What’s impacting on teachers’ ability to teach, and teach well, on a daily basis?
‘One thing I was not prepared for was the extent to which the curriculum has changed over the years,” shares Jillian*, a junior school teacher with 25 years’ experience, currently working at a low-income, but well-respected government school in Pietermaritzburg. She estimates that teachers’ workload has quadrupled in the last two years.
“The pressure to get through a curriculum that is too full, that is not appropriate to the classroom environment, as well as the relentless paperwork, administration and assessments we have to do, puts so much stress on us that it takes all the joy away from teaching,” she shares. “There’s just not enough time to get through it all; things cannot be taught properly because we have to keep moving on to get through the syllabus.”
Richard*, the principal of the rural primary school in the Eastern Cape, describes the country’s shifting curriculum as frustrating for both teachers and principals: “They expect principals and teachers to deliver results, but sometimes we don’t have the resources to do so.
“How do we cope with these changes? We don’t cope! We are constantly studying while we teach… We don’t have the time and resources to do research. We study along with the learners.”
A 2016 study32 published by the Department of Basic Education showed that almost half of educators in public schools felt their workload has increased over the past three years. They said this was because there are now more learners in each class with too few teachers – many of whom are often absent. Also, the learners struggle to learn in English, are ill-disciplined and parents are not supportive.
The study also showed that 66% of educators teaching Mathematics and Maths Literacy are not trained to teach this subject, highlighting the shortage of educators, especially in specific subjects. Both schools featured in this publication (see pages 36-55) need to “borrow” Maths teachers from other schools – an arrangement that is better than nothing, but clearly not the best arrangement for learners (or teachers).
And it’s not just unfamiliar subjects that teachers have to grapple with; they have to play multiple roles, too. “With our learners coming from such impoverished backgrounds33, we have to be both social workers and parents to so many of our children,” explains Babalwa*, the deputy principal of a primary school in Mbekweni, outside Wellington in the Western Cape.
“Last week I came into contact with a very angry child in Grade 5. She was not responding to anything in the class, so I invited her to come speak with me. I said to her, ‘You are so naughty. What should I do? Should I call your mother?’ and she replied, saying angrily, ‘I don’t have a mother.’
“I told her that we, the teachers at the school, are also her mothers. I said, ‘You can come to me if you have a problem, and we will share it with you. I am also your parent.’ I realised there was this anger because everything she was attached to had vanished. So many of the children in our school are like that. They have so many barriers to learning – and there is this anger.”
“For many of our children, food is scarce at home, which affects their learning. Sometimes, the education system brings a feeding scheme, but that’s where it ends. These are the typical children we are teaching. They can barely afford the full school uniform either. I saw a competition organised by a foundation recently. It’s a competition for shoes. If we win, they will buy shoes for needy learners. I had to get into that competition. We need 456 pairs of shoes in this school. That is how many learners do not have proper school shoes.”
And it’s not just emotional distress that’s taking a toll on our learners. “For many of our children, food is scarce at home, which affects their learning,” Babalwa continues. “Sometimes, the education system brings a feeding scheme, but that’s where it ends. These are the typical children we are teaching. They can barely afford the full school uniform either. I saw a competition organised by a foundation recently. It’s a competition for shoes. If we win, they will buy shoes for needy learners. I had to get into that competition. We need 456 pairs of shoes in this school. That is how many learners do not have proper school shoes.”
Bongani*, a principal of an Eastern Cape technical high school that recorded a 48% matric pass rate in 2017, is frustrated too. He says pupils are arriving in Grade 8 unable to read: “They completely lack literacy. If you give them a task, they will just reproduce what you’ve given them. If you give them a comprehension to do, most of them will just copy it instead of answering the question. It feels as if, when these learners arrive at our school, we are having to educate them from scratch.”
The national school nutrition programme is one of the success stories of our education system, with about 80% of learners getting a daily meal through this programme.
But, teachers also recognise how hard many learners are trying to succeed, under extremely difficult circumstances and despite very real disadvantages. For example, Fezile Ntontela, principal of the Zangqolwane Secondary School in the Amathole East District, Eastern Cape, says language is an enormous sticking point for many learners: “They are trying very hard. I am confident that they can read and they can write, but they do really struggle with English. All the learning areas are in English and the problem is that our learners are isiXhosa speakers.”
Learners who live in impoverished circumstances – where the nutritional, language and cognitive foundations are lacking – may be challenging to teach, but teachers would perhaps cope better if discipline wasn’t such a problem in South African schools, where class sizes are above the recommended maximum of 40 learners in more than 40% of schools in six out of nine provinces34.
Aiden* is an 18-year-old learner in Grade 11 at a school near Lotus River in Cape Town. He says: “The main reason I think teachers are stressed is because of how some learners behave. The bad guys in the school really work on the teachers’ nerves. They make it difficult for the learners who want to learn; they also make it impossible for some of the teachers. There are lots of bad guys in our school. They don’t seem to care about anything. Most of the naughty boys smoke cigarettes and dagga at school. We will be busy learning, then they will come in late, and disrupt us. They make things up, like ‘we got lost’. Then they are sent to the office by the teacher. The principal then gives them detention, but they bunk, and then come back to school late again the next day…”
He adds: “The most stressed of all my teachers is the Life Sciences teacher. She often shouts at us, even if we are not doing anything wrong. We sometimes don’t know what we have done to her.
“Every now and then if I go and ask her a question, she will explain the work to me. I don’t think she hates her job. I think she finds it very difficult because of the disruptive learners.”
But it’s not just the “bad guys” who are arriving late for class or bunking school. In 2016, the Mail & Guardian interviewed Dr Nick Taylor, a senior research fellow at JET Education Services, about the findings of an investigation of school attendance registers, which showed that teachers arrive late for school or class in more than half of schools, and that teacher absenteeism is often or always a problem in 43% of schools35. Taylor remarked: “It’s become a culture in the majority of our schools to be ‘very loose’ with time.”
A learner discipline problem left to fester is starting to rear its head in some schools as “low-scale terrorism”, in the words of Prof. Heysteck. Minister of Basic Education, Angie Motshekga, has recently admitted that South African schools are becoming more violent and dangerous for both teachers and learners36.
In 2016, the Department reported37 that violence in schools is common, and most often takes the form of assault (in 20% of schools) and fights involving weapons (in 16% of schools).
Basil Manuel, the Executive Director of the National Professional Teachers Organisation (NAPTOSA), a teachers’ union, worries enormously about the rising levels and incidents of violence in our schools.
Classrooms at LM Malgas Senior Secondary, Willowvale, vandalised by learners in 2016, have remained like that for the past two years – a visual reminder that much work is still needed before everything at this school will be in order.
He says: “The issue for teachers is not even about school violence per se; it’s my strong contention that school violence is vastly under-reported. It’s now reaching a point where teachers believe their welfare is seen to be of secondary importance to everybody else’s.
“Schools cannot function without teachers; learners cannot learn without teachers; the community cannot survive without them. But they feel maligned and mistreated.”
School violence has spiralled so much out of control that the Department of Education is considering desperate measures. “In the new schools we are building we are incorporating safety measures,” said Gauteng Education MEC, Panyaza Lesufi, in a recent interview38. “We want an area that will be strictly for educators only within the classrooms. We are also creating an area where you use your biometric details so when a teacher feels unsafe, she can go to that area. This is not something that we planned for, but the reality is that we have to plan for the next 30 years now.”
INFRASTRUCTURE AND RESOURCES
Broken window theory proposes that visible signs of crime, anti-social behaviour and disorder create an environment that encourages further crime and disorder, including serious crimes.
Unfortunately, the Department of Education has dragged its feet fixing the broken windows and other infrastructural problems that scar our classrooms.
In July 2018, the Bhisho High Court ordered the Basic Education Minister to meet the infrastructure target that the State had set itself to fix public schools – which was November 2016 (a date only formulated after another court case – brought against it by the education lobby group, Equal Education – had forced the government to do so). The judgment stipulates that all “classrooms built entirely or substantially” of inappropriate materials must be fixed, and schools without electricity, sanitation and water must be given these resources.
According to the Department, 99.3% of public schools now have water and 97.6% have electricity. However, only 29% have libraries, 41% have a computer facility and 18% have a laboratory39. The two schools profiled in the publication (see pages 36-55) clearly illustrate how infrastructure and resource constraints continue to frustrate educators at many schools, particularly in rural areas.
And while significant strides have been made in the availability of textbooks and workbooks, the issue is not entirely resolved yet. A recently published household study showed that close to half a million learners still complained about not having textbooks40. This problem is more pronounced in some provinces than others; for example, in 2016, this was a complaint for 7% of learners in Mpumalanga, but only for 2% of learners in Limpopo.
Of course, the fewer resources, the more important the teacher becomes in ensuring that learning takes place41.