Guest Column

Preparing the next generation of teachers for SA's realities

2018-12-09 09:00
 Matriculants leaving their school uniforms for the less fortunate

Matriculants leaving their school uniforms for the less fortunate

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Education does not function in a social vacuum, and prospective teachers need to be cognisant of the broader issues that relate to the lives of their learners, writes Maureen Robinson.

Whether positive or negative, whether hopeful or despairing, many people have a view on what it means to be a teacher in South Africa today. 

The conduits of bad news tell us about ill-disciplined learners, violence in schools, teacher burnout, sexual misconduct, poor academic results, incidents of racism, a lack of basic facilities and more. The conduits of good news tell us about improved learner participation rates, inspirational teachers, young people achieving against the odds, emerging leaders, visionary partnerships, dedicated school principals and more. 

For those of us in teacher education, these different messages pose a challenge. How do we give aspiring teachers a sense of the realities of schooling in South Africa, as well as a sense that they can make a real difference in the country? How do we prepare new teachers for the world of teaching in all its manifestations of both hope and despair?  

Stellenbosch University alone will be graduating about 450 new teachers this year. Most will enter the profession, even if not immediately. It is at this time worth re-thinking what it is that universities can and should offer new teachers in the way of teacher preparation. What is being taught in teacher education, how is it being taught, and what are the strengths and contradictions of this preparation?

There are some who argue that universities do not prepare student teachers properly for the real world of the classroom, that what students learn at university is too theoretical, too abstract, too removed from reality. Some people go further and call for the re-opening of colleges of education, despite the fact that these institutions were closed in South Africa about fifteen years ago, and their facilities long allocated to other purposes.  

Rather than to engage in the debate about colleges of education, it is more productive to consider how we can best prepare our prospective teachers for the complex realities of schooling. The question is not where teachers should be educated, but rather how we ensure that those that enter teaching are competent, wise and ethical practitioners, able to exercise professional judgement in the interests of all learners.

The curriculum of teacher education is thus by definition broad and needs to cover a range of areas. There is the content knowledge of the discipline or subject, as well as the pedagogical knowledge (how to teach) of classroom practice. Teachers need to understand the requirements of professional practice (for example, the rights and responsibilities of teachers), as well as the personal factors that affect how one teaches (for example, values, ethics and personal histories).  

Education does not function in a social vacuum, and prospective teachers need to be cognisant of the broader issues that relate to the lives of their learners (for example, a multilingual society, the socio-economic conditions of communities). About 25% of student teachers' time is spent teaching and observing in schools; here responsible placements need to be made, and relationships need to be built with qualified teachers, who are expected to mentor and support the students under their care. 

Specific topics are part of each of these areas of study; thus student teachers study topics like lesson planning, classroom communication, digital learning, educational law, democratic citizenship education, assessment strategies, and many more such topics.

The "what" of the curriculum is only part of teacher preparation. There is also the "how" – how can teacher educators work with student teachers in ways that encourage them to be open-minded, curious, motivated, empathetic and responsible, all qualities of the excellent teacher?  Here the pedagogy of teacher education becomes important: exposing student teachers to different contexts, challenging them to form opinions, breaking down stereotypes, and promoting the notions of agency and professionalism. 

While they are in schools, student teachers are expected to prepare and teach well-planned lessons, but there are other issues they also need to think about, like the psychological safety of learners, or the ways in which schools work with difference. Most important is the underlying question of how schools can contribute to building a democratic society, in all its manifestations. 

Of course, more can always be done to ensure the quality of teacher preparation. For example, the establishment of partnerships with schools and with the provincial departments of education could strengthen dialogue about the relationship between theory and practice and promote conversations about the meaning of good teaching. 

The selection of student teachers for a teacher education programme could place emphasis on motivational as well as academic factors. The national higher education funding formula, which places teacher education in the lowest funding grid of university programmes, could take a more realistic view of the resources required to support student teachers in schools.  

More research would encourage the sharing of local findings, the comparison with international developments, and the development of conceptual understandings of the task of teacher education.

Impending graduation ceremonies gives us the opportunity to think about how we prepare the next generation of teachers. It reminds universities of their common mission: to send new teachers into the field with a sense of purpose and passion, with the desire to be part of building this country for all its young people, and with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to do so. 

- Maureen Robinson is a professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies at Stellenbosch University (SU). She has previously held the position of Dean of the Faculty of Education at both the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and SU.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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