We All Owe An Intellectual Debt To Teachers

2013-05-06 19:16

The aspiration of becoming teachers normally crosses our minds some time during our upbringing, but as soon as the frustrations of the education profession – both financial and occupational – catch our attention, the excitement melts and dries up like dew at the face of sunshine.

We get discouraged by the working conditions and salaries of teachers. Actually, teachers themselves frown upon us when they hear of our aspirations to enter the education field.

They don't believe in their own field.

They love us too much to let us invite frustrations into our ‘better-deserving’ lives.

They don’t want us to join their mass choir that continuously sings the same song of lamentations at the ‘Annual Percentage Increase Extravaganza’, a song composed by SADTU, with Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga as the choir conductor (she has the powers of stopping the song or letting it play until year-end exams). I used the word extravaganza intentionally to accommodate the diversity prevalent when teachers perform their annual song of grievances. Recently, they augmented their performance by including a go-slow technique; one that minimises the volume of their voices so that there is uncertainty surrounding what is it that they are really doing.

Clearly, government is making fun of our teachers—it makes them sing the same song every year.

Amid that, it is the education of our people that is jeopardised. When the human capital is not satisfied, the levels of productivity will definitely subside.

Pivoting on Nelson Mandela’s description of education as the only weapon with the potential to empower ourselves, one can’t help but ask how such a powerful tool can be maximised if teachers are not motivated and supported to ensure a manifestation of the old man’s views.

Teachers are the architects of a nation’s intellectual strongholds.

They ensure that a nation has intellectual security.

They empower a nation’s children with the capabilities of safeguarding and sustaining the intellectual wealth of the nation.

It is through the bridge of teachers that learners can transition to becoming students, and subsequently graduates.

This is worthy of remembrance as we celebrate our achievements in our various fields of specialisation. May we stay mindful of the fact that some wouldn’t be in government had teachers not nurtured them from primary to secondary schooling.

We need to make sure that we attract the right, skilled graduates into the education profession. To achieve that, the remuneration must be competitive so that other better rewarding sectors don't steal them away.

There is an axiom in society that teachers must always be in the classroom, regardless of their treatment from employers. We see them as a special type of workers who should not strike. We believe that they should teach learners at all times, but only a few of us put pressure on government to improve the salaries of teachers. We leave that up to the unions, yet we claim to all be concerned when teachers are on a go-slow.

If education concerns us all, the benefits of those entrusted with its impartation must as well be our concern. They must be rewarded fairly so that they can execute their functions diligently.

To date, every time teachers embark on a strike to express their grievances regarding remuneration, they are immediately criticised for ‘sabotaging’ the education of children, Black children that is. Government swiftly quotes policies and plans to declare the education system an essential service.

Paradoxically, the obvious loopholes of that essential service are left unattended, thus exposing the hypocrisy in government. I mean, if it is really that essential, there should be no space to doubt that. Salaries must confirm it.

Moves towards declaring education an essential service must not narrowly seek to disarm SADTU of the striking pistols. Instead, it should be an all-encompassing strategic move to improve the salaries of teachers so that not only are they motivated to deliver excellently, but that they also have their non-performance excuses rooted out.

Teachers won’t have any reason to underperform when they realise that government is taking them seriously.

Government is aware of the ubiquitous nature of the classroom, and how the classroom invades the homes of teachers after-hours, during holidays, and over the weekend. Ranging from class preparations to marking of scripts to extra classes, the job description of teachers assumes the properties of an elastic band. In school, I used to be every teacher’s pet. Assuming the roles of pet owners, they would tell me all their dissatisfactions about their profession. I’d see them in-doors on weekends, marking test scripts and assignments.

Some started losing their sight right in my sight, as the effects of white paper got a better part of their eyes.

But does their pay reflect their efforts?

Are the expectations society has from them justifiable given how much they are paid?

When all industries transform in terms of talent recruitment and retention has the education sector managed to match up?

How many skilled teachers has our education system lost due to same issues highlighted every year?

Unfortunately government is succeeding in turning the teaching profession into a choice of hopelessness—one made not passionately but desperately (a when everything-else-fails option). There are many talented people who would have loved to teach but due to government’s continued failure to professionalise and make the teaching profession desirable, we have lost them.

Of course teachers are primarily driven by the passion to teach, but when the comparison level of alternatives comes into play, other sectors successfully lure this young talent away. Gone are the days when passion would determine everything.

Most of the people who go into teaching are not honestly passionate about it. They are there to make a living, not an impact.

Truth is that the concerns of teachers are genuine. They are ones of a ladder that pleads with its owner to store it in a safe place away from the rain, dust it off after stepping on it, and appreciate its unique tasks, yet the owner (those in power) ridicules the ladder’s requests for servicing (teachers’ demands for increment), having forgotten that if it weren’t because of that ladder he wouldn’t have reached top positions in life.

Reminiscently, when I was in Japan as part of our university’s F1 Leadership for Change Programme, I learnt that teachers in Japan earn more than most, if not all, professions, because the Japanese government is aware that teachers are the sculptors of all these other professions.

What’s hindering our government from doing the same?

After all, we are what we are today because of our teachers. They are moral agents in society. They deal with various issues outside the classroom walls; some even use the peanuts they earn to assist families of needy children with food and uniform.

May we not forget that when we narrate our corporate, presidential and ministerial success stories.

Teaching is the mother of all fields of intellectualism.

We all owe a huge intellectual debt to it.

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