Opinion: Teaching in freedom: empowering teachers
5 October 2017
As we celebrate International Teachers' Day, it is my view that society should give teachers the respect they deserve in view of the important role they play in its engineering. A study conducted in America showed that one in four learners drops out of school and that, on average, a learner drops out of school every nine seconds. This study notes that, although dropping out might not be a decision learners would talk to anyone about, an adept teacher can notice the signs that a learner is struggling and intervene before it is too late. The study found that teachers can educate learners on the hard facts of dropping out, while also helping to assess the problem and figure out an alternative solution. This highlights the crucial role teachers play and the potential they have to change the lives of their learners.
Education is viewed as a panacea for all social ills. It is important to recruit, train, place and retain the right calibre of teachers in our schools so that we can meet this expectation. This can only take place in a context where teachers are empowered to teach in freedom, without fear of harassment from society and learners. High-performing education systems depend on the good performance of their teachers. This puts teachers at the centre of the functionality of education systems. Every professional has been tutored by a teacher. Teachers are a source of advice for learners when weighing important life decisions. They assist their learners to continue with their studies, explore career opportunities and take part in activities they might not have thought themselves capable of. Years after graduation, many working professionals still cite a particular teacher as the one who fostered their love of what they currently do, and attribute their accomplishments to that teacher.
When parents are choosing a school to send their children to, academic performance and discipline are important considerations. Who ensures good academic performance and discipline if not teachers? And why do teachers do this if not because they care? Great teachers care about their learners. They want them to succeed and are committed to helping them achieve their goals. Moreover, teachers care about their learners' happiness, well-being and life beyond the classroom. A well-disciplined and high-performing learner brings pride to his/her family, and becomes an asset to his/her employer and society. For these reasons, teachers need the freedom to teach, and opportunities for professional development in order to do so effectively.
In the context of a developing country ravaged by poverty and high levels of unemployment, pursuing a career in teaching has the effect of alleviating poverty from families. This is because good teachers, as described above, seldom lose their jobs. Teaching becomes a lifelong career and guarantees constant income until retirement and beyond. In this way, not only do teachers change the lives of their learners, but the access to employment that the teaching profession provides improves the lives of their families.
In order to elevate the status of the teaching profession and thereby ensure that good quality teachers are retained in the education system, government needs to provide incentives. In Finland, there is a high retention rate of teachers, with about 90% of trained teachers remaining in the profession for the duration of their careers. Policy measures, which include good salaries, rigorous selection criteria (which confers prestige on successful applicants), teacher training offered by universities, and an innovative curriculum (which confers autonomy on teachers), are some factors that account for this high retention rate. South Africa can learn important lessons from the Finnish model, especially in terms of teacher remuneration, and innovation and autonomy in curriculum delivery. Recruitment of a high calibre of teachers into the profession, offering good quality training, and incentivising the profession beyond salaries will go a long way towards retaining quality teachers who add value to society.
Prof Chika Sehoole is the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria.
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