Stretching the learners

South Africa’s education crisis is not the fact that there is a massive lack of resources and a crippling legacy of inequality among our thousands of schools nationwide.

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South Africa’s education crisis is not the fact that there is a massive lack of resources and a crippling legacy of inequality among our thousands of schools nationwide. The real crisis is that our learners are simply not being stretched—but the good news is that these young kids have an abundance of potential.

While working on an R8 million education project in the North West province a few years ago, Taryn Casey saw one of the great problems in South African education firsthand. Fortunately, at the same time, she also witnessed one of the great hopes for the future.

Casey arrived for a planned meeting with a school principal and his group of teachers, only to find just a solitary teacher on the entire school premises doing his best to look after all of the learners.

Teacher absenteeism—coupled with a growing lack of interest from teachers (often through pure frustration at the tough challenges they face on a daily basis)—has been a much-publicised issue in the story of South African education, along with the hopelessly inadequate resources that are offered up to millions upon millions of our young learners.

Despairing, and ready to pull the plug on that particular project, Casey’s spirits were lifted when she spoke to one of the school’s matric pupils.

”We’re so bored here, miss, because even when the teachers are here, they don’t challenge us enough. They need to be taught new strategies to keep us interested in learning. We want to do well and make our parents proud,” the young man told Casey, his words unknowingly helping to fuel her passion for education.

She drove away from the school in tears, later admitting that ”all I wanted to do was take him out of that school and put him in a private school where he would flourish. It’s just not fair. He’s capable of so much more but no-one believes in him or his classmates”.

”It reminded me of the adage that children really love to learn. They soak up information and knowledge like a sponge, so the real problem in education lies with the teachers,” says Casey.

Teaching in most countries is not revered or rewarded financially or emotionally, and when you add the myriad of frustrations and challenges teachers have to juggle, a picture builds of lone educators trying to take down the Great Wall of China with a handful of feathers.

Casey is the CEO of Edufundi (formerly known as Edupeg), an NGO created in 1998 with the intention of making a real and measurable contribution to eradicating the injustices of the past that are still present in education. She has played a major role in focusing the organisation on the root of the education problem—the fact that teachers themselves are in desperate need of intensive mentorship.

”Edufundi’s focus has shifted in recent years to include a strong drive towards the empowerment of teachers,” says Amon Ntul, the Edufundi Chairperson. ”This new approach was based on the realisation that giving teachers intensive support to enable them to become confident and competent educators would make a lasting impact on the learners with whom they interact.”

A big complaint from many teachers throughout South Africa is that they are taught theory at university or college, have some guidance in their first year or two as a shadow or junior teacher, but after that, they are largely left to their own devices for the next 30 years until they retire. A great deal of funding for educational projects comes from organisations, corporations and educational departments, and much of this is aimed at helping learners or trying to provide additional resources for them, and while there is great merit in those initiatives, putting a greater focus on mentoring teachers seems to be having dramatic results.

”We believe that partnering with educators in their classrooms has proven to make a real, measurable and concrete difference to the engagement of learners, and these teachers have worked wonders to dramatically increase the pass rates, but we also believe it’s essential that this change has a lasting impact in order to make it sustainable within each school,” says Casey.

To this end, Edufundi puts a major effort into building the capacity of school management teams, as these individuals have the power to drive the growth of mentoring within their schools on an ongoing and sustainable basis, allowing the Edufundi mentors to move onto other schools crying out for help.

”Our ultimate aim for each school is self-sufficiency, not dependency—we want to get rid of ourselves.

”Despite the extremely challenging environments in which they work, more and more of our teachers and school leaders are now coming to school with a more positive attitude as they have been equipped with teaching tools and the skills they need to make a major difference in the lives of their learners,” says Casey

During Edufundi’s recent AGM, Professor Jonathan Jansen, a delightfully outspoken educator and author, talked about the importance of teachers being present for their learners. Not one to do things by the book or stick to the tried and tested ‘old school’ ways, Prof. Jansen related how he used to make a point of visiting all of his students in their own homes at some point during the school year.

This was done partly as a mark of respect, but also to let his students know that he saw them for who they are, that he understood and accepted them.

He is strongly of the opinion that pigmentation does not, in any way, affect a child’s ability to learn, and this fact has been borne out time and time again by the schools that work with the Edufundi mentors. Many of these schools are painfully poor in terms of resources but the teachers are creating incredible results with their students, with the pass rate sometimes rocketing from 20%, up past 70% in a short space of time.

Armed with the Edufundi toolkit and the regular assistance of a mentor who knows firsthand the challenges of teaching, there is a growing body of passionate and empowered teachers who are proving that South Africa’s tired, poor and huddled masses have the potential to thrive. These teachers are finding their passion for their work again as their learners are becoming engaged in their classes and discipline has been restored.

The knowledge that incredible success in education is possible—even in schools where children come from poor socio-economic backgrounds bedevilled by numerous social problems—should serve as a beacon of hope for every South African.

To borrow from Barack Obama (‘Yes, we can!’), our young learners can succeed... but the solution lies with the teachers. Sadly, in South Africa, too many people enter the teaching profession as a last resort, while countless others who were born to be teachers avoid the profession because of the poor pay and huge challenges facing everyone working in the profession. Those who teach also struggle with huge workloads and little in terms of guidance, empowerment or growth, and stagnation is a fertile breeding ground for problems and malfunctions.

The NGO started with the right intentions but, as with all growth in life and business, it is essential to roll with the changes. To shift the organisation from the path it was on required some tough decisions regarding team members, but the result of making the necessary changes was that there was a flood of energy that poured back into the organisation as it realigned itself to the changing needs of teachers and their learners in different schools around the country.

Given the vast scale of the nation’s people, education departments are, perhaps understandably, prone to a cookie-cutter approach to educating our youth, but Edufundi has shown the importance of adapting the educational approach to meet the needs and circumstances of each school.

”We also take great pains to work with the principals and teachers to find out from them what the problems are and to work with them to create long-term solutions,” says Casey.

Edufundi operates in four provinces, with each offering very different challenges. In KwaZulu-Natal, for example, an ill-advised departmental policy has resulted in huge overcrowding in many schools—with classes of more than 100 learners per teacher being a far too regular occurrence.

The beacon of hope through the Edufundi experience, however, is that education truly can work in South Africa, even where resources are tight and children face major social and economic hardships.

It can work because of the power of the young mind if inspired and engaged—but the key resource is the teachers and the support given to them.

Edufundi has achieved staggering results in under-resourced schools, so surely it should be possible to achieve similar success throughout South African schools using innovative approaches such as those Edufundi has brought from overseas, adopted from other South African institutions, and those the organisation has come up with themselves?

It’s impossible to find the right answer if you don’t know what the question is... but the Edufundi team and the schools they have partnered with have clearly found one answer that works for each individual school.

The question now is: How can the government distill this attitude and approach into a way of thinking that will enable passionate educators around South Africa to identify the needs in each individual school and, with passionate teachers who are given support, to be present for their learners to ensure they blossom and reach their full potential?

We have a fight on our hands, there’s no doubt about it, but it certainly makes it easier to glove up when you have confidence in the ability of our children to learn. And they truly have that—each and every one of them. 

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