Teachers plead for help: ‘We are being left to bring up the kids’


“I don’t have a mother!”

This was a Grade 5 pupil’s angry response to her teacher at a primary school in Mbekweni, Western Cape, when asked why she didn’t respond to anything said in class.

The teacher shared her experience with researchers at the Douglas George Murray Trust as part of their Human Factor report, entitled Do teachers in SA make the grade?

The report focuses on various problems in the education system, including on the state of our children and the anger many feel.

Last week, Kulani Mathebula (19) was stabbed to death on his way to Mondeor High School in Johannesburg, allegedly by pupils aged between 13 and 15.

A video surfaced last Monday showing a young girl on the ground being kicked and slapped by other girls at Crystal Park High School in Ekurhuleni while other pupils watched and laughed.

The report found that pupils living in impoverished circumstances – where the nutritional, language and cognitive foundations are lacking – may be challenging to teach, but teachers would perhaps cope better if discipline wasn’t such a problem.

The teacher from Mbekweni told researchers: “We have to be both social workers and parents to so many of our children.”

When she called the Grade 5 pupil in for a chat, “I said to her: ‘You are so naughty. What should I do? Should I call your mother?’”

The girl angrily replied that she didn’t have a mother.

“I told her that we, the teachers at the school, are also her mothers. I said: ‘You can come to me if you have a problem, and we will share it with you. I am also your parent.’”

The teacher said she understood this anger because the pupil had lost everything she was attached to.

“So many of the children in our schools are like that. They have so many barriers to learning – and there is this anger,” she said.

The report also found that a lack of food was taking its toll.

“For many of our children, food is scarce at home, which affects their learning,” said another teacher.

“Sometimes the education system brings a feeding scheme, but that’s where it ends. These are typical children we are teaching. They can barely afford to buy the full school uniform.

“I saw a competition for shoes. If we win, they will buy shoes for needy pupils. I had to get into that competition. We need 456 pairs of shoes in this school. That is how many pupils do not have proper school shoes,” the teacher said.

A teacher in Oudtshoorn, Western Cape, said that, when she started teaching, she was shocked to see how children berated or swore at teachers.

The report found that teachers believe parents must shoulder some responsibility for the poor education outcomes across the country’s government schools.

A teacher at an Eastern Cape Model C school found that parents’ roles appear to have diminished in children’s lives, while teachers’ roles have increased.

“A lot of parents come from very impoverished communities and they work, so they are not able to be involved. A lot of them live far away from the school and the children bus in, so it is actually very difficult for the parents to be involved,” she said.

“Also, there is not a culture of involvement in the schools; there is definitely a lack of confidence on the part of parents, who feel they should leave all matters up to the teachers. Sometimes it feels as if we are being left to bring up the kids.”

About teacher quality, a Western Cape teacher with 25 years of experience said he was not prepared for the extent to which the curriculum had changed, adding that teachers’ workload had “almost quadrupled” in the past two years.

“The pressure to get through a curriculum that is too full and that is not appropriate to the classroom environment, as well as the relentless paperwork, administration and assessments we have to do, puts so much stress on us that it takes all the joy away from teaching,” he said.

“There’s just not enough time to get through it all; things cannot be taught properly because we have to keep moving on to get through the syllabus.”

Another said: “How do we cope with these changes? We don’t cope! We are constantly studying while we teach. We don’t have the time and resources to do research. We study along with the pupils.”

The trust’s chief executive, David Harrison, said many teachers felt demoralised and unsupported, but needed to be valued and appreciated.

“Their opinions must be heard – not only in matters of ‘labour’, but as experienced teachers. This means building networks of practice and influence that give teachers a powerful sense of profession and vocation.”


Teachers in public schools are clearly overwhelmed. What should be done to ensure they can do their jobs properly and provide their pupils with the support and quality education they need?

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