The noble profession that feels like a double-edged sword

On paper, South Africa’s investment in basic education and access to schooling looks good. But, behind the numbers, on school grounds and in classrooms across the country,  another picture of the education system unfolds;    one that is complex, and messy, and not always easy to witness.


teacher is murdered in the North West, for example, allegedly by a 17-year-old he’d scolded for jumping a feeding scheme queue. The country contemplates employing security guards to protect teachers. And an investigation is launched at a historic Eastern Cape missionary school after it emerges that a group of teachers has allegedly been raping their pupils.

Then there are the alarming facts indicating that we are getting extraordinarily poor returns on our significant investment in basic education. The World Bank’s most recent Human Capital Index21 shows that if you attend South Africa’s bottom quintile schools for nine years, effectively these nine years translate into only five years of actual learning. In fact, after attending school for four years, eight out of 10 Grade 4s are unable to answer simple questions about a short and easy passage they’ve just read – in either their home language or in English. And after nine years of schooling, most Grade 9s still cannot do basic mathematical calculations or read simple line or bar graphs.

So who is behind the driver’s wheel of our escalating education crisis? The answer, for many, is unequivocal: teachers are steering the education system dangerously off course. Not only can’t they teach, they don’t want to. For others, teachers are merely helpless passengers – strapped in the backseat alongside their pupils, powerless to stop the car. They have been poorly trained, thrown into overcrowded classrooms with underprepared pupils, and are being used as cannon fodder by politically-driven unions.

But is there an alternative to this circular blame game?

Human Factor spoke to a number of teachers, educationalists and others involved in the education system for a deeper sense of what schooling is like in South Africa today, especially if you are a teacher. Most of the principals and teachers asked to remain anonymous because, they said, they risked being disciplined by the Department of Basic Education for “bringing it into disrepute” – but all emphasised how much they valued the chance to speak and be heard.

For a complete list of interviewees, click here
*Indicates that this is not the real name of the person commenting

Part One

“Being a teacher has always been my dream”

Who becomes a teacher, why, and how are they prepared for the role?


ven though we have trained more new teachers over the past decade than ever before, South Africa still has a teacher shortage. We need between 20 000 to 30 000 newly-qualified teachers each year to replace the teachers leaving the system, and to keep the current teacher-pupil ratio steady22,23. We also need enough of these new teachers to be qualified to teach specialised subjects, like Maths and Physical Science – and to understand, teach, and teach in different local languages, especially in the Foundation Phase.

Professor Servaas van der Berg, who holds a National Research Chair in Social Policy at Stellenbosch University, doesn’t believe the increase in enrolments in Initial Teacher Education programmes means that scores of promising educators are rushing to sign up for an attractive occupation: “On average across all degree courses,” he says, “trainee teachers were the weakest performers at school. Many came up through a bad system of schooling themselves, and education degrees are a route to university – a way to access bursary or scholarship funding.”

Studies24 confirm that increased enrolment in teaching courses is mostly due to lower admission requirements, the course being less academically challenging, and greater availability of financial support, but these are not the only reasons why students enrol to become teachers. Dr Nhlanhla Mpofu, director for teaching and learning at the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley refers to people who become teachers because of a true vocational calling as “the idealists”; they are drawn to teaching because they want to make a difference in their communities. But they arrive in the classroom and their ideals are shattered… They expected to at least have basic support in terms of resources; and they expected the learners to be well behaved. The conflict between their expectations and the reality confuses them. These are the teachers who become so demoralised that they choose to leave the teaching profession or else they become cynics… And in turn, they influence younger beginner teachers.”

While Professor Jan Heystek, research director in North West University’s Faculty of Education, agrees that the people selected to become teachers are not necessarily the best quality students we can get, he says this is made worse by the fact that universities are not coping with the numbers of people studying to teach. “They do not have sufficient facilities, infrastructure and staff allocations to do the job,” he explains.

Prof. van der Berg puts it more bluntly: “Universities are not teaching teachers to teach. It’s not an easy job. You have to equip someone with a skill and help them develop a process.”

So it’s not only about who is being taught – or not – at universities, but also about what is being taught that is impacting our education system: a major weakness is getting the fundamentals right. As Dr Nic Spaull, a senior researcher in the Economics Department at Stellenbosch University, has stressed on numerous occasions: “Foundation Phase teachers do not know (and have never been taught) how to teach reading,” which he believes is a major contributor to South Africa’s poor learning outcomes.

Celiwe Silinge teaching at the Ngadla Primary School in the rural Eastern Cape Village, Amajingqi. She has been a teacher for 11 years and became a teacher because she cares about children, especially rural children, who she says can easily remain illiterate.

“Teaching is a people-interactive activity. You need to be able to build the trust and respect of learners, and you need to be fair. These are simple principles, but I’m not sure that student teachers get enough exposure on how to interact along these principles,” explains Heystek. “Also, we don’t teach for what I call the ‘extremes’ – such as the incidents of violent crimes that we are increasingly seeing in our schools. Our teachers are not trained or equipped to deal with these.”

When it comes to teacher training, it’s not all doom and gloom, however. Richard*, a principal from a rural primary school in the Eastern Cape says: “The Department [of Education] has really come to the party by embarking on in-service training for teachers – this is not only for curriculum-related matters, but also to equip educators with financial skills, computer skills, etc.”

Broken schools

School principal of LM Malgas Senior Secondary School in Willowvale in the Eastern Cape, Manelisi Mtshizana is committed to turning the school’s exceptionally poor record around. This is not a small challenge, however, as the school is quite literally broken. Read more.

Adds Amanda Julies, a student teacher from Oudtshoorn in the Western Cape: “When I started as a teaching assistant, I was shocked to see small children berating or swearing at teachers, but we attended a training workshop on learner discipline last Saturday, and there I saw that children won’t just be naughty for no reason – there is always something behind it. One must make sure you have enough background information.”

Veteran educationalist, Professor John Volmink25, who has served as chairperson of the exam standards body, Umalusi, for six years, points to an intuitive truth when he says that “the quality of the education system cannot rise above the quality of the teachers.”

He is, however, hugely optimistic about an important change among the country’s teacher unions. All of them, he says, including the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), have set up professional development institutes; they’ve worked with JET Education Services26 and the Department of Basic Education to do this. These institutes have set professional standards for teachers – and that, according to Volmink, is a crucial shift.

“The focus until now has been on teachers’ subject know-ledge. But teaching isn’t just about that – it’s also about professional behaviour and ethics. The institutes will help to shift teaching from a craft culture to a professional culture.”

According to Prof. Heystek, educationalists around the country are working on practical teaching programmes to assist student teachers when they go out to schools to teach: “Huge efforts are under way to make sure that these programmes assist with training, but there are challenges when it comes to getting the trainee teachers into good-enough schools. If you send a student teacher to a school where the quality of teaching is not up to scratch, they will not learn the correct ways of teaching.”

Privani*, a principal at a school in Cape Town’s southern suburbs, acknowledges that teacher training is an issue, but believes there is a broader problem: how do you attract good, committed people to teaching when the people in schools already “feel despondent, disgraced, distressed and unappreciated?”

A teacher for nearly 30 years, who has worked at all levels of the education system, Privani remembers a time when “teaching was considered a noble profession”.

Some associate the waning status of teaching in South Africa with issues of remuneration. As Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi recently noted in an interview27: “When we grew up, a teacher’s house was the most beautiful house. Now an educator that used to drive their own car must be in a taxi together with a child. Society’s respect for the profession has diminished, and has diminished badly.”

There is indeed a general perception in South Africa that teachers are underpaid, with frequent media reports of teachers saying they are struggling to make ends meet and to pay off debt, driving some of them to resign in order to secure their pension funds28.

However, Spaull recently pointed out that between 2010 and 2016 teacher salaries increased by 57%, compared to a 38% increase in the consumer price index. He reckons that the above-inflation salary increases combined with increased school enrolment in recent years have “translated into a significant decline in the purchasing power of expenditure on basic education between 2010 and 201729.”

He explains: “In 2010 we spent R17 822 on average per child, dropping to R16 435 in 2017 and projected to decrease further to R15 963 by 2019 (all in 2017 Rand). This is a 10% decline in funding per pupil in 10 years (2010 to 2019).”

Justine Quince, a strategic human resources consultant involved in the Public Schools Partnerships Pilot Project30, says that as of 1 April 2018, a new teacher earns over R20 000 per month or R260 000 per annum, and this can go right up to R49 000 per month towards the more senior end of teaching. There are also benefits to the value of 37% on top of the basic salary: a housing allowance, medical aid and pension. And a 13th cheque. Plus a 1.5% notch increase depending on performance. However, because data on teacher quality is mostly unavailable, South Africa’s teacher pay system doesn’t strongly differentiate between well and poorly performing teachers31.

Dr Mpofu is quick to point out that research shows money is not what motivates teachers, it’s being appreciated that does. “Money becomes secondary to teachers being able to work confidently in their schools and communities, and being able to make a difference,” she says.

Prof. Heystek says his research confirms that money is not everything for teachers. He says we can see this from the increasing numbers of teachers who dedicate themselves to teaching extra hours without compensation. “There is definitely a trend of teachers getting more committed. I call it the intrinsic motivating factor. Teachers are increasingly seeing they can make a difference to their communities. It is coming from somewhere deep inside them. My feeling is something has clicked.”

There are also those teachers who sign up and stick at teaching simply because of their love for children. Says student teacher and single mom Julies, who has been studying evenings after work by candle and solar light for the past four years: “Since I can remember it has been my dream to become a teacher. It was the only thing I did in the afternoons after school… I played school. I have always had a big love for children and it is growing stronger – even now after being in the classroom for almost two years. Teaching is the only thing I want to do.”

Dr Mpofu is quick to point out that
research shows money is not what motivates teachers, it’s being appreciated that does. “Money becomes secondary to teachers being able to work confidently in their schools and communities, and being able to make a difference,” she says.


  1. World Bank. 2018. Human Capital Index: Country Brief on South Africa. Access here
  2. Van Broekhuizen, H. 2016. Teacher supply in South Africa: A focus on Initial Teacher Education (ITE) graduate production. Presented to the ReSEP Conference on Quantitative Applications in Education. Access here
  3. Centre for Development and Enterprise. 2015. Teachers in South Africa: Supply and Demand 2013-2025. Access here
  4. Van Broekhuizen, 2016.
  5. Prof Volmink is also the chairperson of the DG Murray Trust board
  6. JET Education Services is non-profit organisation that works with government, the private sector, international development agencies and education institutions to improve the quality of education. Read more about JET here
  1. Listen to the interview here
  2. Govender, P. 2017. Debt gobbles teacher’s pensions. Mail & Guardian, 17 February 2017. Access here and Miya, N. 2017. Why teachers are leaving their profession. News24, 30 August 2017. Access here
  3. Spaull, N. 2018. Basic Education thrown under the bus – and it shows up in test results. Business Day, 16 April 2018. Access here
  4. Public School Partnerships (PSP) is a collaborative approach to public school innovation that brings together government, funders, no-fee schools and non-profit education support organisations. Read more here
  5. Taylor, S., Van der Berg, S., Gustafsson, M., Spaull, N. and Armstrong, P. 2011. Improving Education Quality in South Africa. A report of the National Planning Commission. Stellenbosch. Access here




If you do not create change, change will create you.