Comment: Why South Africa will find it hard to break free from its vicious teaching cycle

There are standards that professionalise teaching and standards that simply manage teachers. While standards which professionalise create cultures of collegiality, expertise and pride among teachers, standards that manage can leave them feeling brow-beaten, untrusted, and demotivated.

Robinson, N. (2019). Why South Africa will find it hard to break free from its vicious teaching cycle. The Conversation.

While the article refers specifically to the primary and secondary teaching context in South Africa, the principles are relevant for a wide range of international higher education and professional contexts as well. The article differentiates between two types of standardisation; professionalisation and management.

Standards that aim to professionalise an activity invariably lead to virtuous cycles. From the article “…teaching [in Finland] is a prestigious and attractive profession which recruits the brightest and most motivated school graduates, who don’t require continual monitoring and oversight. Teachers instead enjoy professional autonomy; they are trusted in key decisions about their teaching and professional development.” You can easily see how this applies to any other profession as well when professionalisation standards are being applied i.e. the standards open up spaces and encourage autonomy as part of trusting relationships.

In contrast, management standards (especially when presented under the pretext of developing professionalism), can lead to vicious cycles. In these situations “…governments take it upon themselves to hold teachers accountable. Standards are used to manage teachers, and to protect students from the worst educators through supervisory surveillance and control. Invariably, the relationship between teacher unions and governments becomes antagonistic and generates feelings of fear and mistrust.” You can see how this could play out in the context of professional organisations tasked with developing cultures of professionalism. Instead of opening up spaces by trusting and supporting people who can make their own choices, organisations may use management standards that aim to close down space and control the people within them.

We need to ask if the standards we’re being asked to meet are aimed at developing cultures of professionalism, or whether they’re simply being used to manage us. One way of determining which standards are being used in your context is to ask how much autonomy you have to make decisions about the work you do.

Quote| Leading is risky business

“And every day you must decide whether to put your contribution out there, or keep it to yourself to avoid upsetting anyone, and get through another day. You are right to be cautious. Prudence is a virtue. You disturb people when you take unpopular initiatives in your community, put provocative new ideas on the table in your organization, question the gap between colleagues’ values and behavior, or ask friends and relatives to face up to tough realities. You risk people’s ire and make yourself vulnerable. Exercising leadership can get you into a lot of trouble. To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear—their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking—with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility. Moreover, leadership often means exceeding the authority you are given to tackle the challenge at hand. People push back when you disturb the personal and institutional equilibrium they know. And people resist in all kinds of creative and unexpected ways that can get you taken out of the game: pushed aside, undermined, or eliminated. It is no wonder that when the myriad opportunities to exercise leadership call, you often hesitate. Anyone who has stepped out on the line, leading part or all of an organization, a community, or a family, knows the personal and professional vulnerabilities. However gentle your style, however careful your strategy, however sure you may be that you are on the right track, leading is risky business.”

Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky: Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

I found the excerpt above on Gardner Campbell’s blog.

Assignments

Over the last week I’ve given my fourth year physiotherapy students 2 assignments to be completed over the next few months. Here is a basic rundown of each.

The first assignment is part of the continuous evaluation for the Management module I teach. The students must create a website for a (fictional) private physiotherapy practice. They’ll be using Google Sites as the platform, which seems to be the simplest approach that removes most of the barriers to creating sites for people with no experience in this regard. I wanted to make the technology as small a factor as possible, which I think Sites does quite nicely. The objectives for the students are that they should be better able to:

  • Identify relevant information that potential clients would need to find their practice
  • Identify and make use of professional guidelines on advertising and self-promotion
  • Learn new skills that will better prepare them for practice e.g. establishing an online presence using freely available tools
  • Be creative in how they present themselves and their practices

The second assignment is part of the Ethics and Human Rights in Health module that I teach. Students will use a wiki to explore the differences in community-based physiotherapy in South Africa (University of the Western Cape) and Ireland (Royal College of Surgeons), as part of an international collaborative project on Physiopedia. This assignment will focus on groupwork and collaborative learning, using the content as a framework on which to build a body of shared experiences. They will be working with Irish physiotherapy students to create short narratives on the different learning and practical experiences of stutdents working in both countries. The objectives (for our students) that they should be better able to:

  • Identify relevant sources of information to provide background to the narratives
  • Highlight the role of the physiotherapist in community-based healthcare settings
  • Explore and discuss some of the ethical and patient rights issues inherent in the South African healthcare system
  • Engage in dialogue with students who come from different backgrounds, cultures and socio-economic environments, acknowledging the perspectives of those who experience the world in different ways
  • Make effective use of technology to community with and share ideas with peers who are geographically dispersed
  • Participate in the peer review process, by commenting on the work of other groups

I’ll be reporting on the progress of the students as they work on these assignments, and will be making any findings available following their completion.