Laurence Wright

    Laurence Wright is Professor and Director in the Institute for the Study of English at Rhodes University. His research interests straddle South African language policy and language-in-education policy; the history of Shakespeare in South Africa and South African railway poetry. (l.wright@ru.ac.za)

    11 April 2010 saw the formation of a professional association of English teachers in the Eastern Cape. The Association, which has been two years in the planning, was launched at the ‘Networking’ conference hosted by the Institute for the Study of English in Africa (ISEA) at Rhodes University (9-11 April). Sponsored by the ZENEX Foundation, the conference brought together some 150 current and past students from the Institute’s ACE (ELT) and BEd programmes, together with district managers, subject advisors, and librarians to consider current challenges to effective English teaching and how best to surmount them. This article sets out to explore the need for such an association, and to consider the possible benefits it holds for members, for education management structures in the province and, indeed, for the nation. If the Eastern Cape has taken a lead in this regard, it may be worth teachers in other provinces considering the educational gains such organizations might offer in the struggle to improve the quality of education offered to our learners.

    A first point to consider is, Why provincial? Why not national? The Association grew out of small-scale research-based interventions first offered by the ISEA in the mid-nineties in cooperation with the Eastern Cape Provincial Government. These took the form of short 3-day courses, and they were astonishingly popular with teachers because they focused on professional development issues informed by sound educational theory. The teachers felt they were close to the cutting edge of educational thinking when they engaged with each other in this intellectually supportive context. They also felt able to share problems and difficulties, and explore remedies. In time these informal courses, which had to some extent acted as shock-absorbers mediating the complex transformations posed by the introduction of Curriculum 2005, developed into accredited in-service programmes, first an ACE in ELT, and later a fully-fledged BEd.

    From the outset, though, the policy was to involve provincial and departmental officials both as participants and students, and sometimes as professional contributors, in these initiatives. The gains achieved through such cooperation are substantial. First, the officials themselves experience the quality and depth of what is being offered to their educators and, secondly, they understand the perspectives and debates which are beginning to transform classroom practice. For the teachers, the advantage is that they are able to articulate their frustrations and suggest improvements, especially when the course focuses on issues of management and administration.  With the National Curriculum and its ancillary policy documents as the organizing principle underlying these accredited  programmes, even though they are also informed by a broad mix of current educational thinking and experience, the effect has been to create an intellectual forum within which the professionalization and transformation of educational practice can flourish.

    Finding systemic purchase

    There is a very sound reason for operating in partnership with provincial education authorities. Given the ISEA’s long-standing emphasis on substantial in-school support as integral to in-service teacher education – involving classroom observation, journalling, video-critique and discussion – the establishment of healthy professional relationships at district level, and between districts and the provincial department, becomes crucial to the educational turn-around being attempted. Educational interventions need to find systemic purchase right from the outset, if they are not to remain marginal and ephemeral.

    Fruitful networks of relationships normally thrive while the courses are in progress and while school visits, regional seminars and workshops are running as part of a common transformational trajectory. But come graduation, or completion (in the case of certificate courses), the bonds of friendship and intellectual cooperation which have been forged are in grave danger of atrophying, as students and departmental officials move beyond formal study unsupported, and into the embalming routines of the school year. The intellectual stimulation provided by formal tuition subsides.

    This is where the establishment of a permanent forum to nurture ongoing professional development becomes critical. At the very least, such forums support the transfer of learning and research from the tertiary sector to schools. But they can do much more. They can enhance teacher morale, boost flagging energies, encourage innovative and reflective practice, and improve functional and emotional linkage between administrators and the classroom.  They are powerful contributions to the well-being of education systems.

    Establishing these professional forums needs to proceed with great sensitivity.  Introducing the innovation is not something that rightly belongs with teacher education institutions, or with education departments, though they can encourage and guide the process. The successful establishment of a professional association belongs with the educators themselves, as a resource to affirm and refresh their professional culture in terms of academic substance and procedural effectiveness. Ownership of the process and membership in such an association validates teachers’ role in society and provides a rich developmental avenue which, if used to its fullest potential, can ensure the revitalization and maturation of the knowledge, skills and attitudes essential to effective teaching.

    Why discipline-based?

    The decision to form a disciplinary association at provincial level, rather than a non-specialist professional association, has to do with the transformative aims of such associations. The unique combination of English teachers, district officials, departmental managers, librarians and tertiary education specialists allows the focus to fall squarely on enhancing educational performance in a specific subject area. And it is common cause that English is a critical subject area, if not the critical subject area, because of the widespread dependence of other subjects on good language performance in English. An undercurrent of debate within the movement which has led to the formation of the Eastern Cape English Educators Association (ECEEA), from its inception, has been the wisdom of broadening the scope of the association to cover language education as a whole, and not just English. There is much to be said for efforts to harmonize the very different conceptions of language education current among teachers of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa language. The tentative short courses offered by ISEA more than fifteen years ago were, even in those days, facilitated in Afrikaans, English, Sotho and Xhosa, with core modules delivered in English. Staff members became very familiar with the divergent approaches to language and literature teaching characteristic of teachers who had been trained under apartheid in English, Afrikaans, or African languages. These differences still prevail today, seemingly because there is small prospect of radical and widespread re-education for these teachers having the priority it should in national thinking. On purely pragmatic grounds, therefore, it was decided to concentrate on the English subject area, while offering every support to educators in other languages. It has already been proposed to the incoming Provincial Council that the biennial conferences to be hosted by the Association should be open to all language teachers. So membership in the Association will be growing on two fronts: first, membership in the Association is open to all English teachers; secondly there is the possibility of teachers of other languages joining. In fact, the Association is open to all those willing to abide by its constitution whatever language they teach, with the intention that, down the line, the scope of the Association may broaden to cover the full field of language education. Once again, the guideline followed in conceptualizing the Association has been to put in place something that will make a positive and sustainable difference in Eastern Cape classrooms. ECEEA is not a political organization and it has not come into being to fluff the professional self-esteem of teachers apart from their role in the classroom. It is wholly dedicated to improving the quality of the educational outcomes in the English language classroom and also, by implication, those other subject areas which rely upon appropriate English competence in their learners.

    Other provinces?

    If the rationale presented in this short article is cogent, one implication might be that other provinces should consider following suit. The route to the eventual launch of a provincial association is arduous and probably lengthy if it is to be successful. But the potential gains, which have been outlined above, are substantial. It would not be an exaggeration to urge that successful educational transformation cannot omit this important activity, because there is no substitute available. Large national organizations, which concentrate on lofty conferences attended by thousands of educators are not aiming at the same effect. They have their place. But educational renovation comes from the hard work of committed professionals working in classrooms, supporting each other intellectually and emotionally, and from the efforts of those ancillary professionals who can in turn support them in intelligent and reliable ways. This is the arena of activity a thriving discipline-based provincial association aims to address, because this is the arena which makes education happen.

    A colleague, Dr Eva Yerende, Visiting Senior Fellow in the ISEA, drew my attention to a list of practical suggestions for creating an English association published recently in the English Teaching Forum (48.1,2010). The list was compiled by English teachers planning a Senegalese association. Here are some of the suggestions, adapted slightly to speak to local conditions (and I offer them in hope!):

    • Start small
    • Set objectives that can be reached
    • Reach out to new colleagues – get them involved!
    • Find resource persons, such as senior or retired professionals
    • Set up district and local branches
    • Encourage local plans and initiatives
    • Make activities visible to all by publishing a newsletter
    • Cooperate with provincial education authorities, in partnerships where possible
    • Establish good working relations with teacher education institutions
    • Make professional development the main objective so that teachers know they get something worthwhile from the association
    • Encourage professional networking, including social interaction, at all levels within the province.

    Categories: Issue I