Monday, February 6, 2017

We’re Failing our Teachers



Before I was a writer I was a teacher, and before I was a teacher I was a student who was inspired by a long queue of teachers. I feel offended, personally offended, when good, sometimes great, teachers are painted with a wide and dishonest brush. I have taught here and overseas. I have taught in government schools and private. I have taught in pre-school, primary, junior secondary and senior secondary schools. I find a lot of the commentary around the appalling JC results points fingers at teachers, when most are victims in this situation, trying their best, banging their heads against bad policies and power struggles they don’t want to be fighting.

Good teachers want to teach, and the best thing any administrator can do is to create the atmosphere that allows good teachers to thrive. Without motivated, good teachers nothing will improve. You can throw all the money around that you want, but learning happens in a classroom where a teacher is so knowledgeable and excited about the topic that they are teaching that no student is left behind on that learning journey. This can take place anywhere you have a motivated, involved, interested, and prepared teacher. These heroes come in all sorts of varieties. They might be shy or outgoing, strict or free, old school or modern, but they all have one thing in common: a passion for teaching and the best interest of their students always at heart.

I’ll not mention the obvious things that caused this JC mess, things that must be sorted such as conditions of service for teachers (including this never-ending ridiculous hours of operations business), lack of resources, burnt-out, deadwood, incompetent teachers and administrators that must be culled from the service, and automatic promotion that sees kids entering junior secondary school unable to read.

The thing about issues involving investing in education is you’re going to pay no matter what, it cannot be avoided.  Either we pay now and ensure that our children receive an education that truly prepares them for a solid successful future, or we don’t, and we lay the groundwork for the collapse of our country.

You can’t look at children and spew platitudes about how they are “the future” and not accept that even those children who’ve spent ten years in the government schools coming out unable to read and write or do basic maths, or those who have now failed their JC, those who are innately unemployable because of it, are also part of that future. To shut our eyes and pretend that “our future is bright” is about as useful as waiting for Santa to show up and drop a million Pula down our chimney. Our future is looking pretty dismal and it’s not because of the mines closing or the diamonds coming to an end. It’s because we’re not investing wisely in our most important asset. And it’s not just throwing money at the problem; it’s understanding the situation intimately.

Sometimes I think about things that motivated me when I was teaching, and also things that demotivated me. It was rarely about the money. As long as I was earning a reasonable salary, that didn’t even play into it.

One of the most motivating teaching experiences I ever had was teaching primary school in a private school here where the head teacher was quite lazy, so I was free to do mostly what I wanted. I had to teach the PSLE syllabus, which was easy enough, but that left a lot of free time for other things and I capitalised on that.

I did every single thing I’d ever wanted to do with students. In every subject, I insisted on some sort of independent learning, some sort of project or research that allowed the child to learn about things that they were truly interested in.  So they did social studies projects and science projects, they read books and gave reports that might be acting out a scene from the book or making an advert for selling the book to others. I let them be as imaginative as they could. These were standard 5, 6, and 7s. No one, because of the unmotivated head which in this case was a good thing, told me: no, these kids can’t do this, they’re too young. There was no bar above our heads stopping us, so we flew— and it was amazing for all of us. I’d jump back into that situation in a heartbeat if I could.

What we need is motivated, excited teachers who are passionate about students and their subject, and feel privileged to be given the opportunity to step into a classroom and meet their success there. We want nothing else except that, and it’s time all barriers be removed so that those teachers, those special people, can be allowed to get on with the job they love. 

(This column first appeared in the 3 Feb, 2017 edition of Mmegi in my column It's All Write)

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