To many, school-level teaching may seem like a straightforward vocation – a routine 8AM to 3PM schedule that involves some of the fundamental duties associated with education. But, as the pandemic highlighted, South African teachers are often called to go beyond the call of duty and to have a diversified skillset underpinned by a high level of emotional intelligence.
In celebration of World Teacher Day on 05 October, Matthew Sterne, Managing Director of NPO, Crew for a Cause, urges South Africans to acknowledge and appreciate the role of teachers and the unique challenges they face within South African schools.
As Sterne argues, “teachers have always fulfilled the role of mentors, counsellors, caregivers and coaches, but the pandemic showed this to be true in a visceral way. Teachers who were themselves suffering the emotional and mental impact of COVID19, had to ‘suit up and show up’ for struggling learners, not only as subject experts but as agents of change and drivers of the next evolutionary step for education.”
According to project manager, Dr Patti Silbert and social worker, Tembeka Mzozoyana, from UCT’s School of Education, the effects of ongoing isolation, mounting economic pressures and social instability wreaked havoc on the mental wellbeing of young South Africans. The shutting down of schools; although essential to curbing the spread of COVID19, was a major disruptive force that left the educational system reeling from the impact.
Within days, teachers were called upon to ‘reinvent the wheel,’ and to come up with innovative ways to use technology to conduct lessons and ensure that learners do not fall behind. However, a study published in the South African Journal of Education found that prior to the onset of the pandemic, the majority of South African teachers had no formal training in technology. Many of these teachers demonstrated unwavering resilience in the face of diversity by playing the role of educational innovators.
One report spoke of an example in which teachers pasted pieces of paper onto their walls and used them as “whiteboards” while recording themselves delivering lessons using their phones. WhatsApp groups and other social media tools were used to disseminate these videos to parents and learners.
“The transition to remote learning was not an easy one for many South African educators. Overnight, they were expected to upskill themselves to become makeshift EdTech experts with no preparation whatsoever. In these kinds of examples we see how the role of teachers has transformed in a very short space of time,” says Sterne.
COVID19 also put a spotlight on the role that teachers play as mental health support workers in what was referred to by experts as a “mental health crisis” characterised by rising cases of eating disorders, bullying, depression and anxiety. Post-pandemic, the role of teachers in the ‘new normal’ has evolved to include these kinds of responsibilities.
Today’s children face a host of emerging challenges including the mental and emotional impact of a tense home environment brought on by increased financial pressures. In under-resourced communities, children face widespread violence, poverty and discrimination as illustrated by the South African Child Gauge report by the University of Cape Town.
The role of South African teachers is therefore evolving and expanding along with the changing needs and demands of society. One proponent of this viewpoint is Dr Muki Moeng, Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education at Nelson Mandela University who has written extensively about the “burden of responsibility” that falls upon the shoulders of South African educators.
With schools serving as environments for early childhood development and places where children learn and develop their most fundamental habits and behaviours, teachers need to be equipped with the skills and tools they need to fulfil multiple duties.
As Sterne explains: “the impact of teachers transcends the bounds of the classroom or the time span of the academic year. Many can attest to having lasting memories of certain teachers whose influence still resonates well into adulthood. Working with schools and educators over lockdown has taught us that teachers wear many hats every day. As such, educator wellbeing should be prioritised by all stakeholders. Let’s nurture the people who mould the future of our country.”