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A teacher is born, but a great teacher is made great by their students

Alex Tabisher says he believes that a teacher is born, but that a great teacher is made great by their charges, and sadly the country is haemorrhaging excellent educators. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Alex Tabisher says he believes that a teacher is born, but that a great teacher is made great by their charges, and sadly the country is haemorrhaging excellent educators. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Aug 19, 2021


One of the great joys of a lecturer’s life is preparing teachers for the day their charges go home and substitute “Daddy/Mommy says …” for the magical “My teachers say …” We stress that, when that time comes, the teachers must be sure that what they say is relevant.

May I start by saying that teachers do not always get it right. I could mention cases where many a teacher made dire and grim predictions for their learners and were proved to be completely wrong.

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Albert Einstein was told very early in his life (before he reached 7): “You will never amount to anything.”

Thomas Alva Edison, possibly the most prolific inventor of all, was reported by his teacher in kindergarten as being “too stupid to learn anything”.

So now we know that I am not batting for saints. My high school teachers in the 1950s switched me from woodwork in Std 9 (Grade 11) to maths because they wanted to up the school’s chances of scoring university exemptions.

Needless to say, I failed maths and my matric pass was based on five instead of six subjects. Fortunately, my language skills were stellar and the marks I obtained raised my average enough for me to pass. But only just.

It is my contention that the pupils themselves influence the performance levels of their tutors. In other words, a teacher is born, yes. But a great teacher is made great by his charges.

It’s not rocket science. You will recall that your best performances were for those teachers who “liked” you. Often it wasn’t about cognition, but empathy. Often the teacher’s caring turned you away from doing a wrong thing. In fact, even rejection from a teacher might be turned into a private incentive to prove him or her wrong.

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So the people for whom I am writing are under siege. They have always been. A bricklayer sees the results of his day’s work when the sun goes down. Not so the teacher. Work continues after the family-life chores and deep into the night so that they can prepare the learner properly and correctly the next day for the future with all its changes and unpredictable vicissitudes.

Be it known, then, that these poor creatures are not only risking being wrong sometimes, but their employers are too ready to slam them down. A change in attitude from the Education Department, both national and provincial, should become mandatory to improve the lot of our educators.

Teachers should be in the higher areas of remuneration, not reduced to mendicants who fulfil so many roles and yet earn a pittance.

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May I close with a reality bite. Schools are impossible situations for various reasons which I will not posit. But teachers who express a wish for early retirement are told that they will forfeit a percentage of every cent ever paid to them as salary. This is departmental policy. It is a disgrace.

Performance indicators should be the yardstick. Many teachers are burnout cases because the authorities make a policy of throwing them under the bus in a profession that requires skill, bravery, faith, conviction, dedication, commitment. And even those who attempt to improve their qualifications are given one-off payments instead of appropriate fiscal recognition.

Wake up, South Africa. We are haemorrhaging excellent educators. We cannot afford the brain drain. Treat our teachers with the love, empathy and respect that is due to them. They are up there with the doctors and professors. They are not only moulding the future, they are able to ensure that it is good. They can guarantee that we eventually produce one president who is willing to take responsibility for the mess we are in.

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* Literally Yours is a weekly column from Cape Argus reader Alex Tabisher. He can be contacted on email by [email protected]

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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