‘Just suck it up’: how a teacher’s passion conquers a pandemic
They don’t do it for the money. For them it is not a job - ‘it is who I am and what I am’
As happens every day, this past Monday, October 5, about 410,000 teachers showed up to teach 12,9 million children spread across 25,000 schools in SA. Monday was World Teachers Day, but this year there was little to celebrate. In today’s column I want to lift the veil on what actually happens in the life of a teacher in the middle of a pandemic that has already taken from us teachers, principals and other staff who work in schools.
Mary* went into shock when the face of her boss, Principal Penny*, suddenly appeared on a video call. It did not help that the principal’s first words were “You’re not being fired”. Mary relaxed a bit; “maybe it’s not that bad,” she said to herself. The principal wanted to tell Mary directly that her already modest pay was about to be slashed. Parents were not paying fees during the lockdown. As a teacher appointed by the school governing body (SGB), this meant that the school had no choice but to cut salaries. The number Mary heard was 40%. The school would try its best to do better than that. There would be applications to TERS, the UIF/Covid-19 benefits paid out by the department of employment and labour.
While Mary appreciated the courage of her principal to call every affected teacher, she was now in great distress. “After the conversation it hit me [that] financially I was in trouble. I cried for a couple of hours.” There is nothing that can explain the feeling of utter disappointment when you put everything into your teaching only to hear, for whatever reason, that your compensation is about to shrink. Mary had to act quickly. She put a pause on her life cover and disability; but wait, what if she gets the coronavirus and dies? So, Mary hurriedly reinstated this policy. Mary then applied for Covid relief through her bank and got a payment holiday from Virgin Active. To Mary’s relief, there was some policy on her bank account that paid out small amounts to help with credit card payments.
Meanwhile, Principal Penny was working the telephone lines to beg parents to pay their outstanding fees; as a result, the exposed teachers never got paid less than 70% of their salaries. Mary had some breathing room but the whole saga was emotionally and mentally exhausting. It did not help listening to people say that teachers were at home doing nothing and therefore should not be paid. Mary was not only working hard from home doing remote teaching but was involved in weeks of preparation to make the school safe for the return of the children.
You could not even share your food with a hungry child who left their lunch box at home.Mary, teacher
A little voice would tell her, “Stuff this, I’m not even being paid”, but then another voice would follow quickly: “It is not the children’s fault, and this is your passion, so suck it up.” So Mary kept on teaching with even more passion and commitment on a salary that was cut and a fear that was ever-present about her own health and safety as the children came back under the phased-in return to schools.
It was even harder teaching now. You had to pay attention to all the Covid rules, watching every child’s move to keep them safe. Take their temperatures three times a day. Keep them apart. Then there were the things you could not do. Like hug a child or sit next to them to solve a mathematics problem or give them a “high five” when they finally grasped a concept. You could not even share your food with a hungry child who left their lunch box at home. All of this was very hard on Mary.
She jokes with the children: If I won the lottery, I would give up this job and leave. “Yeah, right, mom,” they would say, knowing that teaching was her heart and that there was no way Mary would abandon them.
What did Mary learn from this difficult time as a teacher?
“This period has made me realise that I don’t do this for the money. It is not a job. It is part of me. It is who I am and what I am.”
And so, when Principal Penny asked me to send a message of encouragement for the educators at her Randburg primary school on World Teachers Day, I had teachers like Mary in mind when I wrote:
“Thank you for upholding the profession in these difficult times. Thank you for your devotion to our children. Thank you for your sacrifices for our country.”
To all South African teachers, on the occasion of World Teachers Day, thank you very much.