Primary school teachers: the unsung heroes of education

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South Africa’s education system is still reeling from the effects of Apartheid’s Bantu Education Act. The government spent over R213billion on basic education from March 2015 to March 2016, yet South Africa’s primary education system was rated 126th out of 138 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2016-17 Global Competitiveness Report.

Despite this, I still see primary school teachers as the unsung heroes of education. Not enough recognition is given to their efforts at shaping the minds of children, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds. I recently spoke to Boitumelo Nte, currently studying for a Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism and Media studies, as she reflects on her experiences as a foundation phase teacher.

Nte firmly believes that foundation phase teachers are important to a child’s schooling career. Having taught intermediate phase mathematics and social science at Robin Hills Primary School in Randburg, she says that learners have certain expectations of teachers. “Learners expect to be taught in a simple and enjoyable manner,” she says. “The teacher has to exhibit an ability to diversify explanations if they do not understand a concept on the first attempt.” General observations from teachers have shown that young children respond better to the use of different examples and analogies when learning. “The umbrella expectation to this is that the teacher must prepare adequately for the class,” she adds.

Nte goes on to explain the effort that goes into teaching and caring for young children. “These teachers not only begin a child’s curricular journey, but play a crucial role in re-hashing life skills that may have already been learnt at home,” she says, citing deportment, hygiene and morality as examples. Many teachers choose to go the extra mile, voluntarily organising activities that stimulate their learners. She speaks about a news discussion slot that she ran for her grade 5 learners every Friday during class. “This slot was meant to encourage learners to listen to news on the television or radio. They could also bring in articles from the Randburg Sun, which was distributed freely to their homes,” she explains. “While this was an enjoyable slot for the children, I believe I managed to teach them the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings. They brought stories about service delivery protests, the reflection of reported abuse cases on our society, and what the abandonment of a newborn baby meant.”

Despite these efforts, Nte feels that primary school teachers are only appreciated on a nuclear level, at their respective schools. The role that these teachers play in providing children with an educational foundation is often forgotten in the eventual onset of their learners’ matric year. “In larger contexts like the education system in its entirety, far less appreciation is exhibited. Instead, focus is placed on teaching efforts in the Further Education and Training (FET) phase ,” she notes. Equal esteem needs to be afforded to the teachers behind the scenes, who built their learners up with the skills to reach matric.

Despite the glaring inequalities in the basic education sector, primary school teachers work tirelessly to educate and care for their learners. More appreciation needs to be shown for these unsung heroes, who are carefully shaping the minds of a new generation.