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Great South African Teachers: A Tribute to South Africa's Great Teachers from the People Whose Lives They Changed

Great South African Teachers: A Tribute to South Africa's Great Teachers from the People Whose Lives They Changed

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Great South African Teachers: A Tribute to South Africa's Great Teachers from the People Whose Lives They Changed

433 Seiten
6 Stunden
Oct 1, 2011


At a time when newspapers are full of the woes of the South African education system and stories of teachers who let the children in their classes down, this book shows that this is not the whole picture; it is a celebration of heroic teachers who have struggled against great odds to give their students a chance of success. Great South African Teachers celebrates the massive contribution of remarkable teachers, both past and present, working in South African schools. The stories, sent in by over 100 South Africans in response to advertisements placed in the Sunday Times, pay tribute to teachers who have changed lives through their passion for their subject, their dedication to the dignity of the teaching profession, and above all their determination to see the children in their classes succeed. The contributions reflect the full range of South African schools -- rich schools, poor schools, white schools under apartheid, black schools under apartheid, urban schools and rural schools, schools today and schools in the past. And the contributors come from varied backgrounds: privileged children exposed to the realities of apartheid South Africa through their teachers, poor children motivated to work to break the bonds of poverty, angry children and shy children, bright children stretched to achieve their full potential and others taught the value of hard work in the pursuit of success. Jonathan Jansen, assisted by Lihlumelo Toyana and Nangamso Koza, introduces the collection of contributions with a thought-provoking commentary on the lessons to be learnt from the tributes. Jansen identifies seven types of inspiring teacher, showing how each type works differently to bring out the best in the children in their charge. Great South African Teachers thanks our inspiring teachers and hopes to motivate the next generation of teachers to dedicate themselves to changing lives, to changing the future. All the royalties from this book go towards pre-service teacher bursaries at universities in South Africa. The first recipient of a bursary funded by the royalties from this book is currently studying for his Bachelor of Education degree at the University of the Free State. He will be the first graduate in his family.
Oct 1, 2011

Über den Autor

Prof Jonathan Jansen is a leading South African educationist, commentator and the author of several books including the best-selling 'Letters to My Children'. He is the former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State, where he earned a reputation for transformation and a deep commitment to reconciliation. He is married with two children.

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Great South African Teachers - Jonathan Jansen




The invitation was simple: ‘Submit a story about the teacher who made the greatest impact on your life.’ Within days of the announcement, scores of stories flooded the ‘greatteachers’ email address – it seemed people had been waiting a long time for the opportunity to excavate and share their memories of outstanding educators who changed the course of their lives. The Great South African Teachers project was clearly an idea whose time had come.

The stories came pouring in: from rich schools and poor schools; about young teachers and older teachers; from the Second World War era to a few months ago; about schoolteachers and university teachers; from children still in school to octogenarians; about tough-love teachers and gentle, gracious teachers; from those living in South Africa to those who went to school here but now reside in other countries; about teachers of school subjects inside schools and teachers of life outside of school. The rich mix of stories by class, colour and creed entranced the review panel and the editorial team alike; all but a few of the stories qualified for entry in this book.

Our purpose with this Great South African Teachers book was to counter the one-dimensional accounts of schools and teachers both in the media and in scholarly work on education. True, there is much that is wrong in teaching in South Africa. We ourselves have contributed to the popular and academic literature on the subject. But there is another face to the education crisis; it is the face of heroes, of those teachers who struggle against great odds to give their children a fair chance of obtaining good results in subjects and in society. These teachers are overshadowed and, we suspect, often disheartened by accounts of drunken teachers, violence in schools, pregnant schoolgirls, high failure rates, and the endless cycle of teacher strikes.

This book is intended to recognise, elevate and praise great teachers who bucked the trend then under the repressive education of the apartheid years, and who buck the trend now as the legacy of unequal schooling and uncommitted teachers continues to haunt the school system in South Africa.

And there are also other reasons for publishing this book on great teachers. It is important for prospective educators to know that this is a career that, for thousands of teachers, remains the most meaningful thing they have ever done. It is important for parents to be reminded that the foundations of democracy and decency are built in these critical teenage years by that broad band of dedicated teachers. It is important for all of us to remember that it is thanks to the work of heroic teachers that we are able to enjoy the quality and spread of leaders that we have in business, education, health, social welfare and yes, even in parts of government. When reading these teacher stories, it is a source of great satisfaction to hear where great leaders now find themselves in our democracy. It is important for undecided youth to know, through these stories, that teaching is a calling that many choose not because of the degree of material wellbeing they can attain, but because of the degree of social wellbeing they can impart to students and to society. Many of these great teachers in this book had options. But they chose teaching because they could make a difference.

In short, the overriding purpose of this book celebrating South Africa’s greatest teachers is to convey the message of hope: there are still powerful teacher models on which we can draw to rebuild a faltering school system.

How this book is different from others

To our knowledge there is no other book of this kind. We know of the work of Alan Weider, a US professor who completed two outstanding works on struggle teachers; that is, ‘teachers who fought apartheid’. One of the sources is a biography of an outspoken teacher from the Western Cape, entitled Teacher and comrade: Richard Dudley and the fight for democracy in South Africa, which appears in academic journals such as Educational Studies (2008); the story of RO Dudley also appears in our collection of great teachers. The other publication by Weider is a book entitled Voices from Cape Town classrooms: Oral histories of teachers who fought apartheid (2003, University of the Western Cape). The focus of his books is regional and one-dimensional in that he portrays teachers from the Cape Town area who fall into the category we call ‘courageous activists’ in this book. We are also aware of occasional television documentaries and inserts on famous teachers or teachers of prominent public figures.

The Great South African Teachers book is the only one of its kind that offers a broad collection of outstanding teacher profiles. The teacher stories come from ordinary South Africans and from every region of the country. Most of the teachers in these stories are not well known outside of their immediate areas of work and influence. Only a segment of our teachers are ‘courageous activists’; we include a broader spectrum of teachers who demonstrated goodness in other ways than politics alone. We did not sample our teachers, as a researcher like Weider would be required to do; our teachers came to us through the voluntary submissions of former students whose lives and work were affected by those who educated them.

In these and other ways the Great South African Teachers book is ‘a first’ in the genre of writings about teachers in our country. It is also different from overseas books like What great teachers do differently (Todd Whitaker) or Conversations with great teachers (Bill Smoot) in that our accounts of greatness are given through the voices of the students themselves.

What kinds of teachers we found

In the course of reading these moving stories we found seven categories of great South African teachers. They express the idea that there are many faces of greatness among teachers, and that in different ways these various qualities made an impact on the lives of young people in variable circumstances of schooling.

The subject artist is the teacher who is remembered for sheer wizardry in the teaching of Mathematics or English or History. Our contributors recall having difficulty in subjects like Science when in comes the teacher who makes complex things simple, difficult equations accessible, and boring content come alive. What several stories capture is the ease with which the subject artist travels through the curriculum terrain to offer entranced learners something not only to learn and appreciate, but also to enjoy. One of our writers recalls that he could not wait for a class on logarithms to begin, and dreaded the class ending. This experience in a Grade 12 Mathematics class would puzzle millions of learners throughout this country who have learnt to dread the subject. It was simply wonderful to read how the mastery of the subject by the teacher-wizard helps students make transitions – from embracing a subject to seeing the bigger picture of life. It does not surprise, therefore, that these impressionable young people change direction in career and life, several deciding to study those school subjects at university or even choosing to teach that subject in later life. The subject artist is described well in some of these stories, and brings to light those two critical skills in preparing teachers: expert knowledge of the subject matter and specialist knowledge of how to teach that subject.

The courageous activist is the teacher who links the teaching of the subject to the broader politics outside of school. Our contributors in this section all write from the period of apartheid education. Many of them tell stories about History teachers, and the same narrative seems to emerge. The teacher teaches them official History well, so that they pass the state examinations. But then the teacher introduces them to histories that are subdued, even censored – such as the history of the struggle against apartheid, of inequality and forced removals.

These courageous activists paid a heavy price for their critical approaches to teaching. Some were expelled from the profession, only to take their activism into other fields, such as law and literature. Others simply could not take the repression any longer and found themselves teaching in places as far afield as Australia. A few remained in the system, constantly harassed and under surveillance from the oppressive education and political authorities of the day. None of them were silenced, however, and a generation of our authors feels that it is important to bring these stories of courageous activism in the teaching profession to light.

The activist teachers left an indelible imprint on the minds of those young people, and they are now able to acknowledge the sacrifice of teaching under circumstances they did not fully understand during their schooldays. As they tell their stories, the sharpness of painful memories comes through, and the love of those teachers shines brightly. Some of the names are familiar – like the famous Ben Kies – while others are less known, but all of them stand tall in the history of teachers who refused to make the distinction between good teaching and social awareness; for that generation of activist teachers, it was the same thing.

The inspiring mentor is the teacher whose words and behaviour inspire students. Several of our authors remember key phrases or repeated wisdoms that stayed with them for ten or twenty or more years. Sometimes it was a statement about the potential of the young learner or the value of hard work or elevated standards of human behaviour. But it was not only words; often our authors spoke of ‘the way he carried himself’ and the general composure of the teacher who inspired the class. Our authors speak of ‘someone you could look up to’ and who clearly stood out among the other teachers. The inspiring mentor is often quiet, determined and focused on the overall wellbeing of the student.

There are several stories here about general care and compassion – of the teacher who noticed the absence of a school blazer on a poor student and made plans to purchase one; or who recognised the shortage of funds required to travel with the school choir and made arrangements for this once-in-a-lifetime trip to happen. More than anything ‘taught’ in the school subjects, these inspiring mentors ‘caught’ the students’ attention and lasting admiration through acts of kindness. For them, the inspiring mentors, the individual matters. Small wonder the students in these stories often seek out these inspiring mentors in later life, and try to track them down through school records. They continue to be inspired by these mentors, and tend to end their submissions conveying a continued state of gratitude: ‘thank you’. School mentors, in other words, become mentors for life.

The life performer is the teacher who sees his or her classroom as a stage on which to act out the dramas of life and so teach about them. This is the energetic teacher with a flair for the dramatic. It is the English teacher who appears to have memorised the Shakespearean text; calls for random readings from classic texts; closes her eyes, bends her head backwards, and stops the student for misreading a line or passage. It is the teacher who asks the unexpected, and does the unexpected as she catches students off-guard with instructions like, ‘give me all your nicknames’!

These life performers are often in trouble, and the good ones know where the line is between innovative, ‘out-of-the-box’ teaching and the hum-drum rules, regulations and routines of school administration. They do not ‘fit in’ to the stifling cultures of South African schools; other teachers talk about them, and the students notice. But it is indeed the dramatic and the unconventional that the students remember, and are grateful for.

Life performers are also risk-takers, and so students learn crucial lessons about courage, independence and the spirit of individualism. They learn that life in or outside the classroom need not be boring and predictable after all. They learn flair and they embrace risk; they learn that there are failures along the journey of life, but also endless joys. It is the life performer who remains in the minds and deeds of students long after the details of subject matter and school routines are forgotten.

The soft disciplinarian is the teacher who has developed the fine art of bringing rowdy classes, stubborn girls and hard-knuckled boys to attention through simple and soft acts of discipline. This is not the teacher who resorts to corporal punishment as first or last resort, even when it was still legal. No, the soft disciplinarian manages her classroom in ways that demand respect. It is, among our authors, the quiet presence of the Catholic nun who does not scold the lonely girl for wasting her time in detention duty when she could have attended a teacher colleague’s funeral; and it is the English teacher who firmly gives the option to tobacco-craving boys to ‘leave now’ or to learn, and they stay.

The soft disciplinarian does not resort to shouting threats and promising the removal of limbs. She has learnt in her craft that ‘a soft answer’ to provocative questions ‘turneth away wrath’, as the Bible might put it. She modulates her voice to gain attention. She touches a shoulder lightly to discipline waywardness. She uses the authority of the subject to draw out respect, rather than impose her own authority. She teaches well, knowing when to expose tardiness or unpreparedness, thereby gaining a powerful form of discipline, especially among high school boys.

It is her manner that orders the life of her students in the classroom. That dignity of bearing, the thoroughness of preparation, the depth of knowledge, the alertness to trouble – things not found in teacher-training manuals – install the boundaries for productive teaching and attentive learning. While writing on the chalkboard, reasons one of her former students, this teacher could see problems in the back of the classroom through the reflection in her spectacles. The Afrikaans expression says it best: ‘sy kon respek afdwing’ (she could command respect) simply by virtue of who she was.

The tough-love coach is the opposite of the soft disciplinarian; this is the teacher who does not take nonsense from any learner. ‘I am here to teach you English, so fall into line’ is the attitude this teacher conveys. The tough-love coach has many mottos by which he rules his school or classroom environment, and the students remember them. From the very start of class or the calendar year, the rules are made clear and the consequences clearer. Fear, it must be said, is the first reaction of wide-eyed students.

His reputation precedes him, and the laggards in the school dread ending up in his class, for then the party is over. A minority of students are attracted to this sense of order and this command of respect. The structure and predictability of the tough-love coach is something they are not used to at school and, for some, even at home. They sense he means no harm, and his other actions demonstrate the ‘love’ variable in the ‘tough-love’ equation. Over time, the students come closer to him and express affection for the old war horse. He, too, seems to mellow as the students grow older and, especially, as they comply with his sense of the rules.

The tough-love coach is not afraid to resort to physical punishment, legal or otherwise. He has a firm understanding that there is a place for the rod and a place for the staff, operating as he does on Old Testament wisdoms. But he does not inflict physical pain in excess, nor does he do this readily. The students recognise his restraint and respect the reasoning that comes with corporal punishment. The parents also accept this form of classroom management, for they too are products of the rod and themselves resort to such measures in the home. But the students remember the care and the love of the coach long after memories of the rod have left them.

The extended parent is the teacher who creates the seamless bond of love and care between the home and the school. This pedagogue is not there simply to teach the intricacies of the subject matter or to prepare her charges for the examinations. The extended parent offers the same affection, diligence and care as the parent at home – or no longer at home. For this teacher the student is her child, and she the concerned caregiver.

It struck the editorial team how often the students in these stories referred to the teachers as parents. For some this was the parent they did not have; often one and sometimes both parents were not at home, either because of death or a severed marriage relationship. This emptiness was filled by the teacher-parent who provided the broader duty to care. In some ways, of course, this is a cultural phenomenon within African society, the notion that the teacher is simply another adult within the community with the charge to care for the whole child.

The extended parent foregrounds the educational functions for which she or he is responsible. But here teaching is provided within a broader frame of education, to prepare for the routine demands of schooling as well as the rigorous demands of life. The extended parent advises on small things and large, on what happens in the classroom and what happens outside of it. It is not unusual, therefore, for the teacher-parent to call on and consult with the parent at home, making a strong and sustained connection for young learners between home and school.

What the combination of teacher stories tell us about greatness

Looking back across these seven ways of expressing greatness as a teacher, we recognise that these categories are of course not mutually exclusive or categorically exhaustive, and that often more than one set of qualities can be found in the same teacher. But we were intrigued by the fact that in many of the stories submitted there were emphases or orientations that could place the individual teachers in at least one clear category. These distinctive and yet overlapping categories of greatness work against the logic that one could ‘pin down’ the characteristics of great teachers within five or six or seven agreed elements; this would be simplistic. Our collection of stories shows the many faces of greatness among South African teachers.

We recognise also that some of the qualities of great teachers are inevitably going to be controversial, in part because of their cultural and historical meanings in the South African context. For example, the notion of a great teacher using corporal punishment jars with modern-day sensibilities. We approach these practices, however, not from the point of judgement but in an attempt to understand. While the editorial collective neither condones nor takes lightly the act of corporal punishment of children, it is nevertheless clear that the students who report on such acts see no harm being done. Indeed, this practice was condoned by South African education authorities for a very long time; despite such punishment being illegal today, the cultural meanings of inflicting pain with a rod remain deeply rooted and commonly practised. The students who report on physical punishment make no negative judgements about it, and some praise the practice as having made them who they are today.

We see in the collection of stories powerful commonalities across class, colour and creed. Whether from private or public schools, church or secular, black or white, urban or rural, the teachers in these schools shared certain traits. They all revealed a deep commitment to the learning needs of their students. They revelled in the privilege of teaching young people and devoted all the time available to them to this task. They were passionate about education, and in all the stories we find emotionally rich classrooms filled by dedicated teachers. They all fulfilled their professional commitments irrespective of the contexts in which they found themselves teaching; there is no sense of taken-for-granted privilege in the more well-heeled schools, or of the constant nag about lack of resources in the more disadvantaged schools. We see neither conceit among the rich or complaint among the poor; all the teachers focused on giving their students the best despite the environment, and this is remarkable.

It does not mean the stories of great teachers are oblivious to social context. On the contrary, we see powerful moments in history being revealed as teachers stand up and stand against the system of apartheid. It was certainly not only the ‘courageous activists’ who drew the link between school and society through critical teachings. All the teachers, in small ways or large, connected their subject matter to something bigger. The social context was always there, but rather than weaken or constrain teaching commitments, it energised these great teachers.

What struck us powerfully in many of these stories were what we call the ‘beyond teachers’. Many of the stories hailed teachers who went ‘beyond’ the call of duty, who did much more than what they were paid for; ‘the extra mile’ comes to mind as another metaphor in these students’ accounts.

Whether it was the rich array of extramural commitments from sport to music to field trips, these teachers did not do the minimum or check their clocks to make sure they remained with the hours observed by the unions. For these great teachers, teaching was their life.

‘Beyond teachers’ saw the bigger picture about preparing students for life. In all these schools, teacher heroes emerge who talk about the next steps – going to university, finding a job, living a rewarding life. School, for many of these great teachers, was simply a stepping stone to the beyond outside of school. Given the lousy salaries of South African teachers, and the often demanding working conditions, the teachers who emerged in these stories carried within them a deep, unselfish commitment that went beyond their own needs.

Why we did not publish some stories

An open call to submit great teacher stories is bound to shed light not only on great triumphs but also great tragedies about teachers. The opportunity to ‘tell’ in public certainly attracted some hair-raising stories. One such report is about a student who was beaten to shreds by his Mathematics teacher in a Johannesburg school, leaving him traumatised for life. He wanted us to know that this teacher made the ‘greatest impact’ on his life, for all the wrong reasons. Reading about this former student’s pain was very difficult for the editorial team, but of course we wanted, for once, to shift the attention to the teachers who do not succumb to such ruthlessness.

In this respect one of the refrains in the collection is that of the ‘saviour’ teacher, the educator who comes in to rescue a really bad situation. The scenario is more or less the following. A teacher or group of teachers in a school physically assault or emotionally abuse their students on a regular basis; things are really bad, and many of the students have lost faith in the school’s ability to provide anything worthwhile for life or learning. Then in comes the saviour-teacher, unaware of the traumas that exist, and who with a soft hand and gentle voice slowly restores the children’s trust in education. He carries, as one submission beautifully describes it, ‘the balm of healing’ where there were open wounds. The saviour-teacher enables and empowers the students to live with the bad things happening in other parts of the school because in this special teacher’s classroom they find comfort and relief.

We briefly relate this story of teachers who bring hurt only to draw attention to the significance of the teachers who bring healing to real struggles of young people within school environments.

We also did not publish those stories which were about students and their wonderful achievements. Of course, those stories were valid but this book is about great teachers and how their work reflects in the lives of young people during and beyond school. We have no doubt that there is a minority of exceptional children whose intelligence or resilience would carry them through school without much intervention from the teachers. But we chose to focus on the influences of teachers over young lives, and what we can learn from those teacher-student relationships as we seek to make schools better places for learning, living and loving.

We should say that we were initially inclined to exclude stories of great teachers who came in from other countries, as far apart as Gabon and Jamaica and Zimbabwe, but then realised the pettiness of the nationalistic sentiment conveyed in the invitation, ‘great South African teachers’. Of course we intended to draw goodness out of an often desperate and depressed national school system, and yet the great irony of the present world is that good and great teachers tend to move across borders and make their mark in humanity wherever they might be. South Africans should know this, since this country is the largest provider of qualified teachers from the Commonwealth to the United Kingdom. So we included stories irrespective of their geographical origins.

What intrigued us

Compiling a book of random stories about great teachers from across the country (and a few others), you expect to find certain qualities. You expect great teachers to stand out, to be different from the ordinary; hardworking teachers who focus on results. You expect tough and kind varieties of teachers who make a difference in their own peculiar ways. But what did we not expect? What intrigued us as we worked our way through the many stories?

Well, first of all, we were surprised to find how many of the great teachers were teachers of humanities subjects, in particular English and History. To be sure, there was mention of great teachers of Science and Mathematics, but the overwhelming number of stories hailed teachers of, well, human subjects, if that is how the humanities could be described. The question is why. We can only speculate that it is these subjects that lend themselves more readily to deliberations on the human condition – although it could be argued that good teaching of Science should be able to do the same. But that is a debate for another time and place.

It is through a poem or a Shakespearean tragedy that timeless questions tend to come to the fore. A skilled History teacher would make the past come alive in the present. Of course, in this global, economy-driven world the privileged subjects in school and university are Science and Technology; government policies assume a straight line between investments in the hard sciences, as they call it, and economic development. But what our stories show, overwhelmingly, is the startling effects of these ‘human’ subjects on the aspirations and attitudes of young people through and beyond their years of schooling.

We were further surprised by the lack of attention to formal academic performance within the more than 200 stories submitted. Not that students were not proud of their academic success, but what came through much more powerfully was the formative value of what teachers offered. It was the shaping of character, the influence on choices, the redirection after wrong-doing, the inspirational whisper, the accessibility of the teacher-mentor, the passion for teaching, the modelling of good behaviour, the acts of unexpected generosity, and the attention to the individual that mattered. What school and departmental officials obsess about – the final examination results – are light years removed from what ordinary schoolchildren value, and this gives pause for thought. What are we to do with these widely discrepant expectations of what makes schools and teachers good? At the very least, adults in education need to take note and recognise the more lasting value of a broader, more holistic education rather than the mechanical, here-and-now obsession with academic performance; it simply does not work for children.

What made a huge impression on us was the value attached to education during the apartheid years. The popular images from the past of teachers constantly in revolt and students in run-down education environments appear to be overstated. Black authors who submitted stories tell, yes, of disadvantaged education, but their stories offer another side to the lack of material resources; their stories are rich in human resources such as imaginative, idealistic, hardworking teachers who caused young people to triumph over their circumstances rather than succumb to them. There is not a single story here of the disruption of schooling. To be sure, there are heroic activist figures who take a sacrificial stand against apartheid and its school system but never at the expense of their students and never with the loss of instructional time. It might very well be that the disturbing murmurings heard recently in South Africa from prominent black figures, that schools were better under apartheid, might refer to these kinds of teachers and the places in which they practised their craft.

We were curious about the fact that the ‘courageous activist’ teachers only came to light in the submissions under the apartheid years. None of the stories tell of activist teachers after apartheid, of stalwarts in the classroom who continue the struggle for social justice now that racial rule has been abolished. There are certainly stories of teachers who stretch their personal resources to meet the needs of contemporary learners, but there are no fire-brands or social justice activists in the stories of post-1994 teachers.

And finally, what surprised us was the fact that many of our authors ignored the brief. The call for the single teacher who had the greatest impact on young lives was far too much of a restraint. The individual submissions often talk of a collection of teachers whom together made the difference in the same or successive years. Here was teamwork at its best; distributed leadership in live operation. Such stories of collective impact often reflected back on a general school culture that was supportive of students, and that made the singling out of one teacher difficult. We appreciated this sense of a social network of professionals working towards the same goals in one school.


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