For almost three months after the beginning of the COVID-19 national shut down in March 2020 there was no teaching taking place in public schools.
In the middle of the pandemic, when it was dangerous to be in contact with people, including family members, teachers had to brave alert level three conditions to return school to resume their teaching and learning activities. Public schools were only able to resume teaching at the beginning of July, after alert level four was reduced to level three. This posed a number of challenges for teachers.
With the loss of teaching and learning time, there were learning gaps among learners which teachers had to contend with. This required catch-up and extra lessons. However, the restrictions that were imposed during the different levels of the pandemic made it difficult to implement catch-up programmes.
Because of the contagious nature of the virus, government imposed social distancing in classrooms that had to be observed. Given the restrictive class sizes, schools were forced to introduce a rotation system where learners came to school on alternate days. In some grades, learners came to school only once a month, which exacerbated the loss of teaching time and learning gaps.
According the World Economic Forum, the pandemic has caused severe disruptions to many education systems. An estimated 147 million learners missed out on over half of in-person teaching in 2020 and 2021. As a result, this generation of children could lose $17 trillion in lifetime earnings. The United Nations advises that governments must implement ambitious programmes to recover learning losses.
The resumption of some forms of contact teaching posed certain risks for teachers who had comorbidities. Consequently, these teachers were exempted from coming to work, which contributed even more to the loss of teaching and learning time.
In her 2022/2023 budget vote, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga mentioned that at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic about 3 300 teachers died due to the virus.
On this World Teachers Day, we remember the heroics of teachers who braved the pandemic to keep teaching and learning going, with some of them risking their lives further when they had to use public transport to go into schools. They went into unsafe schools and classroom environments, where the numbers of infected learners and teachers were increasing, in order to ensure that teaching and learning take place.
There are many in our society who failed to appreciate the precarious situation these teachers faced. Instead of empathising with them for the difficulties they faced, some armchair critics kept on asking hard questions about the quality of teaching and learning these teachers were offering under those conditions.
Yes, there are times when such questions are important and need to be raised, but in the war-like situation that the world faced, it is also prudent for the focus to shift to saving lives, rather than winning the war. That is what teachers were involved in.
Can you imagine the catastrophe of having to lose the academic year? What impact it would have on the current and future generations; on the economy and the overall socio-economic development of the country? Teachers who put their lives on the line to avert this catastrophe deserve a word of thanks.
The value of teachers
Despite the criticism they get from society, teachers are invaluable as educators.
They equip learners with the knowledge, skills and ways of thinking and working needed for their future lives as leaders, entrepreneurs, scholars, innovators and workers in different vocations. They inspire students to achieve great things. Even in the midst of the pandemic, teachers had to support and inspire learners to be resilient, to aspire to achieve great things in life, including passing the grades they were in.
The matric class of 2020 is now in its second year of higher learning this year, and those doing three-year programmes will be completing their degrees or diplomas next year, 2023, thanks to the guidance, support and encouragement they received from teachers.
It needs to be appreciated that teaching is not an eight-hour job with weeks of holidays. Teaching entails working long hours before and after school; planning, marking and connecting with parents. It is learning from colleagues and sharing good practices. It entails attending professional development programmes and upgrading of qualifications in order to remain relevant in the profession. It is sport and other activities after school or on the weekends. It is organising and attending camps, school trips, award events and parents’ evenings. Some of these activities had to continue and the effort put into them had to be tripled during the pandemic.
In an attempt to make up for the learning losses, many schools around the country extended their teaching activities into the weekend, with teachers and school principals making sacrifices to ensure that learners are better prepared for the future that lies ahead.
Yes, our education system is characterised by inequalities in terms of the allocation of resources and quality of teaching and learning that take place in schools. Our society is the most unequal in the world. But there are men and women who wake up every morning to work in these under-resourced schools and classrooms; who, in the past two years, have braved the pandemic to ensure that the academic year is not lost. Some of them lost the battle to COVID-19 with their boots on.
On this World Teachers’ Day, we would like to say to our teachers: Your sacrifices are not going unnoticed. Know that we appreciate your efforts and want to wish you a happy World Teachers’ Day.
Professor Chika Sehoole is the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria.
World Teachers’ Day is celebrated annually on 5 October.