The real challenge: drawing quality people into education

In response to a number of letters in the Cape Times, this appeared on the editorials page this morning…

I would like to pick up on two points raised by Keiran Peacock and responded to by David de Korte over the past couple of days. Firstly, the real issue here is that education in this country remains an undervalued profession that struggles to attract the best and the brightest – of all races – on a scale sufficient to address the vast systemic challenges. Considering our history and the host of lucrative options now open to quality black graduates, it is no surprise that few choose a career in the classroom.

My thesis has always been that top people go where the top challenges are. Yes, certainly money motivates, but what really drive ambitious people are challenges that bring together the best minds in a competitive-collaborative environment, where there is sufficient recognition and reward for their efforts.  For much of the last two decades, this has been the world of high finance, but this is changing.

I have seen this in the United States, where it is not uncommon for top graduates from Harvard, Stanford and the like to choose working at dynamic non-profit organisations like Teach for America, or charter school networks that are responding to the significant challenges in education in that country. There is also a growing movement in South Africa of young organisations like Numeric, Teach SA, Equal Education and Ikamva Youth that are responding to the crisis in education, and in so doing are attracting top people of all races into education – albeit not always through traditional routes.

So to my mind, UCT’s difficulties in attracting a diverse class of future educators speak more to the public perception of teaching as a profession of those that ‘can’t do anything else’. My own experience has been just the opposite:  that there is absolutely no other career that stretches, stimulates and demands like teaching. And when one starts to look at the broader South African schooling context that Mr. Peacock speaks of, there is certainly no lack of opportunity for bright young minds to apply themselves on intractable problems.

Secondly, teacher preparation programmes world-wide continue to grapple with issues of relevance and effectiveness, and UCT is no different. We hosted four of Mr. Peacock’s 2011 PGCE cohort at two rural schools in the Eastern Cape for their second teaching practice. All found the experience immensely challenging, but left with a deeper sense of the issues facing the majority of South African schools and they carry this experience into the rest of their careers, whether in privileged schools or not. For interested readers, their experiences are documented on our blog at https://axiumeducation.wordpress.com/2011/09/01/perspectives-on-eastern-cape-education/.

The difficulty for UCT and other traditional institutions lies in finding disadvantaged schooling environments with the requisite levels of support for new teachers that Mr. de Korte refers to. By definition, dysfunctional schools don’t offer the kind of environment that encourages “learning to teach” – although Mr. Peackock has rightly argued that equally valuable to new teachers is “learning about teaching”, which would include exposure to classrooms in tough settings. Perhaps UCT’s School of Education could be stricter about implementing its policy if it had some creative help in finding suitable host schools and organisations to make this happen?

Either way, the major point is to find ways to pull more quality people into education. To students and young graduates: rise to the challenge, teach and be part of the generation that turns South African education around. To the rest of us: find a school, a governing body, a non-profit or a child and offer them your talents, experience and support. A focused, collective effort is the only way we will turn this ship around.

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