Parents’ dislike of black teachers is a disgrace. Minds need to open, now
Far too many schools do not have a single black teacher - but there is one Cape school that sets a better example
“We can’t find good black teachers.” I have heard that lament so often among middle-class schools – white, Indian and coloured – that the patronising sentiment contained in those six words is no longer as jarring.
Good black teachers. Are we to assume therefore that all white teachers are “good?” Of course that is nonsense. I have now taught, supervised and mentored white and black teachers across several provinces, and in other parts of the world, to know that incompetent teachers, like great ones, come in all colours of our much-assailed rainbow nation. As I often ask expensive high schools in the leafy suburbs, if your subject teachers are so good why do so many pupils have extra tutors after school?
It is an injustice that so few of the former white schools of SA have black African teachers, and that criticism applies in equal measure to the former Indian and coloured schools. Having a richly diverse teaching staff is important for all kinds of reasons. One, it is important for white and middle-class pupils to experience the presence and authority of black teachers. It undermines racist attitudes and such diverse appointments begin to normalise our understanding of competence as something not locked up in one group of people.
Second, it provides all pupils, black and white, with role models in the teaching fraternity that do not only look like them.
Third, diverse teachers bring with them new insights, new languages, new resources that can only enrich the classroom environment.
Fourth, black and white teachers working together conveys to school and society the one thing lacking in our social fabric at the moment, and that is evidence of social cohesion.
Finally, it is a matter of social justice, the right thing to do given our history of consciously excluding black teachers from the more privileged schools.
So why do white schools especially struggle with hiring black teachers? Simple. The parents do not want black teachers. Parents are happy with black gardeners, cleaners, security staff and “tea ladies” (check out the photograph of smiling black workers towards the back of every school’s yearbook) but not black teachers. In many (not all) of our former white schools the addition of black pupils has grown steadily, but far too many schools do not have a single black teacher and, more narrowly, not one black African teacher. This is a disgrace.
Do not, however, for one moment think that it is only white parents who object to black teachers in the former white, middle-class schools. I remember very clearly when we returned home from studies abroad and my son started Grade 1 in a public school in Durban. The all-white teaching staff were introduced to the new parents and then it was question time. After saying some nice things about the school I then made the point as politely as I could that I really would like my child to also be taught by a black teacher. The room suddenly went ice-cold and I will never forget what happened next.
The parents who climbed down my throat were Indian and coloured moms and dads who made it clear to me that they brought their children to the school in order to be taught by white teachers. I could go somewhere else if I liked.
This irrational fear of black teachers can be described in one word – racism – and it applies to teaching as it does to medicine (where’s the white doctor today?) as it does in sports (why quota players?). White is assumed to imply quality or standards for no other reason than that the person is white. As I often say in workshops with former white schools concerned about transformation: I cannot help you if you cannot confront the very real possibility that you might not want to change after all.
What is to be done?
In the heart of Pinelands, in the southern suburbs of Cape Town, sits a primary school affectionately called the “Red” school (the uniform colour). Long before you see a human you are greeted by an assortment of small animals inside the main gate. The principal comes bouncing down the corridor encouraging one group of kids before quizzing another group about the school’s values. Pinelands North Primary is a rare school that when black pupils grew beyond 50% the white parents kept their children there in significant numbers. The teaching staff is more integrated than in any other school I have visited. No other school has such a progressive disability policy reflected in its infrastructure.
This is what is called transformation and you get there with one simply strategy: committed school leadership supported by open-minded parents.