Q&A with Michael Myburgh

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The aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the fourteenth interview in the series. Michael Myburgh is the CEO of NAPTOSA Gauteng.

1)    In your career, why did you choose to focus on education and how did you get where you are now?

 My choice of teaching was influenced by firstly a need to have my university education funded (bursaries for teaching were relatively easily available) and secondly by one particular teacher whose passion for teaching was inspirational, both inside and outside the classroom. He became a mentor when I entered the teaching profession. My plans at that stage were to obtain a degree in Mathematics, teach for the required 4 years and then get a “real job”. I started teaching and stayed in schools for 23 highly satisfying years in the classroom as well as school management, and then a change to tertiary education as Vice-Rector at the Johannesburg College of Education.  Throughout the years in schools and the College I had a parallel interest in teacher politics. The exciting period was from 1986 through 1994 when the teacher association I was involved with was attempting to break out of its apartheid mould.  First came a flirtation with the teacher unity forum, which lead to the formation of SADTU. This exercise came to an end one week before its launch!  Then came the work to provide a home for the so-called professional teacher associations and the founding of NAPTOSA, first as a federation and then as a unitary body.  In 1997 I left the profession to take on the post of chief executive of a teacher union which evolved into NAPTOSA in Gauteng.

 2)    What does your average week look like?

Sometimes it seems to be “death by committee”.  In truth the real work is the interaction with teachers. As an educator union we deal with teachers who are volunteers and give of their time to the union in order to promote a better teaching environment as well as those members who need assistance. Although the staffing corps of the Union deals with the usual unionist aspects of negotiations, advice to members and representing them in hearings and disputes when necessary, the exciting work is the professional development of members and other teachers.  A good deal of the week is taken up in the planning and organisation of 8 professional conferences held during the year and which focus on teacher development. That planning also includes a programme of professional development courses, activities and seminars held on most afternoons during the term.  Some of these are in collaboration with Wits and other organisations but all focus on needs expressed by teachers with an aim to improve teaching and learning.

3)    While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you, which one or two would they be and why?

 The books and articles I read usually reflect my two overarching interests and the most influential at any one time are often those I am currently reading.  The first of these is the role and effectiveness of ongoing professional development of teachers.  The current interest in communities of practice and the role of the “expert” in these is a focus.  A book by Helen Timperey et al, “Teacher Professional Learning and Development”, is one I am reading which explores professional development of teachers.

The second interest is the teaching of Mathematics, how people learn mathematics (or construct their knowledge) and the formation of misconceptions in the learning of the subject.  A book by Paul Ernest, “Social Constructivism as a Philosophy of Mathematics” has led to a re-examination of my notions of the nature of mathematics and whether this influences how one teaches. Of more general interest to me is a book by the Russian mathematician now living in the US, Edward Frenkel, “Love and Math”, which is an account of how he became enthralled in the learning of mathematics through mentors and their challenges to him to solve problems in higher maths and  now his involvement in one of the great frontiers of maths research.

 4)    Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

 I am not at all sure that in the field of unionism I believe there are eminent thinkers, certainly none I would regard as such.  There are those who promote a particular socialist philosophy.  I have difficulty in promoting workerest views in an education setting.  The conflict with a child-centred set of beliefs is all too apparent.

In education generally the work of the Finnish educationist Pasi Sahlberg interests me.  I have been following some of his work at Harvard where he was a visiting professor recently.  His account of Finland’s 40-year period of change in education which resulted in a phenomenal success story and education system is instructive in relation to our own halting efforts at education change.  In particular, the creation of teaching as a respected and sought after profession where a master’s degree is the entry level is important!  The work of Andy Hargreaves remains a favourite.

 5)    What do you think is the most under-researched area in South African education?

 Teacher training, both initial and continuing, need to be intensively researched.  What knowledge base do teachers need to effectively practice as educators?  Does initial teacher training prepare students for their roles as teachers?  The debate of a professional degree versus a general degree and postgraduate diploma is not yet dead and should be part of the research.  Implicit in these questions is the selection of students for teacher training.  Is it possible to identify what qualities an applicant should exhibit.  In Finland, for example, the selection criteria, including both academic and vocational interests, are stringent.

 6)    What is the best advice you’ve been given?

 Never stay in a job if you don’t enjoy what you are doing or your efforts are not appreciated. I have tried to follow that advice.  Life is far too short to be unhappy and to feel unfulfilled for a great part of each day.  Staying in education, whether it was teaching, management or teacher politics was the correct choice.

 7)    As the Chief Executive Officer of NAPTOSA Gauteng, can you explain some of the under-appreciated challenges faced by teacher unions in South Africa?

 The negative press that teaching attracts when a teacher is accused of some heinous behaviour frequently implies that the teaching corps is labelled as rotten, or when references are made to “teacher unions” when more often than not the author is referring to SADTU but for some reason or other would prefer to hide behind the generic.  Having said that, teacher unions in general do have an image problem which they are not dealing with effectively.

The dilemma of marrying the unionist functions with a desire to be a professional association is greater in some unions, such as NAPTOSA, than in some others but this remains an issue which teacher unions are having to face including their approach to the question of what is professionalism.

 The lack of funding for professional development activities, offered by most unions for their members and teachers in general, inhibits more ambitious programmes.  While the Department of Basic Education had proposed a funding model for teacher unions to assist with professional development this occurred once only and then quietly died.  The few provincial education departments that do provide funds for the development of teachers (eg Gauteng and Western Cape) usually tie these up in expensive programmes which are department controlled.  The Western Cape has shown some promise by outsourcing several of their programmes while Gauteng has brought all of their programmes back in-house (eg the literacy and mathematics primary school project).

 8)    If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

 That is difficult to say.  It’s been such a long time since my plan of getting a “real” job. I suppose it would have been something related to mathematics research or when I finally accepted that I wouldn’t make it at that level in the discipline…

 9)    Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

 A very cautious fan – I have little doubt about the value of many forms of technology, whether used by teachers or students when it aids the learning process and construction of knowledge.  Efforts though to downplay or even replace the human element appear to me to be an attempt to mechanise teaching and learning.

 10) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

The question of what constitutes good professional development for teachers and how this might lead to a sustainable improvement in teaching and learning is not well understood especially in the complex South African situation.  Researching the variety of different forms of ongoing teacher development and how each influences teaching and learning over a period of time is necessary.  While it is true that a number of doctoral studies have and are being conducted, a comprehensive research programme might provide an insight into one of the big questions in our system: how do we improve the quality of teaching and learning?

 11) Having considerable experience in basic education in South Africa, do you think there have been any major changes in the “mind-set” surrounding basic education in South Africa in the last 15 years? If so, what do you think those changes have been and what has caused them?

 The changes in the “mind-set” surrounding Basic Education has, amongst others, their roots in societal change, curriculum changes and the massification of education.

 Societal change and the culture of human rights have created an imbalance between rights and responsibilities.  While teachers point to the restrictions that children’s rights place on discipline in the classroom, they themselves are also part of the imbalance.  The increasing lack of autonomy is leading teachers in a retreat from taking responsibility for their own teaching.

 Curriculum change has contributed to this phenomenon.  From the heady days of OBE where teachers supposedly mediated the broad curriculum statement to the current situation where the curriculum statement (CAPS) instructs teachers what to teach and when to teach, what to assess, how to assess and how frequently. Teachers who are well educated, trained and experienced are able to resist the intrusion into their professional domain.  There are not nearly as many as there should be.

 The massification of education has been a huge achievement but the inequalities in the system still exist, and combined with the increasing lack of a sense of responsibility, quality education is perceived to be the victim.

 12)Although NAPTOSA is the second largest teacher union in South Africa, it is dwarfed in size by the much larger SADTU. Would you say that NAPTOSA and SADTU are well-aligned in terms of targeted “outcomes”? Why or why not?

 There are good reasons for the existence of more than one teacher union.  It is true that some of these are historical and in some cases are artefacts of the apartheid past.  The primary areas of difference between SADTU and NAPTOSA are the philosophy and principles that each claims as important.  More importantly it is how each union reacts in a variety of situations.  SADTU is often referred to as militant or worker oriented, while NAPTOSA has been accused of being “compliant” because of its child-centred approach.

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Some of the other academics/policy-makers/activists on my “to-interview” list include Thabo Mabogoane, Veronica McKay, Volker Wedekind, John Kruger, Jonathan Jansen, Khulekani Mathe, Percy Moleke, and Joy Oliver. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

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