Embracing Mediocrity

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As an ex-English teacher it was just some time before I felt compelled to write a rant about the poor quality of education in South Africa. Rather than starting anew, I have attached a letter that I wrote to the Sunday Times in January 2008 (which was published on 21 January 2008). My letter was written in response to an article I read entitled “Why our Schools don’t work… ” which featured in the Sunday Times on the 13 January 2008. The letter is dated but the points it make still stand. So here it goes:

“I have been teaching English for four years. Two of those years were spent teaching at a tertiary institution and the other two at a good public government school. I have taught every grade from eight to twelve, and matriculants in their first year of University. Teaching was never my intended field of practice, but like many, I kind of fell in to it. Nonetheless, I left teaching after four years feeling disillusioned and utterly horrified.

Mediocrity has become the accepted norm in public schools. Learners are taught no sense of responsibility as it is up to the teacher to beg and plead for homework and assignments. Learners are not allowed to receive a zero mark if work has not been submitted. There was a situation at the school where I taught whereby matric pupils who had not submitted work in February were phoned to come in during October study leave and complete their work. Nine months after the due date and many chances to complete their work educators were required to yet again give the learners another chance. Pandering to the requirements of the Education Department is demeaning for educators whose classroom rules and discipline is completely undermined. This teaches learners that when they are working, a tardy attitude is acceptable. Rubbish! The world does not work like that. Learners who are failing hopelessly are pushed through into the next grade by the Education Department. This means that schools adjust marks in order to pass learners, as required by the Department. Thus, learners often receive fabricated reports. This is fraud and an unfair and inaccurate representation of a learner’s ability. One of my grade eleven pupils who arrived from another school in 2007 was illiterate and couldn’t understand a word of English. How did she make it to grade eleven? Learners at schools have picked up on the fact that their effort is not necessary. After all, failing is near impossible and they will always be given a twenty-first chance to complete work that they did not feel like doing initially.

I marked matric papers in 2007 and there were not enough markers. Markers who marked the previous year were contacted and asked to return but the majority had left teaching. Shock-Horror! We were informed before we began marking that we were marking to a prescribed average – so what was the point? The bell-curve has been around for years but I believe that the adjustment of marks has hit a new high and must be named accordingly: fraud. I was disturbed to note upon the release of the matric results that a particularly lazy learner who I had taught, who had consistently achieved thirty percent each term for English, who had received twenty percent for his prelim mark and was sent in as a failure candidate all round, passed matric. Strange. The matric portfolio mark is constructed in such a way that the tests and exams that are completed throughout the matric year are converted to a mark out of ten. The oral component is weighted heavily and counts more. The oral mark is even counted twice, in two sections in the grade eleven portfolio. The Department will do anything to make things easy for learners and frustrating for educators.

Schools are desperate for teachers. Educators with no teaching qualification or experience are employed, and worse than that, no subject knowledge. This fact is often hidden from parents and other educators. All the theoretical knowledge in the world does make a good teacher, but subject knowledge and an in depth understanding thereof is essential.

I supervise the homework completion of a private school pupil who attends one of the top schools in Johannesburg. This pupil is required to complete at least three English set-works per term, of different genres. Government schools complete two per year. It is embarrassing. I made a comment about this to my department and although many agreed, the response was that learners no longer have a broad frame of reference required in order to understand literature and thus cannot cope with challenging content and volume of work. Again, schools accept the mediocrity enforced on them by a sub-standard education department. I marked essays in the final literature paper of 2007. Each essay was to be marked according to a sixty percent average. We were told that if the learner has re-told the story accurately (and not even answered the question or mentioned the given topic) they must receive sixty percent. Paragraphing and structure was not even considered as part of their mark. I realized that it was for this exact reason that matriculants arrive at university and have no concept of essay structure. I was then wasting my time teaching eighteen year olds what introductions, conclusions and paragraphs are, rather than the academic content of literature as required at university level English. Nothing is expected of learners any more. No insight or thought is required when answering questions.

Teaching, one of the most essential vocations in the world, is no longer a respected profession in South Africa. An article in the Financial Mail magazine stated that South Africa has the lowest literacy and numeracy rates in the world. This is not surprising when mediocrity is all that is required by learners and any unschooled individual can take on the important job of educating the next generation. If nothing is expected of teachers, how can teachers expect anything of their pupils? At least universities have insisted on entrance exams that must be completed by prospective students. This shows what great faith tertiary institutions have in the seventeen percent of learners who achieved university exemptions. Although the article I’m responding to was all about solutions, I have no faith in the Government and its Education Department. If private schools aren’t the answer then it will be home schooling for my children.”