Durban - Teaching young children is complex and challenging, and requires laying solid foundations for literacy, mathematics and language learning. It needs dedicated, well-educated teachers, along with mechanisms and resources to support them.
The foundation phase in South Africa, where we conduct some of our research and educate future teachers, includes Grades R (reception year) through to Grade 3 - six to nine year olds.
South Africa has a problem: The status of foundation phase teachers is very low. Many believe these teachers are basically childminders. This implies that anyone can do it and that one doesn’t need intellect or cognitively demanding university-level education to become such a teacher. What is especially worrying is that some student teachers believe this to be true. Research conducted among our students shows that such teachers are not taken seriously.
Some of our experiences in running a “teaching school” at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus suggest that it’s possible to turn these misconceptions around and boost foundation phase teachers’ status. In some high performing education systems, such as Finland’s, being a primary school teacher is a highly esteemed career choice. It enjoys equal status with law and medicine.
We conducted research with 238 student teachers in two cohorts, at the beginning of each academic year in 2010 and 2011. The students were asked why they chose to become foundation phase teachers. We also asked what they thought of such teachers when they were in high school and what their family and friends said about them. Their comments were enlightening.
Most told us that family and friends were often surprised that they were thinking about foundation phase teaching as a career. This was particularly true if they were perceived as “bright students”. Teaching in general is not seen as an ideal career choice. But foundation phase teaching in particular seems to be very poorly regarded.
Those who express interest in pursuing it are often bombarded with negative messages. For instance, one student told us: "The public looks down on foundation phase teachers. They think that it’s a low-class profession. They don’t even believe you if you say you have to study for four years to become a foundation phase teacher."
Some students said they held similar views when they were at school.
"I thought a foundation phase teacher was a low-class teacher and they were not well educated. They teach young kids simple education and therefore don’t have to study hard and get a high-quality education."
This is completely contrary to the way in which primary school teachers are viewed in the world’s high performing education systems.
Finnish educational expert Pasi Sahlberg wrote: "Among young Finns, teaching is consistently the most admired profession in regular opinion polls of high school graduates. Becoming a primary school teacher in Finland is a very competitive process and only Finland’s best and brightest are able to fulfil those professional dreams."
Finnish teacher education is excellent and our faculty has learned from it, adapting some elements to the South African context. We and our colleagues have worked hard to raise the status of foundation phase teachers through advocacy, research and the teacher education programme on the university’s Soweto campus.
Theory and practical experience matter
The programme we’re involved in comprises cognitively demanding coursework, with a strong focus on child development studies. Student teachers are also required to do language, literacy and mathematics courses for three years. During their degree programme, they are placed in a variety of schools for practice teaching. Most of their practical experience is completed in the school located on the Soweto campus - a “teaching school”.
This allows an integration of coursework with practice periods at the school. It’s a model of teacher education that’s been used successfully in Finland since 1972. Our model drew from the Finnish example, but has been adapted to the South African context.
Research findings from a collaborative University of Johannesburg and University of Helsinki project show that students integrate effectively what they learn in university coursework with what they learn at the school, preparing them well for the world of the classroom.
At the teaching school, students also have continuous exposure to expert teachers and have models of powerful teaching to emulate. Many of the teachers, who serve as mentors for our student teachers, go on to pursue post-graduate studies. This also helps shift student teachers’ views of primary school teaching as a soft option and lowly career choice.
This all suggests that a great deal can be done to shift people’s perceptions of foundation phase teaching. Excellent teacher education is crucial, but there are other avenues that should be explored.
Champions are required
Strong advocacy is required from various segments of society. Also, excellent teaching practices in the foundation phase need to be highlighted in national forums with accompanying messages about the importance of this phase of schooling as the basis for future educational success.
Robust foundation phase teacher education programmes in which student teachers learn to become both producers and consumers of educational knowledge, particularly of child development, are needed. And more dedicated funding in the form of prestigious bursaries for this phase of schooling is required. This would attract more young people, especially those who are talented and academically strong, into this field of study.