Don’t blame the teachers

2010-08-10 00:00

THE quality of education affects every aspect of a child’s life: health, earning potential, what type of parent and employee they end up being. In fact, what type of country we end up living in. And the classroom is the incubator for all of that.

Let’s start with the reality of being a teacher, a dedicated one. This simply has to be the hardest job on earth. I did it for 16 years. I could not have done it for another 16.

Check how you would fare having to pull the following off on a daily basis.

• You’re on your feet for about seven hours a day.

• You have anything between 30 and 60 (sometimes more) children to control, to educate and to nurture at any given time.

• You’re basically on stage all day, every day.

• You’re an educator, an administrator, a social worker, an adjudicator and a substitute parent.

• If the children run riot, the teacher always gets the blame for it.

• You earn so little that it is impossible to pay the rent and pay off a second-hand car at the same time.

• You go home with heaps of marking and admin, and then you have to basically also write your own scripts for the next day’s performance (about seven hours’ worth).

Obviously, one also finds lazy teachers. You find lazy people in every single profession. Even yours. There are always those who coast along doing the bare minimum. They don’t deserve the 10 weeks of leave teachers get every year. But the people who work really hard would lose their minds without it. (If you find it difficult to cope with your three children for the holiday, multiply that number by 15 and see how you feel after three months).

Now teachers are going on strike. My only question is: what took you so long?

The responsibility of looking after children is a responsibility the state has taken on. They temporarily second that responsibility to teachers. It’s up to the state to treat teachers in such a way that they don’t feel the need to strike. They should be seen and treated as the most valuable employees of the state, not the least. After all, they are shaping the future of the country. Our future. No one else can make that claim to the same extent. — Health


Status profession

Teaching needs to become a status profession again. The only way to do that is to increase the rewards substantially, and to select only certain applicants to the teaching colleges. (Personality testing is essential — we’re letting these people loose on our children for heaven’s sake.) Professional pride needs to become a regular feature of the profession again.

Management training

School principals need to be trained properly in management and staff management. They are running huge operations and often they’re expected to hit the ground running straight out of the classroom.

Admin nightmare

The admin load needs to be lessened. It’s a waste of money to pay people with university degrees to do endless admin tasks that could be done by someone with a Grade 10 certificate. Registers, mark lists, multiple-choice marking, school admin, checking up on absentees — all of this can be done by admin staff who would command lower salaries than qualified teachers. It would save money and free teachers up to do what they have been trained to do: teach.

Accountability for results

School principals should be held accountable for results. If all your matrics have failed, something is very wrong with the way things are happening. The rot has obviously set in and it has set in from the top. It always does. The Education Department doesn’t owe anyone a living. If the job isn’t getting done, it’s time to appoint someone who will do it.


Good results should be rewarded according to a sliding scale. A 60% matric pass rate in a previously disadvantaged area is an achievement. In a former Model C school it would be a disaster. Individual effort must be recognised and rewarded financially. Teachers should be held accountable for poor results too, and not be allowed to teach at that level again.

Class sizes

Class sizes must be limited. I don’t think any teacher, no matter how good, can effectively teach a class that has more than 35 pupils in it. After that, it just becomes crowd control.

Qualified staff

There should not be unqualified staff. A hospital would not employ an unqualified doctor. Why should a school appoint an unqualified teacher? If there is a shortage, teacher training must become a priority of the state. Rural, qualified staff should be paid a scarce-skills allowance.


Basic resources must be provided. One doesn’t need fancy gadgets. An imaginative teacher can get extremely far with a chalkboard, a few photocopies and ingenuity. A poor teacher can have all the resources in the world, but the class will still be a flop.

Quality control

There should be spot inspections and peer assessments. I know most teachers would be horrified at this. But actually, your classroom is not your own. It belongs to the state. They’re paying for it and they’re paying you. Inspections are not about the best lesson you can come up with once in two years — it’s about what’s going down in your class every day. If you don’t want other teachers to see what that is, something is wrong.


It’s the one thing that gets completely ignored when training teachers. And it’s the one thing without which no teaching can happen. I am not in favour of corporal punishment, but alternatives need to be discussed and implemented. If you’re paying teachers poorly, you’re not going to attract the kind of people who can control a class through the sheer power of their personality. And you do find completely impossible children who cannot be dealt with in an already overburdened run-of-the-mill teaching facility. It should not be so difficult to expel them. Nor should it be so difficult to show a useless teacher the door.

Syllabus issues

The syllabus needs an overhaul. Forget pass-one, pass all. The syllabus should be about making children employable and preparing them for tertiary education. Too often it’s about the lowest common denominator. Our education standards have been dropping in the past 14 years. It is something about which we as a country should be deeply ashamed. Countries in central Africa that you’ve never heard of are doing better than we are. If our education is not preparing children for the world that awaits them, something is seriously wrong.


Okay, I can hear people asking what all this is going to cost. And the answer is that it is going to cost us plenty. But not doing it is going to cost us way, way more.

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