Thursday, June 11, 2009

enabling the apathy.

President Zuma, in his recent state of the nation said the following:

“We reiterate our nonnegotiables. Teachers should be in school, in class, on time, teaching, with no neglect of duty and no abuse of pupils. The children should be in class, on time, learning, be respectful of their teachers and do their homework.”


If only it were that easy.

While it is encouraging to see the current administration taking an interest in the education system and the issue of teacher motivation and absenteeism, something tells me we are a long way from seeing a tangible difference in any of these areas. And I’m not talking about the students. They are the least of my worries.

A Western foreigner who has spent the last year and a half volunteer teaching at a school in the Cape Flats, my frustration with those of my colleagues who do not attend and/or teach their classes has perhaps been my one greatest challenge. Oftentimes I have observed teachers who shirk responsibility and seemingly feel no obligation towards their students. Little else infuriates me more. A further issue is how the other teachers – those who do honour their contractual obligations and actually attend and teach their lessons – too play a role in this blatant disregard for students’ best interests. While I have had discussions with many teachers on the subject of the negligent teachers and these teachers have been in agreement with my grievances, I have never once seen any of them criticize or come down on those who are guilty of these behaviours. In no way does it seem to interfere with their relationships with the delinquent teachers and more often than not when teachers are bunking class, there are at least one or two other teachers (who are legitimately free) joking around and passing time in the staffroom with them, in so doing passively condoning this despicable behaviour.

In France, those convicted of ‘Non-assistance a personne en danger’ are punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a 1000 euro fine. In North America, Good Samaritan laws similarly though to a less severe extent obligate people to assist those in need when they see or are aware of a crime being committed. Granted we are not talking of crimes of neglect, abuse and murder in the literal sense, but how about in the figurative? Neglect of their duty towards their students? Abuse of their power as adults in positions of authority over these kids and as such the kids are reluctant to challenge them or speak up about their teachers’ absenteeism? Murder of students’ intellectual potential? Sabotage of their futures? Are these not crimes?

Having never been one who is afraid to speak my mind, it has been – shall we say – challenging for me to keep quiet on how I feel about those teachers who are guilty of these offences. Always aware that I am an outsider who has managed to unintentionally rock the boat before, I am wary of speaking out against these teachers when none of my colleagues seem to feel this same need.

When I encourage those students who aren’t being taught to speak up for themselves – to tell their teacher that they want to be taught, to tell the principal that they demand to be taught, to start and circulate a petition – my urging is met with blank looks and nods. But nothing ever comes of it. The idea that they have rights in the educational machine escapes the majority of students, through no fault of their own. As if the challenges they face are not substantial enough in their own right.

Going into the exams that students began writing today, I feel confident that my students are as prepared for their English and Life Orientation exams as they individually can be for what will be required of them. I have done my best to ensure that this is the case. I cannot speak with the same confidence about the students of my colleagues. As of day before yesterday one such colleague had not taught one of the poems that will be on the exam, and when the opportunity to have the poem taught by someone else (visiting American University students who have no teaching experience) arose, my colleague jumped on it without a second thought. This is the same poem that I wrote about in a recent blog, upon which I spent several lessons and extension activities to permit a wider understanding and appreciation of the poem. Granted, my education and experience has equipped me with perhaps a weightier arsenal of teaching techniques. In acknowledgement of this I routinely share all resources, ideas and lesson plans that I seek out and create, with my colleagues, in so taking the burden of preparation off their shoulders. But it seldom makes a difference.

Earlier today I spoke with an Education without Borders colleague about these issues and why by contrast I seem to care about my students more than certain colleagues. I told him that I don’t think that it is fair to compare me to them, as our social location, education and experience differs so significantly. I am here volunteering because I want to and I have the resources to do so. I come from a loving family that has always supported me. I am fortunate to have had the freedom to travel. And I know at the end of the day, I am driving off the school property, out of Gugs, into Cape Town and my other life. Unlike so many of them, there is light all around me, not just darkness. I don’t spend my weekends at funerals or go home to children and unpaid bills.

The fact that not all my colleagues are keen to stay at school as late or be as available to students as I am doesn’t surprise or bother me. The fact that when some of them are at school, if they even attend school, that the level of investment is still so clearly imbalanced? That bothers me.

Schools are designed to do more than indoctrinate students with academic knowledge; many important social mores and acceptable behaviours are learned as well. What lessons does this negligence send to youth – the future of this country – about the importance of professionalism?

In the education system, as with many departments within the public service, bureaucratic disciplinary procedures overwhelmingly favour the employee. Overworked and under-resourced principals should not have to be glorified babysitters. Rather, teachers should have the professional maturity and work ethic to do the job which they are paid to do by South African taxpayers. And until the repercussions for their systemic apathy become severe enough to elicit a change or the entire educational community – top to bottom – refuses to condone this behaviour, students, helpless victims of this systemic negligence and neglect, will continue to fail.


Brook Buesking said...

I can't wait to read what the kids had to say about you know when/where it will be published if they are accepted?

Ted Weber said...


We are trying to address this very point you make within senior levels of the local education authority.

An excellent piece written form the heart at th coal face as usual.

a colleague

nic tsangarakis said...

Hi Alex,

I've just read an excellent book (Change or Die) which provides good insights into why people struggle to change and how desired change can be facilitated. While the case studies are NA based; I know that the principles have been applied with success in Africa e.g. the Guinea worm eradication program. If you do read it, let me know what you think.

Ted, I have a friend in Bloemfontein that is a skilled organizational development consultant. I could ask him to help if you would like.


Kathy McCabe said...

Whatever you do, don't give up! You are right to be asking the difficult questions. Speaking out and challenging wrongdoing is never easy - most people don't raise their heads above the parapet. But "evil flourishes when good men do nothing." Society needs outspoken people like you!