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25th May 2017
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Black teachers in white spaces

Given the history of the country, hiring black teachers in former white schools should be par for the course, not an anomaly. Photo: Oupa Nkosi.

Xolani Majola

I want to preface this by saying that race is a very sensitive subject matter in the South African educational space. Very often when you talk about why schools need to transform, a lot of people equate the discussion with quotas and lowering of standards. In some cases, it is both black and white parents who express such fears at the mention of black professional staff.

Teaching beyond your mother tongue

Schools differ; there are those that are progressive, and regard black staff in the same way as other staff members in the school. Such schools are not afraid to share out teaching responsibilities to black teachers by allowing them to teach various subjects outside of their language abilities.

In contrast, conservative schools tend to hire black teachers based on language. A black teacher is hired to be an indigenous language specialist, even though the said teacher is a fully-fledged educator, capable of teaching multiple subjects, including their specialisation in the phase. Reducing them to mere teachers of their mother tongue denies them the opportunity to teach confidently and be experienced differently by the learners.

Ambivalence

I remember that my first teaching post was held in a private school that chose to hire me based on my expertise as a teacher, not a Zulu teacher. I became their first grade teacher and taught successfully throughout the seven years I spent at the school. At first, the whole parent body was slightly ambivalent about the prospect of having a black teacher teaching the whole grade. What the school had before was a Zulu specialist, who was an old, retired teacher, teaching on a voluntary basis.

Taking bold steps

It was clear from the onset that the kids were enjoying my lessons because of my teaching, not my skin tone. They got an opportunity to experience something different, and my race was an obvious factor, but not as much as my teaching methodologies were.

The best way to deal with diversity is to make the bold first step and never look back. In my case, my principal Alan Stuart was very bold in deciding to hire me as a full grade teacher. He expressed confidence in my skills, and in turn this boosted my self-esteem and allowed me to extend myself when I worked.

Stereotypes

There are many benefits associated with a diverse teaching team. It indirectly sends a deep message that disproves the stereotype that knowledge is race-based. It further dismisses the notion that schools should compartmentalise talent; creativity and excellence are phenomena that can be found anywhere, and in anyone. Schools as places of learning should resist the common temptation to use stereotypes as a measure of one’s capabilities. They should follow educational values and protocols that encourage diversity of thought and skill.

Demographics

In the South African context, we battle with race and racism almost daily, and stereotyping is the staple fare for bigots. Thus, if you took a closer look at both private and public schools’ diversity profiles, you’ll find that the number of black teachers in these spaces is shockingly low. This makes you wonder about many things. Firstly, this country is 80% black, and therefore the demographics of schools should reflect this reality. What is even more shocking is realising that in schools where the majority of learners are black, you also find staff diversity profiles that are disappointing. What does this mean?

Struggling with adjustment

On the obvious front, it means predominantly white institutions have not yet developed the desire to hire black staff. They use any form of verbal gymnastics to defend and protect the status quo. In other words, they’re not prepared to change, even though schools are meant to prepare learners for the future. The reality is, upon leaving school, white learners will be faced with the stark reality of being taught by black lecturers at university; having to report to black managers at work; and at a social level, having to interact with black people daily. If learners are not prepared for this, then they may struggle with adjustment and find it easy to revert to old ways and stereotypes.

High standards

It could also genuinely mean that schools have tried looking for suitable black talent and failed to find matching expertise. Some schools have set very high standards for themselves, so using a quota as the only means to address diversity is bound to fail on two counts: that of the hired employee, and the general attitude of the whole school towards the appointment.

Gift of diversity

Schools are a microcosm of the general society in which they exist. They carry the responsibility to advance society and help build bridges where none existed. Diversity requires that the leadership and management of the school be extremely innovative and realistic. They need to be visionary and exceptional in their understanding and anticipation of the future. These should be extraordinary men and women, who understand the gift of diversity and its enhancing capabilities.

Investing in internship

School leadership first needs to begin an uncomfortable but necessary dialogue on diversity. This is usually hard and requires sensitivity, but it is a conversation worth having nonetheless. Every stakeholder in the school needs to be engaged in the initial discussions on the need to change. Once a consensus has been reached then the school can decide how they will diversify. There’s the option of looking for an already qualified teacher or perhaps investing their money on an internship. A qualified teacher is expected to start right away, while an intern is more of an investment. The biggest advantage with the intern is that they can be moulded to the school’s values, while a fully-fledged teacher may take longer to re-adjust.

In a changing South Africa, there’s no doubt about the importance of maintaining a good diversity profile for your school. Frankly speaking, hiring black teachers in white schools should become the norm, rather than being an exception.

Xolani Majola (MEd) works for the Global Teachers Institute

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