Who Teaches the Teachers?
The Roman poet Juvenal asked: “Who guards those who do the guarding?” In the same way, we might ponder to ask “Who educates those who do the educating?”
As a society — and as a Church community — we put great emphasis on education and we expect a lot from those whom we entrust as educators. But do we really give them the value and the support they need to do their jobs?
In the first instance, we should all ask ourselves tough questions about the way in which we treat educators, especially if we are parents with school-age children, or priests with a connection to a local school.
Do we treat our educators as people to whom we have entrusted a sacred duty? Or do we regard them as “suppliers” from whom we, “the customer”, can make whatever demands we like?
Shockingly, some teachers are bullied via WhatsApp groups by parents who blame teachers for all the failings of their children — never taking any responsibility themselves.
There is a growing tendency, especially among the comfortable middle classes, to treat teaching as a second-division profession — something graduates do if they cannot be “real professionals” (like doctors or lawyers or accountants). And the pity extended is even worse if someone should choose to be a primary-level educator.
We often fall into the trap of regarding the key foundations of reading, arithmetic and social behaviour as somehow less important than higher-level maths.
All of us have a role to play in making sure that teaching is regarded once more as the most honoured of professions, rewarded in financial terms but also in terms of status and trust.
But there is also an important responsibility for those who run our schools — the principals, the boards of governors, the owners and bishops, and the communities in which schools operate. This is the need to ensure that our teachers are equipped to do the critical task we lay on their shoulders.
This does not mean only the task of handing on the mysteries of calculus, explaining the complexity of South African history, or helping a child write in a way that someone else can actually read, but to ensure that they have the skills to form young people as evolved, sensitive, selfless, active citizens.
In the same way that teachers cannot hand on technical skills they have not learnt, they cannot be expected to hand on human skills they have not learnt and internalised.
We think fondly of an age when teachers in our Catholic schools had been to Catholic schools themselves, were influenced positively by the (usually women) religious who worked in those schools, went on to Catholic teacher-training colleges, and then returned to contribute to the system that had created them.
If this ever really happened, it no longer does and is unlikely to return. But that means we have to find other ways of forming our teachers, especially the younger ones. We can expect universities to have taught them the technical skills of how to teach their subjects, but we demand so much more than that from our educators.
We expect our schools to play a role in instilling values in the next generation. In fact, we increasingly rely on them to do the bulk of this when many parents are so busy, when extended families are too extended, and when the influence of the media is often instilling the wrong kind of values. But the educators in our schools need help if they are to fulfil this task.
What is more, our Catholic schools have a role even beyond educating the significant number of young South Africans they directly touch. They can continue being a beacon of what is possible in modern education — they can provide a counter to the public schools focused on bureaucratic targets or, on the other hand, private schools principally focused on commercial targets.
We have a unique opportunity in our network of Catholic schools to create a new generation of values-driven teachers who in turn will help us to mould future generations of values-driven leaders.
This is work already being done by the Catholic Institute of Education and the Catholic Schools Offices, but it needs the support of parents and clergy.
The opportunity we have is manifold: to attract young educators who have these values or aspire to have them; to encourage these values in the workplace and give teachers structured opportunities to develop them; to ensure that newer teachers are mentored by older teachers (active and retired, lay and religious) who have themselves lived these values; to reward the teachers who show that they live out these values, and to promote them in time to be the leaders of our schools.
But none of this will happen by accident or osmosis. It takes commitment, time and investment. We still have an opportunity to do this. If we do not act soon, it may be too late.