Teachers need help

2008-06-24 00:00

Like lambs to the slaughter, about half a million pupils will write the new national matric exam for the first time this year. They are the guinea pigs for the Department of Education which wants to see just how big a mess it can create this year.

In a normal society, competent, well-trained teachers impart their knowledge to pupils who then critically engage with the work, study it, apply it and write their examinations.

These educated young people should then use their knowledge to contribute to society. Those who fail will be blamed for not working hard enough. However, in South Africa, when the matric pass rate drops again, as it has every year that Naledi Pandor has been the Minister of Education, the blame game must be carefully played.

The real failure, at the end of 2008, is going to be this country’s education system. In the process, sadly, it would have failed the pupils and parents who trusted in it, especially those parents who are hoping that their daughters and sons will be become doctors or engineers.

Maths and physics are in a shameful state at the moment, and even experienced teachers are at the end of their tether. The system in which they are caught is unfriendly, naïve, shortsighted, and downright weak.

Conversations with local teachers paint a bleak picture.

Pupils are as lost as their teachers about what to expect in the national examinations. Example papers are given to teachers who have to cross their fingers and hope that the standard of the actual paper is in synch with the guidelines given. Syllabus deadlines often arrive well after the first term, after weeks have been spent teaching something that will only be examined later in the year. But the biggest problem lies with the content.

One local principal says teachers are “groping in the dark”. In physics, for example, the content has so much depth and has become so theory-saturated that teachers have to deliver more than they can handle, and pupils have to grasp more than they really need to in high school.

It rings of ivory tower-style curriculum development that has intensified the theory at the expense of making content manageable to teach and digest, let alone interesting and engaging.

Specialist subject advisors are urgently needed. Advisors who can run workshops for teachers who can focus on content, on how much detail must be taught, on how it will be tested and the rationale for teaching it. Day-long sessions simply do not cut it because the curricula have changed so dramatically that teachers with 30 years of classroom experience have to now chuck it out with the garbage.

A local physics teacher, whose pupils have consistently got A or B symbols in matric, says it’s ridiculous that he has to go back to the drawing board and relearn a new syllabus. There are plenty of others in his situation. They’re swimming in the deep end and many are now jumping out of the water.

One teacher remarked: “We’re losing wonderful and experienced teachers, the calibre of teachers that this country will never see again because those people in the education department haven’t a clue what they’re doing.” Frustration is rife and a life jacket is needed.

The casualties will be an entire generation of young people whose formal education will not be worth the effort. Teachers need help. They need to be trained and retrained by competent subject advisors who know the curriculum well, who are aware of exam standards and can advise on teaching strategies, not give half-hearted presentations which they barely understand themselves. And curriculum development needs enormously broader consultation in future.

Pupils are stuck in a system that is working against them, being taught by teachers who are struggling with the content and have to make life-changing career decisions based on the faulty “education” they are receiving.

The government is committing a crime — somebody needs to wake up and face the reality of its incompetence and think about the impact this will have on the kind of citizens we are developing for our society and the sort of leaders this country will eventually be run by.

One fifth of our national budget is being spent on education. This cannot be a cost issue. It is a failure of decisive leadership, poor management, and erratic policy.

Quality teachers are being lost, and unless we invest in our intellectual capital and take education damn seriously this country will be a reminder of why we’re called the dark continent.

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