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'Teaching isn't a skill to be mastered or a science to be reduced to a formula, teaching is an art to be loved', says Dr Vusi Shongwe

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Published Nov 8, 2021


By Dr Vusi Shongwe

Dear compatriots, 25 years ago, in my previous life as lecturer of history at the University of Zululand, I read an address which was delivered in 1982 by D Bruce Lockerbie.

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The address was titled: “Teaching Who We Are: Excellence and Genuine Humility”. I find the address still, if not more relevant, today, as it was when it was delivered in 1982.

Kindly allow me to share with you verbatim some of the salient points of the address. Educators are humbly encouraged to read the address.

There's a story about a chicken and a pig who were passing a church, when they noticed the signboard and its weekly message: “What have you given to God today?”

The chicken looked at the pig, the pig looked at the chicken, and each acknowledged how it had been a long time since either one of them had given God anything.

“Pig,” said the chicken, “I think we ought to mend our ways”

“I agree,” said the pig, “What exactly do you have in mind?”

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The chicken thought for a moment, then said, “Pig, you and I ought to give God a plate of ham and eggs.”

“You can't be serious!” replied the pig.

“Why not?” said the chicken, offended that his suggestion had been rebuffed. “Don't you think God would be pleased by our offering?”

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“That's the point,” the pig retorted, “What for you may be a token, for me is total commitment.”

There seems to be a lot of poultry and pork in our society today, even among educators. Some of us are ready to admit that we haven't necessarily been paragons in the profession; we've barely paid our dues, let’s say. Call it a guilt trip, if you will, brought by reading too many letters to the editor in Newsday, or call it an instance of consciousness raising, if you prefer that jargon.

In any case, let’s grant that there are many teachers and administrators– most of them at least as sincere as we are! – who sense the need for a fresh start. Call it rejuvenation or being born again, these educators (perhaps you’re one of them) are just a little cautious, just a little gun-shy, of speakers like me with topics like mine.

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You’ve grown weary of pep talk and wary of platitudes. Like the pig in the story, you understand fully the difference between ʺa token offering" and ʺtotal commitment”. You know that the cost of total commitment to becoming and being a teacher means nothing less than life itself. And you wonder if it’s worth the cost.

Our vocation as teachers, as educators, is hard work, and as such deserves at least the same dignity afforded to other and more visible labourers. But teaching is no mere job for wages, no mere employment; teaching is far more than a career, far more than a profession, even in the best sense of that word.

Teaching is a calling, a high calling, and no one called to teach can ever do so without remaining – again, in the best sense of the word – an amateur, someone who participates not for the money but for the love of teaching.

Teaching isn't a skill to be mastered or a science to be reduced to a formula, rather, teaching is an art to be loved. The renowned scholar Gilbert Highet has written a book called The Art of Teaching, which he explains why teaching is an art: “Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are quite outside the grasp of science ... Teaching is not like inducing a chemical reaction; it is much more like painting a picture or making a piece of music, or on a lower level like planting a garden or writing a friendly letter. You must throw your heart into it.

“But,” I hear somebody in the back now saying, “that’s sheer idealism.”

You're right! Of course it’s idealism, because teachers, at least since Socrates, have always held up an ideal pattern for their students to emulate.

We might as well get directly to the heart of the matter: it will cost time and money, and since “time is money”, let’s just say it will cost you money! There used to be an old canard thrown in the faces of teachers, that those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. Someone has added, “Those who can’t teach, teach education courses”, but that’s the unkindest cut of all.

Today, we should all take pride in the fact that we are teachers, not because there’s nothing else we might have been able to do to put bread on the table, but because we’ve chosen to be teachers. At the same time, we recognise that, in the economy of things, we’ll never be rich from our teaching.

There are too many cynics in this world, and all of them need a heavy dose of Pepto-Bismol – or maybe castor oil! To those of you whose ideals are still untarnished, let me say that the personal sacrifice needed to turn teaching from a job into a vocation is worth it all if, just once, you see a child grow from your classroom into a responsible adult – humane, caring, and dependable because of your influence.

One of the wisest men who ever lived, Desiderius Erasmus, writing in the early 16th century, gave us this encouragement: “To be a schoolmaster is next to being a king. Do you count it lowly employment to imbue the minds of young people with the love of Christ and the best of literature, and to return them to their country honest and virtuous men? In the opinion of fools it is a humble task, but in fact it is the noblest of occupations.”

That's what you've been called to, the noblest of occupations, and a teacher. But it takes time to acquire this confidence. To our beginning teachers at Stoney Brook, I always say, “Don't give up on teaching until you’ve had the opportunity on some Alumni Day to see one of your former students, now a young person grow up.” I always add, “Don’t give up too soon.”

I’m not interested in the business of acquiring sheer knowledge. It’s not information, data, or facts alone I seek and try to convey; it’s wisdom in dealing with nature and humane nature. I’m not as interested in dispensing knowledge on how to make a living as I am helping young people learn how to make a life.

One of the things about teaching at The Stony Brook School that means most to me is our insistence on the validity of our school motto, “Character before Career”. It's not a particularly popular theme nowadays, but still rings true. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but a lot of knowledge without character means disaster; for such knowledge lacks wisdom, without which we human beings are mere brutes.

So what matters, then, is not just commitment to learning but to learning wisdom; learning how to differentiate the genuine from the fraudulent, the worthwhile from the merely gaudy, the lasting from the transitory. As we learn, we do well to recall Geoffrey Chaucer’s description of the young scholar and teacher from Oxford: “... and gladly would he learn and gladly teach”.

I believe the entire syllabus of most courses in Methods of Education could be summed up in those seven words, for here is the only model for pedagogy that works unfailingly: Glad learners make glad teachers. To this, the corollary may be added: No one teaches well what has brought him no joy in learning.

Why are classrooms so often places of dismal drudgery? The fact that the paint is peeling or the textbooks are old? I’m afraid our schools are like prisons and our teachers must act as wardens and guards because the joy of learning isn't being transmitted as part of the joy of teaching. For when we stop finding joy in learning more about our art or science or discipline or sport, we have lost the source of any and all joy in teaching. We're already over the hill, and our students are the first to know.

Wherever we turn in our society today, we hear the cry for wholeness. Education has been compartmentalised and departmentalised into pigeonholes and cubicles, little areas of knowledge cut off from each other and from the full resources of all that may be known. We are fast becoming a civilisation of specialists restricted to seeing their tiny place in the universe in isolation from everyone else.

Some years ago, Robert Maynard wrote, “the crucial error (in education) is that of holding that nothing is any more important than anything else; so the course of study goes to pieces because there is nothing to hold it together”. Aldous Huxley, the author of 1984 and Brave New World, described the young graduates of his day this way: “They come out into the world, highly expert in their particular job, but knowing very little about anything else and having no integrating principle in terms of which they can arrange and give significance to such knowledge as they may subsequently acquire.”

The paradox of our vocation is this: We are both learning and teaching, and when we stop learning, we lose the power to teach. Because learning is so important, we treasure the value of questions, especially the question “Why?” We come gradually to realise that, while there may be ignorant and even insincere answers, there is rarely such a thing as a stupid question. We respect the inquiring mind. We shun any suggestion of our own intellectual superiority, remembering the saying of John Amos Comenius, the father of modern education, who wrote, “God does not call us to heaven asking us smart questions. It is more profitable to know things humbly than to know them proudly.” ( Call it humility – my (Shongwe) emphasis.)

I encourage you to commit yourself totally to teaching; but most important, we need teachers willing to make a total commitment to people. WC Fields is alleged to have answered the question, “How do you like children?” with these words: “Well cooked”. No one, no matter how humane, can stand to be in the presence of adolescents 24 hours a day, but if you propose to be a teacher, it helps to like kids. We don’t teach maths or science, physical education or grammar. We teach algebra to human beings, physics to people, gymnastics to individual teenagers, the parts of speech to girls and boys.

The British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead wrote, “Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness”.

Speaking to a classroom of children, the great African-American poet Maya Angelou ended her little talk by saying: “When I look at you. I see who I was. When you look at me, I hope you see who you can become.”

Compatriots, if this address, does not resonate with our situation, then my teachers wasted their time teaching me.

We thank God that we are counted among those from His list He felt that we should wake up today.


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