All in a day's work

2010-08-17 00:00

THE teachers are on strike. In the supermarket, I ask the check-out clerk what he thinks of teachers. “I don’t know.” He pauses contemplatively. “But they should earn more than the president. Without teachers, there would be no lawyers, no doctors, no nothing.”

I wonder how widespread his view is; I think back to the week before, when my job took me to several schools.

In the valley behind me a brownish-yellow haze covers Pietermaritzburg. I check my student’s directions once again. I have to find the school by 9 am. Another day of observing student teachers practising their future profession.

By 8.30 am, I am sure I’ve gone too far. Linguistically challenged, as the radio host would call me, I only manage a few phrases of broken Zulu, but they are enough to confirm that I should have turned some kilometres back. A taxi driver offers to let me follow him, but when he stops for passengers, I take the next turn, only to find myself on what hardly qualifies as a road. The place is busy, with people of all ages everywhere. A sign of both high population density and high unemployment, I figure. It takes three more stops asking for directions before I roll into the school ground, with five minutes to spare.

The student introduces me to the principal who tells me that the student has gone to the school for the past four years to join the teachers in holiday teaching. I am touched. Later, I see the principal walking around the school, smilingly keeping an eye on things. A teacher nods in his direction. “He is always busy,” she informs me.

In the classroom, a loose roof sheet is banging in the wind. I imagine the cold draft blasting through there on cold winter days. The student has brought advertisements to make the lesson on hire purchase relevant to the pupils. He so obviously cares. The only textbook is his and the pupils copy notes from the board, working through the tasks, taking turns presenting.

Later, the student takes me to his technology class. Sixty pupils are present, out of the 95 on the class list. There are no empty seats, so absence has its blessings, but what does it do to the continuity of lessons? I feel bad for the student teacher who has to try to manage a large class with few resources. The chalkboard is so old that it is difficult to read what he writes on it. But such are the conditions of teaching in most schools. I wonder if we have taught him well enough how to handle this — and I know the answer is that no one ever can. Yet he seems to be doing exceptionally well.

Two pupils are needed to carry the pile of books which the student will mark at home, tonight. In the teachers’ lounge, all the teachers are bent over their work. I ask my student’s mentor why he is teaching so many classes, and such a large one as well. She explains that he asked for more work, he is very committed. They are keen to hire him, they are just waiting for confirmation that they will have a post. I know he could be snatched up by some private school if he applied, but I trust that he will continue to come back here. I hope.

On my way out, the science teacher pulls me aside and asks me if I can get them some science equipment, “just some test tubes, please”. A pupil stops me to ask for money for lunch. There is only the tuck shop outside to buy things. Outside the classroom, ash from the burning trash is smouldering. There is no trash collection here.

Burning trash also greets me at the next school. The large pile of plastic sends a toxic smoke over the playground where some primary school pupils are practising their soccer skills. Laduma!

At the high school, I am greeted with suspicious looks from the teachers. But one teacher lights up when I ask her about the meaning of the school’s name and she explains with reference to local history. I wonder how I would feel if someone walked in on our Saturday lectures and observed the chaos over venue bookings, dysfunctional projectors and so on. Would we also be suspicious?

I ask one teacher about the looming strike. “Oh, it’s not good,” she says.“We really need the money, but the pupils suffer. I wish we didn’t have to, I don’t know how we will catch up.” I admire her consideration for the pupils; I think I might well have succumbed if I had to teach under these conditions day in and day out. Her male colleague joins us. “They tell us everyone must tighten the belt, but look at them! They spent billions on soccer tickets,” he exaggerates. “We’ll tighten the belt when they do.”

The student takes me through to his maths class. He wanted to become an engineer but did not qualify for the programme. It clearly weighs heavily on him, but he has prepared well for the lesson and explains clearly. The pupils are doing exceptionally well and I praise them wholeheartedly. If only I didn’t get tears in my eyes so easily. The pupils beam as I leave. “We should praise more,” I think to myself.

After the lesson, the pupils’ regular teacher greets me enthusiastically. I comment on how hard trigonometry is to learn. She lights up. “It is easy,” she says. Well, she certainly has managed to reach these pupils, despite trigonometric identities being of no obvious relevance to them. She is energetic and beams as she walks into her classroom.

I notice some newly dug beds outside and asks a learner if that is for a class project.

“No, it is where we grow vegetables,” she declares. I notice the distinct “we”, the identification of this pupil with her school and with the school garden. “For you?” I ask. There are only four beds and it is a large school. “No, for them,” she says, and points to the foundation-phase pupils. From the kitchen, the smell of soup wafts out. It is break time. Some teachers are sitting outside sharing a meal. I have to manoeuvre my car carefully on the dirt track as they are in my way. They do not move. Pupils stroll casually right behind my reversing car. The trash has almost burnt out.

Driving on, I stop to buy something to drink. I am the only “white” face in the place. The atmosphere is relaxed, the music blasting over the parking-lot-cum-market.

I look at the fruit and vegetables to buy. When I get to the supermarket, there is a long line waiting to get in. It looks as if customers are being checked before entering. I shake my head; imagine the outcry if that happened at the mall.

The next school is 45 minutes out of Pietermaritzburg. I was there last year and was impressed with the enthusiasm I saw. The school had joined a special project and was doing well despite being in a fairly remote area with high unemployment and poverty. When I arrive today, a group of parents are seated outside.

“The principal asked them to come,” the caretaker explains. “There were problems with their children.” The parents have been waiting since this morning because the principal has not yet arrived.

Three teachers are in the teachers’ lounge, one reading the newspaper, the others chatting. As I walk with my student to the classroom, I notice that some classes are without teachers. But the pupils appear to be working. I wonder if the teachers have given up, do not care, or are simply having a break after doing the jobs of unfilled posts on top of their own workload. I wonder if the principal is off on official business or not. Goats are grazing in the school grounds. No one seems to notice. When I leave, the parents are still waiting. The principal may not come in today, I’m told.

As I drive home, I think about the people I have seen today. People I gave a lift to. Women selling cheap sweets and chips outside the schools. Pupils in their worn uniforms, some of them perhaps paid for by teachers who also provide them with other basics or take them to the clinic when needed. Their dreams of becoming doctors, nurses, lawyers — but not teachers. Pupils smoking dagga outside the school, pointed out to me by a caretaker. “What can we do?” I think about the teachers and the circumstances they work in, about their commitment and persistence.

Back in the office, I file my notes on the students. I think about what they are confronted with. I know that despite their hard work, South African pupils continue to be at the bottom of international comparisons. So what is in a day’s work?

“You made their day,” one student told me when we left the classroom. These eager young people who put their faith in the future, happy to have a visitor, happy to have a teacher who cares. And that is what is in a day’s work.

• The above reflects true experiences at more schools than mentioned here.

• Professor Christiansen, originally from Denmark, works at the Faculty of Education, UKZN. She writes in her personal capacity.

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