Why teachers can never be replaced

Gideon Williams, mathematics and maths literacy teacher, works at Templeton High School at Bedford in the Eastern Cape Picture: Supplied
Gideon Williams, mathematics and maths literacy teacher, works at Templeton High School at Bedford in the Eastern Cape Picture: Supplied

Hop along robot, you have no place in schools where you need selflessness, dedication, diligence and a heart to impart your knowledge

Can robots and machines replace a teacher in a classroom?

I pose this question in the light of the euphoria around the fourth industrial revolution, which has taken the world by storm with concerns about the future of work.

Already in South Africa banks are laying off people because of mechanisation and the University of Pretoria has employed a robot which is said to do some of the work done by librarians, signalling danger for the future of work in libraries.

A study by the McKinsey Global Institute reports that by 2022, 50% of companies believe that automation will decrease their numbers of fulltime staff and, by 2030, robots will replace 800 million workers across the world.

In addressing the question of whether machines will replace teachers, allow me to take you down memory lane to three great teachers from the rural village of Marapyane, who made an indelible mark on my schooling, which no machine or robot could have done.

Piet Makinta, my Standard 7 (Grade 9) Afrikaans teacher was outstanding.

He came to class every day, gave us class work almost every day, and the turnaround time for marking our class work was 24 hours.

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He was an example of a teacher who loved his subject and passed that passion and desire to learn on to his pupils.

When the teacher not only answers a pupil’s question correctly and expands the discussion with vivid examples and relevant facts, and when the teacher has a deep well of understanding and expertise on which to draw, then every lesson is enriched and every pupil is inspired.

Makinta showed discipline and dedication towards his work and this had an infectious effect on us.

We looked forward to his class, anticipated acquiring new vocabulary of what was perceived and experienced as the language of the oppressor, and he made it fun to learn through amusing illustrative anecdotes that made us develop a love for this language.

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Our daily class work was followed by “verbeterings” the following day, to help us hone the art, skills and complexities of the language that resulted in its mastery.

At the end of that year I was a proud and effective speaker of the Afrikaans language.

The thoroughness of his work was demonstrated by the fact that I used my Standard 7 (Grade 9) “Klaswerk” book to prepare for my matric examination.

I majored in Afrikaans in my undergraduate studies and was admitted to do honours, which I declined.

At the time, little did I know that in future I would work at what is now a former Afrikaans-speaking university as a lecturer, professor and dean.

Indeed God works in mysterious ways and knows the beginning from the end.

Thank you, Makinta, for your selflessness. Your dedication and the skills you imparted are still helpful.

I can still see you stepping into our classroom that had broken window panes; I can still hear your voice and your emphasis on correct pronunciations and “woord orde”.

A robot cannot compete with you.

The second teacher is Matthews Sebidi, my standards 9 and 10 (grades 11 and 12) class teacher and Setswana teacher.

When he was not at school or in the class, he was missed.

There is something about teachers who are good and dedicated at what they do, and that is: They are missed by their pupils.

Teaching is not only about dishing out the subject matter, it is about how it is done.

The best teachers are often the ones who care the most deeply, not only about their jobs, but about every pupil they serve.

It’s not enough just to love the subject matter: Great teachers share a love of pupils. Great teachers know how to communicate to enforce discipline.

No matter how good they may be, machines do not have the social and cognitive skills; they lack empathy to adequately support pupils and students.

This is what Sebidi did well without inflicting any pain on his pupils.

I once responded to his request to construct a sentence using a particular verb and the whole class burst into laughter because of its pedestrian features.

Instead of punishing me, Sebidi retorted “this one is playful and such cannot be admitted to a university”.

That made me think deeply about my future.

It was a diplomatic way of bringing me in line in terms of what can be said and done in a teaching and learning environment and its implications for both the present and the future.

True to his attribute of a great teacher, he knew what each pupil was capable individually and he strove to help them attain their personal best.

Because I had ambitions of going to university, I started taking my conduct in the classroom seriously.

I passed my Setswana subject in matric very well, and obtained a distinction pass in my first year at the University of the North (Limpopo).

I later learnt that it was that distinction pass in Setswana that got me admitted to the bachelor of education honours at the University of the Witwatersrand four years later.

At the time, historically white institutions were unable to measure the aptitude of black students as the matric examination they wrote under apartheid was viewed as not reliable enough to measure the academic potential of black students.

Thank you, Sebidi, for your hard work, discipline and diligence which opened doors for me in a system that was pitted against black people.

Your quiet diplomacy and reprimand taught me a life lesson and shaped the path to who I am today.

That, a robot could not do.

The third teacher was Sello Lekotoko, my Standard 8 (Grade 10) class teacher.

In my first year at Khamane High School, he nominated me as one of nine pupils to represent the school at a youth convention in Mahikeng.

I had no idea why I deserved this nomination. Upon our return from the convention we had to report back to the other pupils.

For the first time in my life I had to address a crowd of 300 pupils.

That took courage, confronting one’s fears and learning to be accountable, some of the key elements of leadership.

Throughout my high school and beyond, he took a keen interest in my growth and development.

Thank you, Lekotoko, a robot cannot match your insight, interest and nurturing.

My three teachers, now enjoying their retirement in Marapyane, are some of the unsung heroes of this nation.

They exhibited some of the attributes of great teachers: The ability to build caring relationships with pupils; excellent preparation and organisational skills; and a strong work ethic.

With little resources at their disposal they were able to inspire greatness and ambition and a sense of purpose in their pupils.

Great teachers touch the lives of their pupils in ways that shape their destinies and have a lifelong influence.

No matter how good they may be, machines do not have the social and cognitive skills; they lack empathy to adequately support pupils and students.

Job roles that involve recognising cultural sensitivities and caring for others, as well as cultivating creative or complex reasoning and perception are unlikely to be automated.

Teachers, you can relax, your jobs are safe. You will never be replaced by robots anytime soon.

A word of advice: Do not stop learning and improving your knowledge and skills. Find ways to embrace the use of technology in your teaching.

As Henry Adams said: “Good teachers affect eternity; they can never tell where their influence stops.”

Sehoole is professor and dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria

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