A Call for Teachers

By admin
23 October 2013

arlier this month we celebrated World Teachers’ Day. It is a day when we once again celebrate a profession without which no other profession would exist.

Prof Maureen Robsinson

Earlier this month we celebrated World Teachers’ Day. It’s a day when we once again celebrate a profession without which no other profession would exist. It seems so obvious, but we often forget that without teachers our society would not have nurses, engineers, architects, physicists, historians, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs, etc.  How would the architect be able to design structures without someone having laid the basis for visual, aesthetic and mathematical skills? How would the historian record events without someone having laid the basis for analysis, comparison and synthesis? How would formal knowledge be passed on to the next generation, if we didn’t have teachers in schools?

Teachers are expected to provide the knowledge needed for people to function in an economy. Beyond that, good teachers also help young people to learn the skills needed to be citizens in a democracy. Whether this be about discussing current events, forming an opinion, defending an argument, empathising with an issue, teachers demonstrate that it’s possible to make active choices about the ends to which we use the knowledge we gain.

South Africa has nearly 400 000 teachers. Admittedly, as in all professions, some of these teachers are more committed, skilful and hardworking than others. Sadly, the teaching profession has over a period of years, been undermined in the public domain. The folly of this approach is borne out by Finland, the nation known to have the best performing schools in the world, where only top candidates are selected to enter teaching, and the profession is held in the highest regard.

In the last five or six years, the national department of education has pursued the Funza Lushaka (Teach the Nation) campaign, under the slogan “More teachers, better teachers”. Through allocating bursaries to top candidates who can teach “designated” scarce subjects, and who are willing to teach in public schools, if possible in rural areas, for the duration of the bursary received, hundreds of capable young people have had the opportunity to study to become a teacher. Enrolments at universities have been boosted, and the shortage of teachers in the country is being addressed, albeit more in some provinces than others.

All of us can probably remember a special teacher. Invariably this was someone who taught us something about life, rather than about particular subject content. In my case I remember the teacher who taught the pupils (yes, we were pupils not learners then) in his class to listen carefully and to do their best to make fair judgements, something that remains important to me today.

Teaching is of course also about the content, and if we are to play any role in the global economy we need teachers across the board that excel at teaching basic reading and writing, as well as advanced physics and mathematics. We cannot skimp on the quality of education, for this has too negative a long-term impact on our society.

South Africa’s performance in international benchmark tests is poor. We need to ask hard questions as to why this is so, bearing in mind that the reasons might go beyond what happens in the classroom. Are the teachers not able to explain the content properly? Are the learners not motivated? Is language an issue? Is the culture of the school not conducive to learning? Are the days organised in an orderly fashion? Are the classrooms cold?  Are the learners hungry? So many factors impact on teaching and learning; we cannot simply point fingers at teachers when things go wrong but we need a collective conversation, right at local level, as to how we can offer young people the best opportunities possible.

World Teachers’ Day is a chance for teachers themselves to reflect on what they’re doing right, and how they might improve. It’s a chance for deep introspection about how to be a role model in respect of a lifelong commitment to learning. It’s also a chance for those of us in teacher education to think carefully about how we prepare teachers, particularly for our very diverse conditions in the country. We have to ensure that those teachers who graduate from our universities have the skills and attributes to contribute to the learning of each individual, whatever their circumstances. It’s a responsibility we don’t take lightly.

Millions of teachers are employed around the world, and even though their education systems might differ, they all share the common goal of ensuring the future sustainability of individuals, communities and nations.

In celebrating World Teachers’ Day, let us therefore remember to honour our teachers and to treat past, current and future teachers with the respect they deserve.

Prof Maureen Robinson is Dean of the Faculty of Education at Stellenbosch University.

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