Teaching: what is your why?

| March 26, 2013 | 1 Comment

By Warren Chalklen

“Why would you (or anybody for that matter) want to be a teacher?” My answer to this frequently asked question was always a simple: “I just know.”

However, what is it exactly that I just knew I wanted to be? My journey to find the essence of this complex ‘organism’ that we call teaching has taken me to all corners of South Africa. I wanted to know: how is it that teaching is a profession that burns inside some people or unravels in others like a loose end on an old winter jersey? Wally Morrow defined teaching “as the organisation of systematic learning… characterised by the content knowledge, lesson preparation, classroom management, teaching strategies and finally the assessment of work by the teacher”.1 In other words, Morrow is proposing is that unless a teacher is engaging in pedagogy that is learner centred, organised and deeply reflective, then effective learning is non-existent.

This concept excited me, because it began to talk about teaching as a system. However, I still felt that something was missing between Morrow’s proposed definition and my identity as a teacher in the classroom. So, as a third-year student, I closed the book in the library, deciding that teaching was something to be experienced, to be seen, to be heard and to be felt. To be lived.

Do I really want to teach?

I enrolled in a diverse curriculum of teaching practicals in private, former Model C and township schools. These experiences gave me a taste of what teaching was about, but because I had gone to a government school as a child, there were still significant similarities between these environments and what I was used to. I was still unsatisfied.

I met a magician once, who said that those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. The magic of teaching came to me in a small farming community in Mpumalanga known as the Kwena Basin. The schools in this area are characterised by a lack of adequate resources and basic infrastructure, extreme poverty, overcrowded classrooms and other massive challenges. I was assigned to a class for three weeks and there, with my colleagues, experienced a ‘roller coaster ride’. I had never seen education delivered in this way.

As we were confronted with hardship and difference, I began to chip away at two burning questions: “Do I really want to be a teacher?” and “Can I really teach in this environment?” The first question was obvious for me, but the second was less so. In Johannesburg, my teaching was made up of ‘windowdressed lessons’; lessons accompanied by pretty flashcards and interactive whiteboards. However, if you asked me what the learners actually learned, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you for sure. In the Kwena Basin, the reality was that there was no electricity, let alone a bathroom. The hollowness of my teaching was brutally exposed, because I realised how much I relied on resources and the prior knowledge of children. I became frustrated with myself and the children, blaming the environment and the ‘inadequacies’.

The essence of teaching

Reflecting further, I was brought back to something Morrow had written that made perfect sense to me now. He spoke about the material and formative elements of teaching, and used the question “What is a table?” to make his point. Material answers to this question would refer to elements such as the table’s shape, size, location or even how many legs it has. The formal elements of a table are those things that we cannot take away from it; otherwise it would cease to be a table. Its essence is that it is a flat surface to rest things on. Using this analogy helped me see that teaching, even in an impoverished context, was still in essence teaching. Sand may have replaced books, trees might have provided an improvised roof, or a rock could have served as a kind of ‘smartboard’, but organised and systematic learning could still take place.

It was when that penny dropped that I began to connect to my work, because I realised the reciprocal relationship of the profession. In pursuit of substance in my teaching, I was able to ask two new questions: “What have the learners actually learned today?” and “What have the learners taught me?”

What is your why?

Returning to my job as a teacher in Johannesburg in a teaching environment that has all the ‘bells and whistles’ one could ask for prompted a further enquiry, as I reflected on how little the teachers in the Kwena schools had in the way of resources. How can we do the best for our learners with what we have? In that small, overcrowded Kwena classroom, I had found my ‘why’. I realised that the journey to find the essence of teaching is an endless one. Its route winds and shifts, bends and splits; there are days where we want to put our bags down and run away. But when it gets hard and the rain starts to pour, my question to you is: “What is your why?”


1. Morrow, W. (2008) Learning to Teach in South Africa. Johannesburg: Human Sciences Research Council.

Category: Autumn 2013, Featured Articles

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  1. Nhlanhla says:

    Thank you for sharing such an inspiring reflection! I am also a teacher by choice, this profession chose me. I wish this article can be read by all the young people who are interested in teaching.

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