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SA’s teachers deserve more than criticism; here’s how we can support them

by | Apr 17, 2024 | News, Schools

Teachers are one of the pillars of education, and their role in its advancement should never be undermined, often under different and challenging teaching and learning environments. Rather than just pointing fingers at educators for undesirable results, let’s shift the narrative and empower them to do more with less.

Nomvuzo Notutela has over 26 years of experience as a teacher at various schools across the Eastern Cape. She loves her job, but she says it is trying at times, especially considering the limited supply of textbooks and educational materials. At her current school, Lunga Primary in Mdantsane, outside of East London, there is no library, and few books are available. She admits, “It is hard being a teacher, especially at rural and township schools.” 

Teachers like Nomvuzo are often in the firing line, criticised for poor educational outcomes. But they are doing the best they can. And the situation is often worse in isolated and underprivileged areas such as the Eastern Cape, where there is a well-publicised shortage of qualified teachers and many schools lack electricity and adequate toilet facilities, let alone libraries. This adds to the burden teachers already face with overcrowded classrooms and scarce resources.

The situation is exacerbated by the fact that many newly qualified teachers start working at schools with limited orientation or onboarding processes. With just a teaching degree and only 15 weeks of practical experience in a classroom, they are expected to hit the ground running in the most challenging of circumstances. Many find themselves in a school with multigrade classrooms, containing children from different grades, or having to teach subjects they are not trained for. Dealing with such situations requires different methodologies and teaching practices – which most South African teachers have not been exposed to.

Help for teachers must be targeted and practical

Resources to assist teachers in these situations are few and far between. There are, for example, a few short courses like the Psychological First Aid (PFA) for Educators in Times of Crisis designed by the UCT Schools Development Unit (SDU) to help educators deal with the disruptive elements that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on teaching and learning, but mostly teachers are left to fend for themselves.

This year, the Chief Directorate of Teacher Development in the Eastern Cape, in partnership with Oxford University Press South Africa (OUPSA), is stepping up to try and change this. They are rolling out a practical teacher development workshop programme to upskill and fortify teachers in the province that makes use of older, experienced teachers in peer-to-peer learning environments to share knowledge around things like how to make multigrade classrooms work and how to address different needs of learners.

The series of 125 workshops is reaching 11 500 teachers for Grades 1 to 9 and is focused on teachers in the language and mathematics fields specifically, as these are the key focus areas for the Eastern Cape Department of Education (ECDoE). In the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report, it was revealed that 81% of Grade 4 pupils in South Africa can’t read for meaning. These disappointing results have been largely attributed to the pandemic and the loss of teaching days, as well as the disruption caused at schools across the country.

The next best thing to experience

Noluvuyo Buqa, Oxford University Press Provincial Manager for the Eastern Cape, says that a big benefit of this kind of development training programme is that novice teachers with minimal teaching experience gain confidence by learning real-life strategies from peers. “There is no college or university that will ever train you on experience. To have this intergenerational exchange of knowledge is absolute gold in terms of upskilling and developing teachers,” she says.

A seasoned teacher has learned, often through trial and error, how best to group children in a classroom and how the material can be presented so that it sticks. For instance, when it comes to improving reading and writing abilities, there is evidence that shows that higher learner engagement with reading material directly correlates with an improvement in reading capabilities. This underscores the need for foundation teachers to engage children with whatever resources they have and to use different learning methodologies and techniques to get their message through. In the absence of actual books, teachers who understand this have resorted to novel solutions, like writing their own stories to help children with their reading and comprehension abilities.

But how are teachers supposed to know about this if it has not formed part of their training or experience? Workshop attendee Phathiswa Hendricks, a teacher from the Nelson Mandela Bay District in the Eastern Cape, said being introduced to ways of teaching the curriculum has given her fresh ideas and confidence about how to engage with her learners. Another teacher, Zameka Gwayise, from the OR Tambo Coastal District, said that even after one workshop, she was able to use different teaching strategies for different learners. “It showed me how to deal with a system that is always changing.”

More motivated teachers are also better teachers

Noluvuyo notes, “Teachers know their subjects and how to present the educational content. But they need help to navigate the diverse needs of learners, especially in situations where resources are constrained. Having more flexibility and creativity to use different methodologies as the need arises could lead to better learning outcomes.”

While it is early days in terms of measuring the outcomes of this intervention, the improvement in teacher motivation is already a step in the right direction. The more engaged the teachers are, the more they can learn on an ongoing basis, and ultimately, it is their learners who reap the rewards. Noluvuyo believes this is why teacher development is important, over and above the fact that it upskills teachers. “We can already measure our success in terms of the changes in teacher behaviour.”

The importance of empowering and upskilling our teachers in this way cannot be overstated. As South African education economist and researcher Gabrielle Wills says: “You cannot win a war unless you train your army. Our teachers are the key agents for change with respect to providing quality learning and education for children.”

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