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Book of the Week: Jonathan Jansen’s Great South African Teachers

Great South African TeachersBy Catriona Ross for the Sunday Times:

If you paid attention in science class, you’ll remember Newton’s third law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

This inherent balance in all earthly matters might explain why, as our national education crisis plumbs new depths, the perfect counterbalance appears in the form of a book.

This paperback, subtitled “A tribute to South Africa’s great teachers from the people whose lives they have changed”, is firstly a celebration of high-calibre educators, but inadvertently doubles as a national survey documenting the methods and outcomes of inspired teaching.

Sponsored by the Sunday Times, and assisted by two journalism students, project curator Professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, invited members of the public to e-mail in a story about the teacher who had made the greatest impact on their lives.

As he reports in the introduction, tributes “flowed in”, from octogenarians and current pupils, from alumni of diverse schools – public and private, urban and rural, church and secular – encompassing teaching systems and styles both past and present, and offering answers to these questions: What works in a classroom? What motivates a child? To what extent does a teacher’s influence affect a pupil’s future success?

The 135 tributes chosen are categorised under seven teacher types: the subject artist who excels at teaching English, maths, history or science; the courageous activist; the inspiring mentor; the performer with a flair for the dramatic; the gentle disciplinarian; the tough-love coach; the extended parent.

Common denominators among top teachers emerge. While flamboyance, nonconformity and funky sideburns are appreciated, the traits that pupils admire most – and strive to emulate as adults – tend to be unglamorous.

Teachers are remembered for being punctual, neatly dressed and hard-working, for handing marked test papers back the next day, for not tolerating muttering in the back rows, and for being exacting taskmasters who prod their students to aim higher.

Memorable teachers, it seems, are also reassuringly human, taking the time to talk to a troubled child after class, or writing an encouraging comment on an essay.

According to the screeds of touching anecdotal evidence, pupils are loath to disappoint a favourite teacher. Every compliment is absorbed, building inner confidence (“Mrs Wilcox believed in me – and that made me believe in myself”), and sometimes a single comment alters the course of a life.

A former student of St Andrew’s High School in Elsies River recalls her principal, Mr Louw, telling students at assembly in 1990 that change was coming, and asking whether they’d be prepared for it. “The New South Africa will need street sweepers too; you can be the street sweeper if you choose to be,” he challenged. She writes: “I made a decision that day not to become the street sweeper. Doing manual work is nothing to be ashamed of, but I realised that I had a choice.”

Great South African Teachers is a praise song to the power of the individual. From students’ accounts, it’s clear that just one talented teacher in an unremarkable school has the ability to compensate for its other mediocre educational offerings.

Respondents frequently attribute their life achievements to that particular reliable teacher who demonstrated, by daily example, how to show up on time, focus on a task, and keep moving towards a goal despite family tragedy, political turmoil and lack of resources.

Among those honoured are the apartheid-era teachers bent on giving their students the highest quality education possible while tension crackled and schools burnt. Many officially taught the history lessons required for examination purposes, but courageously instructed their students to research privately in order to discover the sinister truth of South Africa’s politics.

Great South African Teachers belongs in every staff room and school library, and in the hands of South Africa’s policy makers.

Jansen urges the government to expand the system of rewards and incentives for high-calibre teachers, as they make “the crucial difference between hope and despair in the lives of 12 million schoolchildren”. Thank you, Prof. Class dismissed.

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