By Andisiwe Hlungwane and Mienke Steytler
The impact of COVID-19 on the South African education system is indisputable and, as schools reopen today, the Teachers’ Change Agent Network (Teachers CAN) believes that the opportunity for change lies with teachers.
Teachers have always held the future of children in their hands, but never has this been more true than in 2020 when all of us had to adapt to a new way of living and learning, including teachers.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, most teachers in South Africa had no technology training. As the lockdown continued; they simply had to adjust and innovate to support learners, parents and caregivers so that learning could continue, despite the turmoil caused by the virus.
We heard of a teacher who taught learners at night since data was cheaper during night-time hours, and learners could afford to tune in. Others sent voice notes to students describing topics and connected young people to organisations that provided free data.
There were reports of teachers pasting pieces of paper to the walls in their homes and using these as whiteboards, recording themselves on their phones, and then sharing these videos with parents and learners via WhatsApp or Facebook.
And these were the teachers who could reach their learners via digital means. Others physically dropped helpful documents to learners as often as possible or called learners, parents and caregivers to check in on them.
While the pandemic has highlighted some teachers’ tenacity, leadership and agility, as illustrated above, it has also underlined the complex realities that teachers in South Africa face in their classrooms every day.
Teachers do much more than simply deliver lessons. Many are tasked with the near impossible – to deliver on an inflexible curriculum for targeted outcomes, while navigating socio-economic challenges in under-resourced schools where issues such as hunger have only increased during the pandemic. Furthermore, teaching can feel like a solitary act – one teacher in their classroom teaching their subject. While there is recognition for collaboration between teachers in schools, when a teacher enters their classroom, they are often left to navigate challenges on their own, and can feel isolated and unmotivated.
The Department of Basic Education, provincial departments of education, district managers, senior management teams at schools, school governing bodies, teachers themselves, parents and communities must unite to strengthen teachers’ role if South Africa is to rebuild its education system.
- It is crucial that peer-to-peer support is established and mentoring is provided – particularly for young teachers as they enter the workplace. South Africa has an ageing teaching force with the average age of teachers being 47 years. While government initiatives like the Fundza Lushaka bursary have driven up the supply of new graduate teachers, it is important to note that South Africa has a low retention of beginner, young, teachers, citing a lack of support as one of the major contributing factors. Teachers have always been frontline workers with regards to children but even more so during the pandemic. They should be treated, supported and valued as such; with strong collaboration between school senior management teams, principals and the teachers themselves.
- Teachers must be included in government decisions, and not only as members of a union. As Stellenbosch University’s Professor Michael le Cordeur wrote recently, the unions have smart voices but these are seldom heard on issues such as sanitation in schools, pertinent during a pandemic that requires one to wash one’s hands. Teachers must be supported and encouraged to engage with government constructively to bring policy decisions closer to the reality of teaching, classrooms and, ultimately, learners.
- Teachers must be included in shaping curriculum. Consideration must be given to whether an inflexible curriculum for targeted outcomes is to the benefit or detriment of teachers and learners. Educational inequality is a reality that South Africa has been grappling with prior to and since the fall of apartheid, and with wealthier children twice as likely to attend school compared to children in no-fee schools, either due to access to online learning or to private schooling, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have increased educational inequality even further. Teachers must have the freedom to adapt the curriculum to ensure that every child in their classroom is given an opportunity to master key skills and competencies that allows for the maximum chance at fulfilling their potential post-pandemic.
- Some schools are better at including teachers in school structures such as school governing bodies, but this needs to be practiced across the board. With the national school governing body (SGB) elections taking place in March 2021, it’s vital that teachers and parents are informed about the role and importance of the SGB, encouraged to stand for election, and urged to vote.
The 2021 schooling year remains uncertain. Yet, in this uncertainty, lies the opportunity for change. With the COVID-19 pandemic underlining the value of teachers in society, now is the time to put teachers’ needs at the heart of a recovery plan for a post-COVID schooling system. Their role must be reimagined in order to build education back better; for the benefit of every child.
Read this article on the Daily Maverick here.
BIO: Mienke Steytler is the Communications Specialist of the Teachers’ Change Agent Network (Teachers CAN) and Andisiwe Hlungwane is the Project Lead of Teachers CAN, a project supported by the DG Murray Trust.