According to the famous educationalist and philosopher Nel Noddings: “The single greatest complaint by students is that teachers do not care.”
Noddings considers lack of care on the part of teachers as a major factor in the troubling traits many adolescents show in their later years.
The tragic drowning of Parktown Boys’ High School pupil Enock Mpianzi (13) in January in North West while his teachers were said to be nonchalantly playing games on the other side of the camp, indicts teachers for breaking the one fundamental pillar of being a teacher – caring.
The loss of Enock’s life indicts all of us, as the community, the school governing bodies, the department of education, because pupils have always told us “teachers do not care”.
The grief of the Mpianzi family, along with that of the nation, for this senseless and completely avoidable death, has emboldened many parents to relate their own experiences of how uncaring and negligent teachers are, sometimes aided by the department which employs them.
Two more families have now come forward having suppressed their anger and pain for years, not out of choice but after being bullied by mightier institutions.
These families are now suing the Western Cape provincial education department for R4 million for their two children who drowned in October 2014, during another unsupervised five-day school camp at the Rotary Club in Strandfontein.
The provincial department could not be bothered then and remains unbothered today.
The need to know and care for pupils, not only in the context of a classroom, but in order to develop them as human beings, is a critical element of developing a complete pupil.
It is important to appreciate that nurturing a pupil as a complete human being is more important than developing academic subjects.
Values and ethics, kindness and caring for fellow humans are part of schooling and pupils must come out of these learning institutions armed with all these values to prepare them for the world.
Education professor Gary Fenstermacher has stated that: “When teachers are characterised by traits such as honesty, compassion, truthfulness, fairness, courage, moderation and generosity in their daily activities, their students will pick up these virtues in their interaction with teachers.”
What exactly is the cause of this uncaring streak in our teachers? Why don’t teachers care any more?
This is mind-boggling because most teachers would not agree that they do not care. They would outline the virtues that led them into the profession in the first place and how teaching is the most important profession, unrewarding financially but a profession upon which all other professions depend, a glorious human endeavour.
Despite this self-indulgence and chest-thumbing, 2015 American Federation of Teachers (AFT) research found that 89% of teachers “strongly agreed” that they were excited about their jobs when they started out, but, in a few years, just 15% felt the same way.
This is the core of the problem.
How do our teachers start with these lofty aspirations and then deteriorate to a point where they neither care about their profession nor about the pupils placed in their care? What contributes to this drastic shift in their attitudes?
One teacher described a sense of overburdening they face because they are now expected not only to focus on the academic wellbeing of their pupils but to carry the pupils’ socioeconomic problems as well.
For example, they fear that if they reprimand a pupil or chastise them, teachers may trigger a whole lot of psychological problems and all this becomes their fault.
“We are not social activists or psychologists, we are just teachers. And when you are asked to do more than teach a child, mould their behaviour too, help them with extra lessons [unpaid] and have patience with the delinquents, you find your own job of teaching being muddied and buried under an avalanche of psychological warfare,” the teacher said.
Effectively, teachers just want to teach. They don’t want to be responsible for the children’s welfare or psychosocial problems or behavioural challenges.
The same AFT research, which found deteriorating enthusiasm among teachers for their jobs over time, also found that half of them don’t like their jobs. It found that 73% of teachers found their jobs “often stressful”.
So teaching, at least for those who’ve done it for a few years, is unexciting and stressful.Not typical characteristics of things people love.
Many teachers appreciate that theirs is more than a profession, it is a life choice.
However, the younger teachers in particular who might have joined it out of some idealism about what they wanted to correct, mostly find that after two years they are already looking for a way out of the profession – because of the stress and expectations on them for things they feel they did not sign up for.
One teacher said: “You see, I never wanted to be a social activist. I just wanted to teach English.”
This lack of appreciation of what teaching really means, has also made many teachers live within their stereotypes when dealing with black pupils.
One black teacher who has dedicated her life to ensuring the fair treatment of black pupils said: “When teaching black students, I notice many of these teachers come off as mean, strict and extra tough.
"This is because they feel that is the only way they can get students of colour to comply. The idea of a teacher acting tough is more about them than it is about the student. Teaching children of colour requires the right mind-set, providing them with ideas and behaviours of the rich instead of the poor.”
Stemming from an already unhappy place where teachers hate their jobs and the demands placed on them for the overall wellbeing of the pupils, the deal is even tougher for black pupils, who already suffer from general stereotypes about how they should be treated.
Black pupils and their interests don’t matter to many teachers, and we have seen this about black hair, that black pupils are too dark – like being black is a nuisance.
Enock was too black to matter. Even after teachers were told that he was missing, they were still not moved. Deep down in the recesses of their minds, this was not someone to care about, the brute animals of the earth.
What remains true however, despite all these challenges teachers are facing which are affecting how they perform their tasks, is that there is no other factor which has the greatest impact in people’s lives more than their educational experience.
And at the centre of that lifetime impact is a teacher. It’s been said that having a caring teacher is one of the great predictors of student learning.
This is particularly true for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities.
According to author and professor of special education, Felice Leonardo “Leo” Buscaglia: “Too often we underestimate the power of … a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around. Caring is being completely attentive to the students’ many learning activities.”
A teacher, imbued in all the glorious and fundamental pillars of teaching, could have saved Enock’s life.
A teacher who knew that they no longer cared about their profession, about their students, could have opened up space for those who do and this alone could have saved Enock’s life.
Uncaring teachers have destroyed too many lives and, unfortunately, pupils have always told us that “teachers do not care”. It is time for us to listen.
Diko is a social commentator
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