Educators worried about 'celebrity teachers' programme

17 April 2020 - 12:51
By Deepika Naidoo
While schools remain closed during the lockdown, teachers are concerned about the The Reading Room programme using celebrities to encourage pupils to learn at home.
Image: 123RF/paylessimages While schools remain closed during the lockdown, teachers are concerned about the The Reading Room programme using celebrities to encourage pupils to learn at home.

Teachers have expressed concern about an education department plan to hire celebrities to be part of a teaching programme, saying it would be difficult to explain mistakes to their students.

Debate has been raging on social media about the reading programme which involves famous faces including Somizi, Pearl Modiade and Penny Lebyane.

According to a statement released by the basic education department, the programme, called The Reading Club and an initiative of the non-profit Africa Teen Geeks, is a literacy campaign in which South African celebrities use the Zoom platform to support students with learning during the nationwide shutdown.

The department said this was not part of formal schooling but rather an initiative to encourage pupils to learn from home.

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However, the drive has received a backlash online. After many videos of the “informal classrooms” were posted to the site, people criticised the celebrities involved, stating there were many inaccuracies.

It prompted the creation of the #CelebritiesAreNotTeachers tag where complaints were aired about the initiative. Many teachers used the hashtag to express their concerns about the effectiveness of the programme.

Among the complaints were that celebrity Mohale Motaung was teaching English grammar to grade 11 pupils and had mixed up grammatical terms by teaching adverbs as adjectives and verbs as nouns.

He apparently used the example of “quickly” as an adjective in the sentence “I am sitting quickly”.

Another claimed error was that Modiade read stories to grade R pupils but used vocabulary six-year-old children would not use, including  the word “illustration” and terms like “reading material”, and, in effect, was not reading for grade Rs but for adults.

Pamela Nkosi, 35, a primary school teacher in Mkhondo, Mpumalanga, felt there were many learning stumbling blocks for her pupils during the lockdown.

Nkosi said she felt helpless at home and unable to teach her pupils.

“I teach in a farm school. I wish I could help my students. There’s nothing I can do as most don’t have access to the internet or a radio. Even if they had cellphones they wouldn't  have network,” said Nkosi.

She said she wasn’t too concerned about The Reading Club until she watched the videos. She believes celebrities leave an impression on children and it will be hard for them to unlearn mistakes made in the videos.

“The pupils are going to learn these mistakes. If a celebrity tells them something important, it is going to stick in their minds. It’s going to be hard for teachers to help these children unlearn the mistakes made by the celebrities,” said Nkosi.

Nolizwi Sibisi, 24, a recently graduated and unemployed English and business studies teacher from Newcastle, KwaZulu-Natal, said she has been frustrated and disappointed since she heard about The Reading Room programme. While she struggles to find employment, she believes the programme undermines her qualifications as a teacher.

“I saw the video of a certain celebrity teaching English and, as an English teacher, I felt insulted. Teaching without the necessary training is most likely not as effective as expected. There is nothing wrong with using celebrities to draw attention to the campaign but the teaching should be left to the professionals,” said Sibisi.

Not all teachers' unions were aware of or involved in the planning of the programme.

The SA Council for Educators (Sace) worked with Africa Teen Geeks on the  initiative,  but  unions like the SA Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) claim to have had no involvement in The Reading Room.

Sadtu lambasted the department on Twitter, saying  the union was not consulted about the programme.

“We totally reject any plan that seeks to undermine the teaching profession,” said Sadtu.

Sibisi said although the teachers' unions do protect teachers' rights in times like this, there is not much she can do as someone who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to be a teacher.

“I have not taken this issue to any union as I have not joined any of them. As an unemployed graduate, there is only so much we can do as our cries are in vain,” said Sibisi.

Rethabile Potsane, a post-graduate in inclusive education living in Johannesburg, said she was unnerved by The Reading Room programme. She believes that although online teaching aids are beneficial for teachers and pupils, the teaching profession is being undermined by this particular programme.

“When I first heard about the campaign, I was very anxious and concerned. I trust the department knows what initiative it is endorsing. It feels as though the more qualifications one will obtain, the more they will be overlooked,” said Potsane.

She said teaching was a skill one is trained to do. Through all the backlash and online controversy, her primary concern has been the pupils of SA.

“The content is there, yes. But the key issue is how it is being delivered. As teachers, we know and understand how to deliver content to our children. We don’t undermine any other profession but are trained to deliver from the easiest to the most complex content to children,” said Potsane.