South Africa has a dire shortage of unicorns.

We have become somewhat accustomed to a regular news item or two about the shortage of teachers in South Africa. The focus has shifted somewhat over the last five years to teacher shortages in key subject areas, but a prevailing impression remains in the public psyche that we are drastically short of teachers.

Even more importantly, there is a common misconception that there is a dearth of ‘committed’ teachers: for various reasons, which I won’t explore here, the average citizen seems to believe that the committed variety are the minority. There is no tonic for this false impression but to spend a week in a classroom, whereupon it becomes very quickly obvious that to simply go to work on a daily basis in a school is to be committed.

This is not a defense of dereliction of duty on the part of teachers. There are some who are not meeting the basic expectations of the job. But there is an excessive focus on this minority as the only alternative to the other type of teacher that the public loves to laud: The Dedicated Teacher.

I really want to highlight the absurdity around some public notions of what constitutes “a Dedicated Teacher”. Take, for example, the teacher nominated for the National Teacher Award in this IOL article. That she is committed to her work cannot be doubted, but I would like to sound a word of caution about celebrating this type of intense single-mindedness as the definition of ‘dedication’. This is not a sleight to the specific teacher in mind. I applaud her work, but I want to emphasise that I applaud those of other teachers too who do not meet the ‘requirements’ of dedication highlighted in the article.

In this particular case, it is clear that the teacher has no family of her own. This is not uncommon: many of the ‘amazing teachers’ that have been recommended for awards are single, child-free and without dependents. In my own experience, teaching is often highly _incompatible_ with healthy intimate relationships or parenting. Many teachers marry other teachers because the work is so all-absorbing that anyone else just can’t stand the constant school talk or the 60-70 hour weeks during term time during which the poor sod holding the fort at home feels more like a singleton than a happy partner in a fair relationship.

The teacher in the article is also at work at 6:30 in the morning, and clearly working extremely long hours. She has never missed a day of work in 10 years.

I would like to ask you, reader, how you would feel if this were the standard to which you were compared when your dedication to your job was being evaluated. You need to be at work at 6:30 in the morning. And you may not be sick. Ever. Even when exposed to hundreds of children who are still learning the basics of personal hygiene. Never mind the ethical quandary of coming to a place filled with children when you are sick.

Let me assure you there is nothing worse than being sick as a teacher: it involves MORE work to set cover for the lessons you miss than actually teaching them. You sit in bed, surrounded by snotty tissues (or a bucket, depending on your malady) laptop in hand, firing off emails to colleagues who are all pretty pissed that they have to take your classes in any free periods they might have had. All topped with dollops of guilt.

Unfortunately we are often constructing the idea that being anything less that a super-hero-machine-of-a-teacher means belonging to that “other” group… the “Slacker Teacher” group. Daily, teaching work involves: stomaching abuse of various forms from your pupils; excessive paper work and marking load; and a gargantuan effort to hold the attention of 30 involuntarily present, highly energetic young people for 6 hours a day. It is quite something that the public imagination seems to frame teaching as ‘easy’.

By my own experience, contact time (i.e. lessons) are approximately 40-50% of a teacher’s workload. This has been affirmed again and again through observing other teachers. In addition, South Africa is exceptional in that there is _no_ allowance in the school day for any of the other duties of a post level 1 teacher. If 27,5 hours are in the curriculum, you could teach 27,5 hours a week, depending on your schools staff complement. Simple needs such as going to the bathroom or getting food or water become serious challenges. Many teachers explicitly stop taking on fluids to reduce their need to urinate. My students used to ask if I was pregnant, I was so bloated from needing to pee.

Teacher meme-no time to chama


    teacher meme-no time to eat

If in doubt about the prevalence of the expectation that good teachers must be super-human, self-sacrificing martyrs, keep an eye out for the following meme on social media on the 4-5th of October, dates which have been nominated as “World Teacher Day”.

Teacher candle 1 teacher candle 2

This idea is not only absurd, but deeply, deeply disturbing (I mean, what’s with the empty-headed kids?). It is also ubiquitous in discourses about schools, from parental expectations to policy. And we are paying for it in our teacher turnover rates. A significant number of teachers worldwide do not make it past their first year of teaching. Within the first 4 years, almost half have left. I have had seasoned successful business people in their 50s come to me in their first year of teaching, shaking their heads in disbelief saying “I have never worked so hard in my entire life as I am right now.”

What type of an example do such teachers, whose zeal for work precludes everything else in their life, set for their students? Their actions say “no boundaries, take all”. There’s no emulation of work-life balance. The teacher never says “no”. There’s no respect for that person as a person, with human needs, wants and rights. They are just a machine, a bottomless fountain that gives and gives and gives. That is not healthy. And we shouldn’t be valorizing it.

If we want to staff our schools with competent, committed, qualified, real people, this image of who teachers should be must be replaced with something a lot more nuanced, sustainable and fair.

However, if we continue to expect teachers to sacrifice their all to their work, forsaking family, health and life, then yes: we will continue to have a shortage of unicorns to staff our schools.

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I'm a mathematics teacher currently working in the area of teacher development at the University of Cape Town. I've an interest in language in education, education policy and sociology and general ideas around equity and adequacy in public primary and secondary schooling in South Africa and other developing contexts. I'm currently doing my PhD at UCT. When not thinking, reading and writing about education issues, or working with teachers, I can normally be found either somewhere on the slopes of Table Mountain with my dog, or behind a piano.

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