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There are few careers as challenging as teaching – and few with as wide a gap between teachers’ initial training and the ambitious expectations that society has of them.
As critical players in preparing young people for a changing world, new teachers need much more support than they are getting. Mentoring is one important way that this can be done, and some examples of success are emerging.
South Africa’s Department of Basic Education has minimum requirements for teacher education qualifications, among them content knowledge and an understanding of pedagogy, as well as the ability to communicate, manage classrooms and assess learners. There are, however, more demanding requirements, such as that newly qualified teachers (NQTs) must understand diversity, identify learning or social problems, and work in partnership with professional service providers to address the latter. They also must reflect critically, constantly improve the profession and adapt to changing circumstances. In addition, NQTs are expected to embrace a “community, citizenship and pastoral role”, which requires them to show respect and responsibility towards learners, fellow educators, parents and other key stakeholders, and to develop supportive and empowering learning environments. Similar themes appear in the SA Council for Educators professional standards for teachers, which requires teachers to “support social justice and the redress of inequalities within their educational institutions and society more broadly”.
Also on the Forum Network: How we treat teachers will make or break the future by Susan Hopgood, President, Education International
Since day one of the pandemic, teachers have been on the front line. As we work to ensure all children are supported as they return to school buildings, we must remember that for students, having a qualified teacher makes all the difference.
These standards – and the approaches to education that they imply – are commendable and praiseworthy.
However, they refer to responsibilities that many NQTs are simply not equipped to fulfil, due to many factors that probably apply as much to most of the world’s nations as they do to South Africa: inadequate training or mentoring; the wider social context in which they are teaching; and poor human resources decisions.
In South Africa, the issue of social inequality and the fact that 80% of 9-to-10-year-olds cannot understand what they read, means that most educators will struggle to teach content.
For example, NQTs often do not receive a formal induction or a mentor, and it can be highly stressful for them to navigate their entry a school’s required systems, administration and culture. If mentoring does take place, it is often simply an explanation of school systems and subject and assessment requirements.
In South Africa, the issue of social inequality and the fact that 80% of 9-to-10-year-olds cannot understand what they read, means that most educators will struggle to teach content. Trying to incorporate critical thinking in this context is often a step too far. In these situations, learners are struggling to grasp basic concepts and are trying to learn in a second or third language in which they are not fully proficient.
It is also not uncommon for NQTs to be allocated a subject to teach that is not a subject in which they are qualified or placed in a position of leadership in their first or second year of teaching. For example, I know an NQT who was made Deputy Head in her second year of teaching.
So, what needs to be done?
I work for the Jakes Gerwel Fellowship (JGF), a scholarship programme that provides extensive mentoring and leadership development and that nurtures expert teachers who embrace innovation and can lead the kind of change that our educational sector so desperately requires.
One of the ways JGF supports NQTs is through employing Teacher Coaches, who visit NQTs at their schools, observe lessons, and provide a safe space where these NQTs can reflect on their teaching and engagement with pupils. They organise online peer mentoring and a space for NQTs to learn best practices from one another and guest speakers.
JGF also encourages NQTs to request a mentor from their school. We are building relationships with heads of schools, as well as building capacity by training in-school mentors to develop young teachers. However, attitudinal changes and time for mentoring remain an issue.
In addition, JGF offers their NQTs opportunities for personal growth, such as a course on mindfulness or ideas on how to start extracurricular activities like Model United Nations. Information is also shared on regarding local or international opportunities for collaboration on issues such as pluralism in a diverse classroom, or climate change.
We thus help NQTs enjoy a global community of peer mentors, offering opportunities to collaborate through online international classroom conversations and sharing content materials. JGF also organises an annual Education Summit with pedagogical workshops on critical thinking, thought leader sessions on AI in the classroom, and cross generational teacher conversations.
In my own career as a teacher, I worked to mobilise systemic change through my own classroom and the broader community. As an ambassador for the Climate Action Project, I engaged my school and also vulnerable inner-city schools. I also helped drive the social responsibility relationship between my school and a cohort of inner-city children who had low literacy levels and lacked school textbooks. Combining the issues of literacy and climate action, I sourced children’s literature on pollution, global warming, and water scarcity, while my high school pupils created worksheets on the books’ content and climate change. This stimulated discussions among my (rather privileged) pupils about their environment and what action could be taken, as well as about wider community issues.
Young teachers need to create platforms of support, and collegiality, to strengthen themselves and make their classroom a global space – and they need all our support to do so.
Another example of collaboration beyond the classroom involves a group of my pupils participated in model UN debating, who were able to join a youth policy committee facilitated by the University of the Witwatersrand, becoming scribes for the youth section of the Johannesburg Climate Action Policy. They represented the youth of Africa at a Climate Action Day event and one spoke at COP 17.
For Future teachers or NQTs to take up engagement opportunities, they need exposure and support, and opportunities for collaboration – and if this is not found within their school, then beyond it. This requires a broader peer group to sustain each other. Young teachers need to create platforms of support, and collegiality, to strengthen themselves and make their classroom a global space – and they need all our support to do so.
To learn more, check out the OECD Future of Education and Skills website