Forget grand ideas about fixing schools – teachers need to show up first
We'll never deal with inequalities between former white schools and black schools unless teachers are held accountable
What seems normal in the schools of most countries is so frustratingly complex in SA. For a child to be taught, the teacher should at least come through the gates of the school. Then, for any teaching to take place, the teacher should move from the staffroom (or some other hideout in the school) to the classroom. If that is achieved, the teacher should rise from her chair, open her mouth, and start to teach.
Once that hurdle is crossed, one can only hope that what is spoken constitutes powerful teaching that translates into powerful learning. Those are many hurdles to cross for an ordinary SA teacher – the path from showing up as a teacher to delivering results among pupils is a winding dirt road full of potholes.
To those who work in struggling schools, what minister Angie Motshekga announced this week was not at all surprising; in fact, several colleagues believe the statistics are actually much worse. Reading from the School Monitoring Survey 2017, the minister revealed that on an average day 10% of SA teachers do not show up at their schools and that in provinces like the Eastern Cape that number comes to about 6,483 missing teachers every day; this number is up from 8% at last count.
Now imagine that in the 20% of functional schools in the country almost all teachers appear in schools and classrooms every day, then you understand why the picture for the other 80% of schools is much worse given that these are average calculations.
Now for the fun and games.
The big teachers union had a handy explanation: the teachers are absent because of school violence. Of course, this is mostly nonsense, a knee-jerk response that protects fee-paying members that fill the substantial coffers of the union. The children don’t matter in this logic so the teachers stay away.
To be fair, teacher leave is a legitimate provision in policy and there are all kinds of valid reasons for such absence, including illness, official duties and, especially in the case of SA, attending funerals. It is, however, the scale of the problem that should concern us and the fact that government has failed to turn this situation around.
For example, almost a decade ago a study conducted by the Human Research Council found that 40,000 out of 400,000 teachers are absent every day, amounting to about 20 to 24 days per teacher in a school year. Again, this is simply about teachers who do not show up for the day. A different study is needed to indicate teachers who enter the gates but leave early or who mark themselves present but hardly teach. Other studies show that in an average township school teachers teach three and a half hours hours a day compared with six and a half hours in a former white school.
Of course, teachers are also absent from time to time in the former white schools, but unlike their counterparts in black township schools, there is seldom not a substitute teacher to take over the teaching with advanced notice of where the last lesson ended and the next one was to begin. This, I believe, is one of the reasons pupils, especially boys, drop out of dysfunctional schools; we waste their time. Why is this the case?
One word: accountability. We do not have a strong system that holds salaried teachers accountable for their teaching commitments. Unlike the medical profession or the engineering profession, teaching does not have an effective, accountable authority that sets and demands that professional standards are met.
What we do have is a union that protects teachers regardless of their duties and that regularly pulls teachers out of school for meetings; the other day I was due to provide teacher and principal development training after school in Langa, Cape Town, and on short notice I was told the staff were called to a union gathering. Just like that.
Let me be clear. We will never be able to deal with the systemic inequalities between former white, privileged schools and black, disadvantaged schools unless this precious resource –teaching time – is optimally used. Forget tablets in every school or fixing crumbling infrastructure. None of these things matter unless teachers show up and teach in ways that children learn and progress.
It used to be that you could point to the basic contract that binds the teacher to the job – they pay you, you show up. In another era you could even appeal to a teacher’s sense of duty – you are the critical difference between hope and hopelessness for struggling families. None of this works any more because without accountability there are no consequences and therefore no respite for the children of the poor.