The Multifaceted Challenges for South Africa’s Educators and Student Teachers During the Pandemic

Maureen Robinson is a Professor in the Department of Curriculum Studies at the Stellenbosch University in South Africa and a Distinguished Fellow for GlobalEd Leadership. Dr. Robinson shared with us her insights on the challenges Education students and teachers are facing due to the pandemic and provides some suggestions on ensuring appropriate psycho-social support.

How have South African educators risen to the challenges presented to them during the pandemic and what is your advice?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools in South Africa closed suddenly in March and educators had to pivot to an online mode of teaching. The challenges for teachers as well as teacher educators have been technical (how to teach at a distance), emotional (how to cope in this new situation) as well as pedagogical (how to offer good quality teaching). These educational challenges have had to be faced at the same time as individuals and families live under the personal strain of harsh lockdown regulations and a fear of exposure to the virus.

Teachers have reported feeling overwhelmed as they try to keep up with their teaching in these challenging circumstances. For those who are participating in distance learning for the first time, there is the added strain of having to learn a whole new way of working. Online resources are available, but not all learners have the home conditions to work with such resources. Many don’t have suitable study areas, internet access, etc. In this environment of increased pressure, we’ve seen many examples of teachers moving into a new mode of what has been termed ‘a pedagogy of care’, included in this article, “A pedagogy of care: Teachers rise to the challenge of the ‘new normal”. Many teachers are doing their best to give learners tips about discipline and commitment while studying at home and supporting them in setting their own learning goals. They are making themselves available to students through WhatsApp groups for the entire class, and encouraging students to create their own WhatsApp groups to support each other. In schools with fewer resources or where students have limited connectivity, teachers have come up with innovative ways to provide learning opportunities with WhatsApp group chats, materials shared over flash drives, and printed materials.

As educators are learning to balance their own psycho-social needs with their learners’ needs for psycho-social support, it is normal to feel a lot of anxiety and it’s important for educators to remember that they don’t have to do everything alone. Those educators who have been able to ask colleagues for help and also share the good resources and strategies of what has worked well with others are more likely to be able to cope.   

What is the status of the reopening of schools and what advice do you have for teachers for the transition back to the classroom?

Ten weeks after the initial March lockdown, schools began to open in certain parts of South Africa. People had very conflicting perspectives on this decision. For example the opening of schools was met with great trepidation on the part of parents and many teachers, who saw schools as a potential flash point for the spread of the virus. Teacher unions in particular argued that keeping schools upon while community transmission is high puts too much at stake. However, other organisations and researchers argued that schools are important places of care and nutrition for children, and that as long as safety arrangements were in place, schools could be reopened while minimising risk (Read here for additional information on how COVID-19 is affecting children in South African schools). The lobby to close schools led to President Cyril Ramaphosa declaring that public schools would once again close for four weeks, from 27 July to 24 August, excluding the learners in two grades who would return to school before that time.

In anticipation of schools being open, across the country, guidelines have been put in place, including hand washing, social distancing, wearing a mask, and requiring teachers with comorbidities to not come to school. Unfortunately, due to poor conditions at many schools in South Africa, water is not easily available for hand washing, and social distancing is almost impossible in overcrowded classrooms. Thus the ability of schools to meet these safety requirements, runs the risk of exacerbating the extreme inequalities already present in our system. My recommendation, even within these difficult conditions, is at the very least that teachers take care of their own health by following all of the guidelines themselves to keep up a healthy lifestyle and stay in touch with family and friends, even if it is virtually. Nobody can face this alone, and we need each other now more than ever.

Providing teachers with quality resources is also critical. In response to some of the concerns raised related to schools re-opening, a section of the Department of Education, the Cape Winelands Education Department Specialised Learner and Educator Support Component, created a series of short videos to assist teachers with the return to school and provide psycho-social support to learners after the National Lockdown. I share a few of these videos here for your reference:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

What are some of the unique challenges student teachers are facing during the pandemic?

Under normal circumstances, pre-service education students in South Africa are obliged to spend at least eight to twelve weeks in a school per year, observing, preparing and teaching lessons under the guidance of teacher mentors. With schools being closed, universities were faced with the situation that there was limited opportunity for school-based activity for their student teachers. The difficult question thus arose as to whether one could justify qualifying a teacher who had spent very little time teaching in an actual classroom. The key challenge has become that of constructing practice-focused learning that can emulate a good quality school-based experience but not necessarily be dependent on actual time in schools. Different innovative strategies have emerged, for example creating videos of lessons, writing reflective reports, developing online lesson plans, and analysing pre-recorded artefacts of lessons. This is currently work in progress; the pandemic has challenged teacher educators to have different conversations and to try new approaches. While we all hope that things will return to more a sense of normalcy soon, these conversations and experiences are shifting the way we look at teacher education moving forward; it remains to be seen whether these modifications will have a longer-term impact on how teacher education is designed and presented.

We look forward to learning more from Maureen Robinson on how South African education responds to the pandemic as we progress through it. To learn more about her work please visit:

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