5 Steps to Excellent Teaching

“South Africa has one of the world’s worst education systems,” according to London-based publication The Economist. It reported that South Africa placed 75th out of 76, in a ranking table of education systems drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2015 (read more here). Furthermore, reported the publication, in November 2017, a study into trends in international mathematics and science placed South Africa at, or near the bottom, of a variety of categories. Of 138 countries who participated, South Africa comes 138.

That’s an ‘F’ on any report card.

The touted 78.2 % pass rates at the Grade 12 exit level masks the issue. A second glance reveals that almost half the children who enroll in Grade 1 don’t even get to Grade 12, so a more accurate figure is a pass rate of under 40%.

“On average‚ an SA teacher missed 11% of teaching time due to absenteeism.”

So how do we change the way we teach in such a way to combat this crisis? Here are my 5 steps to excellent teaching and, sorry Cyril, none of them involve using iPads.

Step 1: Pitch up

This should be a given right? You’d be surprised. Recent research from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) showed that that 20% of SA’s teachers were absent on Mondays and Fridays and 33% were absent during month-end. On average‚ an SA teacher missed 11% of teaching time due to absenteeism. Some days (apparently mostly Mondays and Fridays) you might not feel up to the job but, as the saying goes, ‘You’ve got to be in it to win it’. Get to work.

Step 2: Pitch in

As any educator knows a day of teaching is an unrelenting tide of interactions. The average child asks 288 questions a day and reports show that teachers are typically involved in more than 1,000 verbal exchanges daily with their students. Some of these exchanges can be extremely challenging but they are all necessary to foster the aim of teaching and learning. Your students should know that you care. Even if we can, “fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” and teach “like angels”, it’s all for nothing if we don’t care. We will sound hollow, empty and irrelevant. Don’t get me wrong, care is not rainbows and unicorns. Care can be relentless, ruthless and, if you’re a teenager, downright irritating. Get in there.

Step 3: Know your content

We want to teach “what is beautiful, what is true and what is right” says Martin Robinson, but there is a myth in educational circles today that because of the internet and Google it is no longer necessary to teach knowledge. Don’t be fooled. The idea that students can jump on the internet and ‘self-educate’ through their own research is dangerous and naïve…as it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.” Direct instruction is proven one of the most effective teaching methods around and can mark your students learning like scoring a piece of paper before the cut. “Prior knowledge largely determines how we search, find, select, and process (i.e., evaluate) information found on the web.” Unfortunately, according to the above mentioned IMF report, South African teachers have lower subject content knowledge than their peers in sub-Saharan African countries. “Indeed, they are even sometimes outperformed by pupils they are supposed to be teaching.” Be an expert in your subject(s).

“It takes knowledge to gain knowledge.”

Step 4: Know your craft

Once you know what to teach you had better get good at how to teach it. Have you fallen for the VAKuous claims of Learning Styles or the myth of Multiple Intelligences? Teachers have a duty to ensure they base their practice on truth not the whim of snake oil salespeople. Instead of Brain(less) Gym do you know about proven teaching strategies like Retrieval Practice or Cognitive Load Theory?  If not then have a look at a movement called researchED for further illumination. The current misconception is that the solution to better teaching and learning lies in technology. Think again. According to Jamie Martin, founder of Injini, Africa’s first ed-tech incubator, “Most of Ed Tech makes no impact in Africa”. Work out what works.

Step 5: Be courageous

Excellent teaching is an act of courage. There are those moments, with those students, when we have to move beyond the professional in order to connect and transform. As Parker Palmer explains in his book ‘The Courage to Teach’, this requires us to be brave.

Insisting on that conversation with a difficult student after the lesson? – Sorry I’m off to the staff room. Talking about racial or LGBT issues in assembly or the classroom? – You must be joking. In the social landscape of South Africa there are so many minefields to be avoided, especially when our every mistake can be captured and bounced around multiple social media platforms. However, if we really want to be relevant and transformative teachers in South Africa these are the fields we need to be ploughing. Be strong and courageous.

Of course if you’re like me, some days just pitching up is all you’ve got and that’s OK. On certain days when my students seem to know more than me or I simply can’t get the simplest information across, I feel like I am in my first year of teacher training again. On too many days I lack the courage or compassion to move past a student’s mask of anger or disinterest and take an easy way out. Those are days to remember that, in my weakness, I can be strong. Those are the days to pitch up. It’s the first step to excellence.

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