As my third year of teaching comes to an end, I have many ideas and thoughts swimming around in my head. Some of them are just lolling about doing a doggy paddle, others are quite lucid and swimming in an orderly fashion like freestyle, and others are bobbing about waiting for some impetus to morph into something coherent.
Next year I’ll be teaching at one of the oldest girls only schools in South Africa (specifically the oldest school in Johannesburg). The shift is quite significant given that my current school is celebrating its fourth anniversary this year. In trying to reflect about being a young teacher at a fairly new school, I have wondered if I have what it takes to be part of a school with an established identity, ethos and culture. Part of me is anxious about the new experience but part of me is also quite relaxed because as someone who went to a girls only school for twelve years, I’ve convinced myself I know “the code” and there’s a strange comfort in that knowledge.
Parts of my anxieties are mostly as a result of my own ideas about education. When I started teaching, I had a vision of what kind of teacher I would be and more importantly what kind of students I would teach. Colleagues and I recently reflected on our naivety when we started teaching: we all wanted to teach in township schools because we thought that was where the most value could be made. And then we started teaching at well-established schools and realised how grateful we were that we had found opportunities to teach in functional schools that deliver quality education. My volunteering experience in township left me confused and scarred by what I witnessed in those schools. We began to realise that as insiders in the school system, teaching is much harder than people think. It’s challenging and gruelling and rewarding all at once. And if one is to become a good teacher who can make a difference, one has to teach in a school that allows them to be a good teacher.
I have also been confronted with the prospect of furthering my own education and doing a Ph.D. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have decided to let that project go. I am at pains with what it means to further my own education when the climate calls for those of us who have received a great education to extend ourselves for the benefit of others. A Ph.D is a valuable and important pursuit but it is also personal and even individualist at best. In my opinion, I am the only person who benefits from a Ph.D (as well as the supervisor and the institution that makes money from a Ph.D student). Many argue that a Ph.D is akin to a long-term investment because it opens doors and establishes one in an elite group in society and therefore one can be more influential in this position. I recognize the discussion about the importance of Ph.D. graduates, but that is not the focus of this piece.
With this highest post-graduate degree, I could find myself in a policymaking position or a thought leader within my particular areas of interest. I would write journal articles, write books and speak on various platforms about my area of discipline. This would be valuable and even far more glamorous than my current position as a high school teacher. But to what end? Given what I know about education and young people now that I am a teacher, would being in the academy be more valuable? I haven’t found the answer to that question and some might say I am asking the wrong question.
So maybe that’s why I’m making peace with putting the Ph.D aside for a while, because being a teacher matters. No more than solitary research, but it matters. This is not to say that teaching at a tertiary level is not valuable. In the South African context, one could argue that getting more teachers in primary and secondary level would greatly improve the current state of education which will have consequences for higher education and the options available to young people once they leave school. Which is why the idea of starting a school is also alluring. It would be another way of “making the circle bigger”—using education as a tool that can allow people to participate economically and politically in meaningful ways. This is in spite of my doubts about the role education has played in South Africa’s transformation thus far. As it stands, the education system exacerbates the gap between the rich and the poor and ruins the promise of education for poor people. The Grade 12 results will be released in about a month’s time and we will see how this is the case. IEB students from private schools will have better results when compared to the public education system and we will shake our heads in disbelief and hopefully wonder, how can this be turned around?
The formative years in education are about “making the circle bigger”. In becoming a teacher I thought that I would be making a difference in someone’s life no matter how big or small. My presence as an adult who cares, questions, makes mistakes and apologises afterwards matters to young people because, well, it matters.