Addressing discipline through improved leadershipJuly 25, 2023
Building strong relationships with the Department of EducationAugust 29, 2023
Our three-part Mentorship Series brings together four expert voices to explore the topic of educator mentorship in South African schools. Why is mentorship needed, and what makes it successful or not? What deep change can mentorship bring about - and how can we ensure its sustainability, for the future of all learners?
Schools are more than places of learning. In South Africa especially, they can serve as a hub for the community and symbolise the possibility of change. Ms. Vuyiseka Xakekile is a Grade 4 teacher at Thembani Primary School in Langa, Cape Town. To her, the school sits at the heart of the neighbourhood. “Langa is a great community, but most people here are unemployed. Our school is regarded as a hopeful part of this community because teachers are working very hard for the learners,” she reflects.
If schools are to fulfil their wider role in South African society, it is vital that they function effectively. This means ensuring that teachers and School Management Teams (SMTs) are suitably capacitated, nurtured and supported. However, in many instances, this is not the reality. Instead, the landscape is one where under-equipped teachers are expected to meet unrealistic expectations with limited resources, surrounded by critics rather than supporters. In painting this landscape, the importance of specialised in-school mentoring becomes apparent.
The “real deal” - starting to teach with little in-classroom experience
Starting out as a new teacher is not easy. “You are anxious and nervous,” says Ms. Xekekile, recalling her early days as a teacher. “You might learn the theory of teaching at school - but when you get into the classroom, you get a different scenario. You get the ‘real deal’.”
Typical teacher training in South Africa runs for approximately four years. Little of that is dedicated to in-classroom experience or dealing with learner behaviour first-hand. According to Amnesty International, a “key problem [within teacher training] is too much focus on subject content and not enough on practical, pedagogical skills.” Organisations like these are calling for more in-classroom experience in teacher training. The need to better train and better prepare the next teacher workforce is compounded by a looming skills shortage in the education sector: many teachers are due to retire in the next decade and there are not enough younger people training to be teachers.
The underpreparedness of new teachers is seen by people like Pamala Naicker - a mentor at Edufundi. “They are given a classroom and they are thrown in at the deep end,” she says. Pamala explains that student teachers might be given teaching experience as part of their training, but they “are not placed in schools where there are challenges and difficulties” - and so skills in dealing with this reality are not developed.
For Pamala, aside from more in-classroom experience, teacher training needs to look at the ecosystem that lives alongside the classroom - especially in how to build relationships. Building teacher-learner relationships is something that Pamala finds “vitally important to the quality of the teaching.” Additionally, addressing parent-teacher relationships requires skills that new teachers are not taught in college, leaving them unprepared to deal with the deeply sociological aspect of teaching.
Indeed, it is the ‘softer,’ more social aspects of teaching that new teachers are ill equipped to navigate. Ms. Xekekile, who has taught since 1988, has watched many new teachers come through the school doors: “The colleges are not preparing them for the real deal. Learners come with their problems - especially the socioeconomic factors that affect them, their behaviour and their performance. Many teachers don’t have the tools to deal with that.”
Supporting or policing? External departmental visits in classrooms
Many reports on the South African education system paint a similar picture: a “chronic underperformance” that has “roots in the legacy of apartheid” still exists in that the underdevelopment of schools is skewed to negatively affect “black” or “coloured” learners the most. Equal Education reported this year that "80% of schools are dysfunctional, and most of these schools serve black and coloured learners." The picture is mixed, however, and government reports show both progressive and regressive statistics.
Underdeveloped and under-resourced schools make for a harsh landscape for new teachers to find their feet. There is certainly a need for context-relevant, low-resource teaching techniques.
The government does offer some form of support: teachers mention departmental workshops and meetings that can assist them with things like curriculum coverage, assessment and administration. However, there is little follow-up, and the majority of the external interventions are evaluation-based or related to performance management (like IQMS), rather than being supportive or developmental. This ‘policing’ approach results in teachers feeling uncomfortable with external interventions in their classrooms and schools, and creates a general wariness around ‘outsiders’ entering their professional space. “Teachers don’t like external influences in the classroom,” says Pamala, “because they feel that they are going to be judged or policed.”
It is an opinion that is mirrored by Ms. Xakekile: “Curriculum advisors come to our school from time to time to do observations. We do not feel comfortable with that, because you don’t know what they expect from you. You know your subject matter, your content, your method - but you don’t know what they expect from you.”
The pervasive nervousness around external visitors in schools can affect the relationship that teachers and schools have with Edufundi, too. Ms. Nomzamo Princess Mnini, Deputy Principal of Ludwe Ngamlana Primary School in Khayelitsha, remembers when Edufundi started to visit her school.
“I was worried that someone was coming from outside,” she recalls. “Even though Edufundi had explained why it was coming into the school, I was not able to differentiate them from the subject advisors. I remember my first meeting with Vuyo [the Edufundi leadership coach]. I brought all my files with me, because I thought she was going to ask to see my planning sheets. But then when we sat, she started listening and I realised that she wanted to know about me as a person.”
A lack of guidance in School Management Teams
Mr Simphiwe Xalipi, Edufundi leadership support coach in the Eastern Cape, works in ten schools across Gqeberha, all of which joined the Edufundi Support Programme in 2022.
He was struck by how little guidance and support is provided for school leaders. “There is a lack of support once people are assigned to SMTs,” he says, “and many people are not inducted into these positions. They do not really know what their responsibilities are, or what their role entails.” This, Simphiwe points out, is not only due to a lack of governmental support: SMT members, for one reason or another, might not reach out for help, express their needs, or take the initiative to research what is actually required of them.
Does a solution lie in mentoring?
Arranging more in-classroom teaching experience for student teachers might be a solution, but it is not a simple one. Considerable logistical and financial resources are needed, and for teachers being shadowed, it can be an extra item added to their workload. As JET Education explains, “teaching practice takes time and planning and costs money.” Addressing a lack of support for School Management Teams might also require sizeable resources - and working on teachers’ wariness of external intervention requires a sensitive, gentle approach.
To remedy this - and address the glaring gaps in the South African education system, which have been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic - Edufundi has crafted a three-year support programme for South African teachers and school leaders. Piloted since 2015, the programme blends together international pedagogic methodologies and local educational expertise. It has been fully accredited with the South African Council for Educators (SACE), and is recognised by the departmental authorities in the four provinces in which Edufundi works.
The programme supports schools to develop sustainably into centres of teaching excellence. We do this by providing intensive mentorship in two spheres: Leadership Support and Teacher Support.
This is conducted in a way that dovetails with the needs and rhythms of the schools, their management teams and teachers. “We walk alongside teachers,” says Pamala. “We listen. We reflect on what they are doing. We give them precise praise. So they know, ‘Wow, I have achieved this, and there is someone reflecting to me that it is working!’”
Look out for more in this series!
2. What factors make school mentorship effective?
3. What deeper changes can mentorship bring about