Covid-19 and the introduction of digital online learning mean that teachers must not only manage the double task of teaching and learning, but also keeping young people motivated in and for a world we are all trying to understand . As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on October 5, perhaps we should reconsider and re-appreciate the enormity of what a teacher is.
Most South African teachers are familiar with what it means to teach in contexts of “abnormality”, insecurity and violence. They also know what it takes to function in times of crisis and assume roles and responsibilities that go well beyond the norms and standards of any education policy. The more these crises accumulate – poor infrastructure and resources, poor parental support, high student-teacher ratio, teenage pregnancies, racism, vandalism, service delivery protests leading to school closures, corrupt leadership and management, absenteeism learners and teachers, learning attrition (this piece of string really has no end), and more recently, Covid-19 – the greater the burden of responsibility on teachers.
For young people, the lack of cohesion in this world has not only disrupted the way they socialize and learn, but has also prevented them from grasping the kind of world they are learning towards. Teachers therefore not only have to deal with the double task of teaching and learning, but must also keep young people motivated in and for a world we are all trying to understand. As we celebrate World Teachers’ Day on October 5, perhaps we should reconsider and re-appreciate the enormity of what a teacher is.
Long before Covid-19 entered our lexicon, the start of digital teaching and learning had already been hailed as inevitable. Most of us would agree that tTechnology has become essential for acquiring skills, acquiring knowledge, working, playing and connect socially. We understand the need for thinking that depends on the algorithmic calculations of technology; that we can no longer rely solely on the traditional forms of the human imagination.
The lingering problem, however, is that we seemingly talk about this technological change and indispensableity as if all of our educational spaces are the same. We have these conversations in a decontextualized unconsciousness, even when we know that for For most South Africans, digital or distance learning is as much of an oxymoron as the idea of “physical” or “social” distancing in crowded homes and communities.
The truth is, despite their unprecedented advancements and capabilities, digital technologies have limits. I’m not just talking about the rise concerns about how these technologies, and the screens they are displayed on, can alter our brain circuits, erode our deep reading skills, memory and understanding, with implications for our physical and mental health. Nor am I speaking only of the clearly obvious schisms between historically favored and historically disadvantaged educational spaces, and therefore the irreconcilable lived experiences of the students who accompany them.
My own online screen carries me into uncomfortable intrusions into the uneven lives of my students. While some watch me from the confines of comfortable, well-equipped rooms, others clumsily lean over internet cafe counters – at least as long as their data lasts.
What particularly concerns me, however, are the effects of our growing reliance on digital technologies on the types of citizens we train, and what that means for education. Explicitly enough, an online learning community is stripped of the complexities implicit within any diverse group of people, thus raising inevitable questions about what kind of people we are meant to produce. In all respects, physical spaces provide us with the presence, signals and tensions necessary to cultivate engagement with difference and diversity.
The challenge is not only to maintain young people’s interest in particular subjects, but also to retain them and keep them motivated within the learning system. The world around us is not what it used to be; we drift from one wave of Covid to another. For young people, this uncertainty is compounded by the blurry realities of social isolation, accompanied only by a screen.
As teachers, it is no longer enough to pay attention to levels of attendance and participation. It is becoming increasingly evident that the absence of these physical cues requires a pedagogy of deeper awareness and intensity. Teachers who understand the demands of their profession recognize the importance of relationships for the development of learning. They recognize that how a student perceives and tackles a subject largely depends on the teacher. Teaching, after all, is a mutually responsive practice. A teacher who is not interested in his subject or his students will inevitably find a class of students even less interested.
If teaching relies heavily on pedagogical content and knowledge, it is the teacher’s attitude to his profession and to the students. which transforms teaching into a profession of influence. In short, this is where the How? ‘Or’ What education has immense precedence over What. Education must therefore respond not only to the needs and expectations of students, but also to the world around us.
What our current and somewhat strange world needs are teachers who can respond with sensitivity and care, while maintaining hope in those they teach. The fact that we are physically disconnected means that teachers need to place more emphasis not on connectivity, but on human connection as an expression of care and hope.
The influence of hope extends to the cultivation of positive teaching and learning experiences, regardless of contexts and noise. In fact, as is often the case, the more difficult the circumstances, the more hope is present.
Hope has the capacity to enable students to believe in themselves and to transcend their circumstances; it gives them the courage to look beyond what is immediately obvious. Teaching with Hope gives students the confidence that they have a right to their dreams, especially in contexts and times when those dreams are seemingly at risk.
Let us never forget that, whatever the crisis, being a teacher is always finding the light. Ultimately, teachers are remembered not for what they taught, but for how they made their students feel. In my opinion, there is no better criterion for citizenship than making others feel good about themselves. DM