direct result of “bad” teachers who she said were those who did not complete the curriculum, were not in class and did not understand what they taught.

Bizarrely, she also seemed to dismiss the fact that the socioeconomic context of the communities in which schools are located has a direct bearing on their performance.

As with all good acts of shifting responsibility, there is some truth to what she said.

For example, in a recent academic paper, education researchers Hamsa Venkat and Nic Spaull analysed the results of the subject matter knowledge of nationally representative tests for Grade 6 maths teachers of the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality.

They found 79% of Grade 6 maths teachers had subject matter knowledge below that prescribed in the curriculum their pupils are expected to master.

But the teachers with the highest levels of subject matter knowledge were concentrated in the wealthiest schools and those with the lowest were in poorer schools.

This should indicate that a school’s performance shares a direct, if not causal, relationship with the socioeconomic circumstances of the pupils’ parents and the community it is located in.

It’s probably more accurate to replace “good” and “bad” with “wealthy” and “poor”. This will make it more obvious how foolhardy it is to blame the teachers.

They, too, are products of this education system and the teacher training and development programmes over which Motshekga and Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande have political accountability.

If the average teacher’s subject matter knowledge is poor, the problem lies in the systems of education that produced them and the continuing education programmes that keep them up to date on the subjects they teach.

And if I was the average teacher, my faith in Motshekga’s ability to discharge her responsibilities with regard to these would have shrunk to the size of a raisin after her “bad teacher, bad school” comments.

To be fair, Motshekga acknowledged her department had a lot of work to do on teacher training and development.

But you can tell a lot about a society by the way it treats the people charged with educating its children.

I’m not convinced South African teachers are treated fairly and I’m not convinced we know enough about them and the things that affect their ability to be effective.

To address this, Motshekga’s plan is to develop teacher profiles that would form the basis of the department’s ongoing teacher training and development programmes.

That these don’t exist yet is further evidence that if we have to blame poor-performing schools, the department and Motshekga should shoulder a large portion of the responsibility.

Venkat and Spaull also suggest that training and development programmes must be profiled and evaluated. But beyond these, we must remember that the best teachers are students too.

Alarmingly, we know almost nothing about the individual personal circumstances that prevent teachers from being good students.

No words exist capable of hiding how badly this reflects on all of us.

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