The Sunday News
Joram Nyathi Group Political Editor
THERE used to be an expression, perhaps just a cliché today. Teaching was called the noble profession. I am not sure why, but we all grew up wanting to be a teacher some day.
The teacher was well respected, he was the source of information, the fountain of wisdom in the community. Everyone deferred to his knowledge. He was the envy of many.
So it was natural to aspire to be a teacher. Teaching back then was taken as a vocation, never mind that the colonial system left the black man with very few professional options. Not anymore.
In place of teaching as a noble profession, now we might as well proclaim that money is a noble possession.
The debate currently going on about extra lessons and holiday teaching has exposed how the times have changed. Changed for the worst in our circumstance. It’s now all about money and more money.
Nobody is saying teachers should go hungry or make unnecessary sacrifices. They need to be rewarded just like any other employee, any other professional. What I, however, find very worrisome in the current discourse about extra lessons is the harsh tone. Including threats not to teach if there is no money.
The student pass rate has been going down for a long time, despite teachers and our children going to school diligently every morning. The school curriculum has hardly changed. Instead, we have more teacher training colleges now than we did at independence. Yet the standards keep going down in inverse proportion to teachers’ demands for higher remuneration.
A member of a teachers’ representative body was recently asked to explain what was happening in the schools. He retorted with no hint of shame or contrition. He said in the past teachers were paid salaries commensurate with the poverty datum line. He declared openly on the radio programme that the situation would get worse following Government’s decision to ban holiday teaching and extra lessons during the school term.
He said many teachers were engaging in other activities outside their profession to supplement their incomes. The irony is that this was happening well before even Government moved in to impose the ban. What guarantee is there that teachers will stop this delinquency, which is costing the nation a lot producing illiterate graduates?
It’s hard to tell whether the declining pass rate happens despite or because of extra lessons, with teachers not doing their work but opting to do so during extra lessons or holiday classes.
We have a serious problem in our hands and I doubt that throwing more money at teachers is the final solution. There is an attitude problem among teachers, a serious lack of dedication suggesting that there is something grossly wrong either with the teacher training itself or the recruitment system.
There appears to be a preponderance of chancers, most of whom fail to make the grade into their preferred professions and find themselves training as teachers. I believe we need a more rigorous screening and vetting process than mere possession of five O-level and two A-levels passes. Those who enrol to train as teachers must demonstrate a passion and dedication to the profession, not solely as a means to earn a living. Money should come as a reward for a job well done, not an aim and an end in itself.
Teaching should be a vocation.
What we currently have is a crop of cadres who are good at extolling the virtues of the colonial system whose punishment for truancy and delinquency was swift on both the student and teacher. There was strict supervision of teachers and teachers were in turn always in full control of their students.
There was a time indeed when competition among teachers was on the pass rate. Everyone wanted to achieve the highest number of passes every year. The results were displayed on the notice board and it was a disgrace to achieve the least pass. Today, delinquency is excused on the basis of low pay. Teachers spend their time loafing and gossiping, knowing that nothing will happen to them. There is no value to reputation.
The national pass rate of late has been around 20 percent. There are schools in Matabeleland South province which had the singular distinction of scoring zero passes last year. The headmaster and his teachers are still employed, and are demanding a higher pay for their performance. Nobody cares about the poor souls whose future they have destroyed and are most likely fated to spend their lives as labourers on South African farms.
There is also the scandal of schools which have a rigorous screening system for Form 1 enrolment. They want only the cream. Come O-level examinations and they come out with a pass rate of 20 percent. How does that happen? Are teachers doing their work at such schools or are students left to teach each other?
At what stage do these students become suitable candidates for extra lessons — a whole class needing extra lessons just to get five subjects at grade C or better? What is going on?
Nobody says extra or holiday lessons are inherently bad. There has always been room for that. But this should be agreed between the parents and the teacher. It is, however galling, that the same teacher who fails to deliver during the normal school term wants to conduct remedial work on his own errors.
Or the schools resort to extortion, intimidation, manipulation or outright blackmail to force parents to send their children for holiday lessons at an extra cost. They are warned that if they don’t send their children, they will fail.
Shouldn’t it be the role of the parent to examine their children’s work to determine the problem areas and find a holiday teacher to give remedial lessons?
There used to be special classes for slow learners. This is where remedial lessons were conducted. Then there were F2 schools where the less academically gifted were taught practical skills such as building and carpentry. These were greatly despised and Government stopped them after independence.
No need to stress that this was a short-sighted decision which has condemned potential beneficiaries to a life of vice or poverty.
Salarygate might also have created a wrong impression about the public pay scale; that other Government employees are living large while teachers are being asked to tighten their belts. The truth is obviously that there were a few individuals in parastatals and local authorities who were earning obscene salaries while the rest toil.
Given the central role played by teachers in the development of the nation, there is no way their welfare would be ignored. What the poor pass rate has done is, however, to squander a lot of public goodwill towards teachers and generate opprobrium rather sympathy for their plight. Asking parents to pay more for extra lessons or holiday classes just compounds this public displeasure.
To then add salt to injury by telling the nation that the pass rate will deteriorate further because Government has imposed a ban on delinquency and culture of greed is enough cause for public outrage. Teachers must justify their salary demands through higher grades instead of insulting our intelligence by telling us that poor results match poor results when they have been conducting extra lessons all along.