Newsletter 60 How others view teachers

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” James 3:1

The discourse about teacher professionalization highlights how others view teachers and their teaching. Here a compilation of opinions and views about teachers and teaching. YOU BE THE JUDGE! 3/4


Durban - Seven months ago, Kathy’s school bag was a lot lighter. In fact, back at her old school, she had only carted a single bag back and forth between home and her classroom, not three. She hadn’t before needed to carry files, folders, exercise and library books, a reader and a brimming pencil case. Or sports kit. Or a lunchbox.

The 13-year-old would have been in Grade 8 this year, despite not being able to multiply two by 10 without reverting to counting on her fingers. But worried that the quality of her education was setting her up for failure at university, her father had her enrolled at a top Durban school at the beginning of this year.

Entrance tests at Kathy’s new school uncovered gaps in her learning so significant that she is now repeating Grade 6.

The pupils at Kathy’s new school had mastered concepts she had not.

“Like how to subtract fractions from one another. Most of them knew how to do that, but I didn’t.”

She isn’t sure that her previous teacher was aware she struggled with her times tables. Kathy has only recently learnt to use laboratory equipment such as glass beakers and Bunsen burners; to draw a mind map, and that words such as “she” or “mine” are pronouns. While English was the medium of instruction at the former House of Delegates school she attended from Grades R to 7, Zulu is Kathy’s mother tongue. Consequently, it comes as a surprise that she now finds her Zulu written work difficult.

“At my old school we learnt the same thing over and over. How to greet in Zulu, the different vehicles…”

Kathy thought the teachers at her new school would have sticks too. But they don’t mete out corporal punishment and are “never in a bad mood”. And they don’t leave their classrooms unattended to go to “meetings”, so the older kids aren’t able to make unsolicited visits and rifle through her belongings.

Kathy waxes lyrical about her new teachers who “make every single thing interesting”, how her new friends help her with the stickier concepts and how she’s discovered that she has a voice for singing.

Sophie* is another pupil adjusting to a slinging a heavier schoolbag over her shoulder. “We have homework every day,” she explains, with emphasis on “every day”.

Sophie used to walk 40 minutes to and from her old school. Tardy pupils were routinely locked outside the gate, and punished with litter duty or the whack of a plastic pipe. She earned As in four subjects, including natural and social sciences, and Bs in four others including mathematics in the fourth term of Grade 9, and was the top pupil in English and arts and culture. But by the end of the first term of Grade 10 she managed just 38 percent for economics, 63 percent for English and 37 percent for maths.

Fearful that she would be the next pupil from her school to be sexually assaulted along that 40-minute route, Sophie’s family had her moved to Berea and enrolled at a new and “very different” school.

“I always loved science, now I’m struggling,” she says. What happened when one chemical substance was mixed with another, she had previously only learnt in theory.

“We didn’t have to do practical work. The teacher would just write the answers on the board and explain that when this happens, this happens… But you never experienced it.”

Sophie thinks that if the teachers at her old school were like those at her new school, her marks would not have been so low. A good teacher by her standard is one who “cares” and “knows what they’re talking about”.

“You can tell if they aren’t interested or passionate about what they’re doing… Just by the way they greet you, you know it’s going to be a long day. At my old school, the bell hasn’t rung, it’s not the end of the period yet, but the teacher doesn’t know what to do next. There’s still time, but they’re done and we just sit and wait for the bell to ring.”

Asked how she’s adjusting, she says: “I feel like I fit in everywhere. I tell myself it’s not beyond me, I can do it, I can manage… I’m not happy to show you these results,” she says of her first term report, “But I’ll be looking forward to showing you my next report.”

Sophie’s guardian believes the only explanation for her to suddenly be battling academically is that she wasn’t taught at the same standard as pupils at her new school and that the standard of tests and exams at her old school were lower.

“(The system is) completely failing children like Sophie who have huge potential, who just aren’t being challenged and aren’t being taught properly.

“A good education costs in this country; that’s the bottom line.

“I’m no Mother Teresa but if all of us within our means could find some way of putting what little extra we’ve got or can find and putting it into education in some way, to help those in our direct lives, the impact of that, on not just one life but many lives, is huge. We need to own this because we’re all going to inherit the results.”

Kathy’s adoptive father, Terry Sterling, believes her previous school may have been pitching too low.

“I don’t think she would have been at the level needed to manage at university. The new stuff that she’s now learnt, she knows. We’ve just got to try to fix the past.

“She’s sharp,” Sterling says. “It tells me there was something lacking in those teachers, that they were unable to see it. Or maybe the standard is so mediocre that as long as the pupils sort of grasp the basics they could move on.

“She keeps saying her new teachers make more effort. So it was possibly a lack of passion for teaching at her old school. But with double the number of pupils they were stretched, so if a child is just getting by, they get lost in the system.”

Over the last seven months, Kathy has more than doubled her average mark from 22 percent to 52 percent. She is the youngest of three sisters whose education, and lives, Sterling has taken responsibility for.



  • Schools are as good – or as bad – as their principals
  • South Africa has two education systems, according to the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (Sacmeq).
  • University of Stellenbosch researcher Nic Spaull argues that 75 percent of South African schools are characterised by low accountability, little homework and testing, and a high rate of grade repetition and drop-outs. Spaull explains that in most quintile one to three schools (the poorest 60 percent of schools), most pupils can pass and be pushed through to the next grade without having learnt the basics of the previous year.
  • “This is particularly concerning because these schools make up the majority in South Africa. The relationship between learning, assessment and progression in the top 15 percent of South African schools is much stronger, meaning that grade progression is actually meaningful. If you are passing, you are learning, but that’s not the case in many South African schools,” Spaull says.
  • “Unless we can improve capacity at all levels of the system – from teachers in the classroom right up to the national department – as well as increase accountability in the system, we shouldn’t expect any large change in the status quo. These are binding constraints to progress.”
  • The consequence of these constraints is that one percent of Grade 8 pupils at schools in quintiles one to four will go on to pass Grade 12 and earn a C or higher in maths. Ten times as many quintile five pupils will do so.
  • The Sacmeq III study also tested whether Grade 6 maths and language teachers knew the answers to what they were asking their pupils. South African teachers scored an average of 75 percent on the language tests when asked to recall information that was explicitly stated in the reading text. But on questions which needed them to interpret and evaluate what they had read, their scores dropped to 40 percent and lower. On the maths tests too, the more complex the content, the worse teachers did; from 67 percent for arithmetic to 50 percent for fractions and ratios.
  • Researchers with the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu) visited 133 urban schools as part of the first national evaluation of how pupils in grades 1 to 3 were taught. But they also visited an impoverished and isolated village school, where six of the best Grade 2 pupils read more fluently than most of their urban peers. Their classroom bookshelves were also better stocked than most and their teacher’s time management was exemplary. However, the comprehension test scores of these six pupils were lower than what the unit’s researchers had expected. The amount and quality of the written work in the pupils’ maths and language books were also below par. When their reading lessons were observed to try to figure out why this was the case, researchers discovered that their teacher emphasised simple recall and repetitive chorusing rather than reading for understanding.
  • The unit’s report, released in May, thus concluded that in many schools, it was a case of teachers “can’t” rather than teachers “won’t”.  Among the study’s findings were that:
  • * Pupils were not taught how to solve problems or understand and analyse texts because their teachers did not know how to teach these skills.
  • * In one third of schools, ill-discipline and inefficiency were barriers to learning.
  • * Significant numbers of teachers left their classrooms during school hours, to attend training sessions, for union meetings, or for funerals.

In just under two months, millions of pupils in public and state-subsidised private schools will sit for the government’s assessment exam. These children, from grades 1 to 6 and in Grade 9, will have their reading, writing and mathematical abilities tested. The Annual National Assessment results of the past two years were panned as an indictment on the quality of literacy and numeracy teaching in the lower grades. Spaull, for one, has frequently argued that the root of South Africa’s matric woes lies in these earlier grades. Pupils carry these learning deficits along as they get pushed through year upon year. That is until they reach grades 10, 11 and 12. That the vast majority of pupils who drop out of school do so in the last three years of high school is undisputed. Last year’s Annual National Assessments report revealed that Grade 9 pupils had fared worst in maths, with an average score of 13 percent. Sixty-six percent of Grade 6 pupils scored 29 percent or less. The results were also broken down by quintiles – and again the more affluent the school, the higher pupils’ assessment marks.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) has been published every four years since 1995. For Timss 2011, which was released last year, a sample of 12 000 Grade 9 pupils from 256 public and 27 independent South African schools took part, and were ranked on a scale ranging from zero to 1 000 points: advanced international benchmark (625), high (550), intermediate (475), and low (400). Since 1995, the gap between South African pupils’ best and worst scores was one of the widest, reflecting the inequality in society and schools. The good news from Timss 2011 was that our most disadvantaged pupils had shown the greatest improvement. The bad news was that just 24 percent of all Grade 9 pupils reached the low international benchmark, meaning that after nine years of full-time schooling, 76 percent of pupils cannot do basic calculations, tables to bar graphs or read a line graph. Forty-one percent of principals said they had “moderate problems” with school discipline and safety. A third of South Africa Grade 9s reported having been bullied “about weekly”.

Against the odds

But, of course, in the country (and KwaZulu-Natal in particular) there are a number of schools in the lower quintiles that excel academically – which provide safe and nurturing environments, and where discipline is exemplary.

Here, rural and township pupils, ties knotted and shoes shining, fill five or six classrooms at 7am on the first Saturday of the school holidays. Their principals defy union orders to “work to rule” and instead teach extra maths, science and english to the same pupils on Sundays.

“The single most important turnaround factor in poor schools is the character, quality and drive of the principal. No question about that,” said Professor Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State – and most educationists agree.

“The importance of leadership in impoverished schools cannot be overstated enough,” said Jonathan Snyman, a researcher with the SA Institute of Race Relations.

“Every year there are anecdotes about how, despite the odds, a school has managed to achieve 100 percent (grade 12) pass rates. There is always one common thread running through these stories, and that is that both teachers and pupils alike were committed and were passionate about overcoming the difficulties they faced. When a school fails, it is all too often the result of apathetic staff which in turn breeds apathy among pupils.”

Snyman believes the one critical factor in fixing the schooling system is depoliticising it, especially at the district and school level. “Make sure that appointments are based on meritocracy as opposed to patronage,” Snyman said, echoing the sentiments of the government’s National Development Plan.

University of KwaZulu-Natal lecturer in education Neil Avery says that his experience, of more than 20 years of working with principals, suggests that the one factor that consistently creates the opportunity for excellence to flourish is effective leadership by the principal. “It is not just about knowledge or training, but is embedded in a passion and drive that ensures that the whole school community contributes to excellence of teaching and learning”.

Prominent education activist Gillian Godsell argues for the development of “a national respect for learning”, and also respect for pupils – the complexity of the learning and language required from them, the hardships they overcome, and the distances they travel literally, intellectually and linguistically.

She urges that teachers be respected as professionals, and that they also have self-respect.

Last year, KZN Education MEC Senzo Mchunu launched his “transformation of the schooling system” programme.

It is an attempt to reconcile the two education systems he faces up to. He has asked the heads of academically excellent high schools to form teams to travel to poorly performing schools and hold formal sessions on how to manage their staff and curriculum.

“A school is as good as its principal and a school is as bad as its principal,” he has often said. Earlier this year, he unveiled plans to improve education in the townships and rural areas, to put them on a par with former Model C schools. 

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