Sara Black teacher on a mission

Sara Black
Sara Black

As we get closer to the announcement of the winner of the biennial City Press Tafelberg Nonfiction Award, we’re introducing each of the five finalists who are in line to win a publishing contract with Tafelberg and R120 000 to help them take time off to write their book.

This week, City Press spoke to Sara Black, a software developer turned teacher, and now PhD researcher who is committed to using her experience and knowledge for social good.

Black’s proposed book will offer practical solutions and place teachers at the centre of a conversation about how we build a meaningful education system.

Black’s teaching career began in 2008 in the UK, where she worked her way into a full-time position as a maths teacher. She returned to South Africa in 2010 and taught pupils in the public school system, which is rife with inequality, until 2013.

Her book will focus on the extreme pressures that public school teachers face; the myth that they are “lazy”; and the factors that contribute to the failing school system, including healthcare, crime, unemployment, political infighting and gangsterism.

On the laziness myth, Black told City Press: “I have had successful corporate chief executive officers who chose teaching as a twilight career in their fifties come to me exhausted and in tears. One said to me: ‘I’ve literally managed budgets of millions and run successful investment companies, but I’ve never worked so hard or been so emotionally taxed, disrespected and frustrated in my life.’ I myself held this view until I went into teaching. I really thought, how hard could it be? The answer is: You have no idea.”

Black completed her master’s degree while teaching in a school in the Ciskei region and has since taught teachers at different universities, providing support to new teachers.

“I’ve travelled to China to see how they train their teachers, and worked with others on critiquing and proposing system level policies to improve our schools. But, once a teacher, always a teacher.”

Sara Black

She says that she is considering returning to the classroom once her PhD is complete.

“The environment has shifted unevenly in the time that I’ve been teaching. Former Model C schools have racially diversified, but not linguistically or economically. My PhD research reveals significant shifts in the ratios between public expenditure and private supplementation in these schools that can collect fees – the inequality is increasing and reflects the broader social inequality that we’ve seen increase since the 2008 global economic crash.”

Over the past 10 years, Black has noted emptying classrooms in rural schools and overcrowding in urban schools.

“The story seems ripe for the telling now – it’s long enough since the experience that I can tell it coolly. And there’s an increasing awareness about the types of problems I describe in the book via social media and the news cycle on such issues. To tell a more methodical narrative on ‘why’ and ‘how’ seems germane now.”

Her book, Black says, will offer readers three takeaways – a sense of understanding of teaching work, with all its complexities and challenges; an understanding that schools don’t operate in a vacuum; and “that the people often posited as the problem [teachers and their unions] are actually our greatest solution”.

“Teachers are not the enemy, and we are also not going anywhere. Tablets, iPads, online learning – forget it. These things will not replace teachers in our lifetime. Any solution to fixing our schools must include a solution with teachers, not around, over or against us. If my readers can get a sense of sympathy and desire to support – as well as hold to account – all the teachers to whom we as a nation are entrusting our next generation of children, I will feel satisfied that my book has achieved its goal.”

Black says that the book will emphasise the important reality that teachers feel disempowered and lack the support they need.

“The vast majority of people in the system want to do a good job, but feel totally disempowered and overwhelmed. Sure, there are a few bad apples, but that’s the case everywhere. I’m hoping this book will help shift those with a powerful political voice, like the middle class, from a position of assuming a deficit attitude towards teachers and public schools towards a position of solidarity.”

Black has contributed to academic books by authoring single chapters. This will be her debut book

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