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07 May 2014

Re-envisioning Research on Teachers’ Work in South Africa By Nyna Amin & Rubby Dhunpath

By Nyna Amin & Rubby Dhunpath, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the scenario of relative certainty in education has changed to chronic instability.

SA.flagApproximately twenty five years ago, teaching in South Africa was a relatively stable profession. Teachers were trained with the certainty of knowing exactly what was required, who was being taught, what knowledge and skills mattered, what policies were in operation and how the system functioned. They went into schools, and knew the kinds of work that they were expected to perform. In post-apartheid South Africa, the scenario of relative certainty in education has changed to chronic instability. Political machination has disturbed historical practices and many teachers continue to compare what was then to what is now. Nostalgia about the past has resulted in a teaching corps that is unhappy, unsure, and lacking confidence, partly because it is difficult to cope with change, but more likely, because the workplace, roles, and functions have been subverted and reconstituted, causing alienation with the profession, and the rupturing of teacher identities.

Over time, and with changes in the political landscape, how teachers’ work is conceptualized, activated and performed has also changed. Indeed, their roles have been re-scripted to coincide with frequently changing curriculum policies, political incoherence, and lofty community expectations. The cumulative impact is uncertainty about the nature of teachers’ work: what Morrow (2007) refers to as the material elements of teachers’ work which cannot be explicitly described. Similarly, in relation to skills and knowledge, Eraut (1994) used the iceberg metaphor to convey the idea that tacit knowledge is not readily available and visible; what lies beneath is larger and, perhaps, more important than that which is explicit.

Education is in a “toxic” state

An unforgiving state of education in most parts of South Africa is, undoubtedly, also part of the problem relating to the emergence of scathing descriptions of teachers and the work they do. In the words of Bloch (2010) education is in a “toxic” state. The problems are both structural and systemic. Many attempts have been made, including a policy fetish driving incessant curriculum restructuring and a plethora of teacher development programmes, to improve teaching and learning in schools. These have had limited success in scattered pockets and, in other instances, existing complexities and complications are deepening. Teachers are crucial to a functional system and there is much evidence that those who work in schools are unhappy, resulting in unacceptable attrition rates of early career teachers (Pitsoe & Machaisa, 2012).

The challenge is how to prepare teachers for the complexities and challenges they face in an educational landscape that has increased teachers’ work in the classroom without a concomitant increase in levels of fulfilment or discernible impact on student success. The new performativity discourse presumes a linear relationship between well-established educational infrastructure, professionally trained teachers and quality of outcomes. It does not take into account the different levels of complexity in which new policies emerge in postcolonial societies. It also does not adequately account for the unequal educational contexts that South Africa inherited from apartheid (Amin & Ramrathan 2009).

A myriad of quality enhancement interventions and evaluations sponsored by the State, NGOs and Corporates have failed to interrupt the cycle of underperformance. Consistently, these initiatives have reinforced with sickening regularity, a familiar deficit discourse without illuminating the conditions and prescripts for vestiges of functionality. What we know about teachers’ work is crafted and framed within this deficit discourse. We endeavor to understand academic excellence by researching student failure. We lavish valuable resources and intellectual energy on studying dysfunctional educational contexts with the naïve optimism that the gaze will provide answers to what works.

We cannot and should not abandon the gaze on dysfunctionality, but we desperately need to shift the gaze to researching exceptionality (e.g. see  Dhunpath, 2013, 2014; Munro, 2014) – to those institutions that have triumphed against historical disadvantage and contextual impediments – not to romanticize and glorify the exceptional, but to expose teachers to alternative realities and new opportunities – to turn the pervasive pedagogy of despair to a pedagogy of possibility.

A redefined gaze also means that teachers can no longer be passive subjects of enquiry. They have to become active participants in and of their enquiry in ways that make them relevant, coherent with the shifting landscape of education, imbued with competencies to cope with uncertainty, complexity and diversity. Research on teachers’ work can longer be an intellectual curiosity and the preserve of academics and researchers. Research institutes and agencies that conceptualise and fund empirical work on teachers and teaching environments would do well to concede this and embrace it as an imperative.


Dhunpath, R.  (2013) Promoting and sustaining the scholarship of teaching & learning in emerging economies. Keynote address at the Mauritius Institute of Education: Mauritius

Dhunpath, R. (2014) De-mythologizing student success:  De-pathologising student failure. Emerging Ideas Presentation at the Achieving the Dream Convention: Orlando, USA.

Eraut, Michael. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. Falmer: London.

Munro, N. (2014) Exceptional academic achievement in South African higher education, Unpublished PhD thesis, School of Education, University of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.


Nyna Amin is a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), South Africa. Email:

Rubby Dhunpath is the current Director of Teaching & Learning at UKZN. Email:


This blog is based on an article in NORRAG News 50 on ‘The Global Politics of Teaching and Learning: The Real Story of Educational Cultures and Contexts’ – available free at in May 2014. 

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