My teaching career and what I professed: Initial teaching and learning philosophy

My first teaching post was at Tjaart van der Walt Primary school in Algoa Park in Port Elizabeth, a neighbourhood where there is not a great deal of wealth, rather, many learners lived in poverty. I realised there that teaching was not just a job for me, it was a calling. I felt I could really relate extremely well with learners from all cultural groups and with virtually any staff member.

During my initial teaching years in the primary school I was a teacher-centred behaviourist: I spoke and asked questions while the learners were the ‘empty buckets’ (Kruger, 1997) that I had to fill. Knowledge resided with me as the teacher and the textbook were the authorities of knowledge. If learners did not behave well, they were punished. From a systems perspective, I held a closed systems view, i.e. the preservation of the known and what has worked well. Thus, stability was the focus, i.e. maintaining equilibrium or the status quo. I felt comfortable with this, because I could tightly control ‘efficiency’. I wanted to control and minimise any errors, perturbations, anomalies and fluxes in my closed system, as these issues are a closed system’s enemies (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984; Doll, 1989). The reasons for this narrow view was firstly that errors, perturbations, anomalies and fluxes may lead to chaos within the orderly system; and secondly that these elements have the possibility to take my closed system view to a bifurcation point, i.e. to something new and uncertain, (Prigogine & Stengers, 1984; Doll, 1989), and that I could not allow, as it would take me out of my comfort zone. 

The reason for my initial views of knowledge, teaching and learning, and values and beliefs, could probably be traced back to the argument of Pajares (1992) and Kagan (1992) that many teachers teach the way they were taught, i.e. beliefs about teaching and learning are ingrained and of a personal nature. Thus, there is a “strong relationship between [teachers’] educational beliefs and their planning, instructional decisions, and classroom practices” (Pajares, 1992, p. 326). I modelled my primary teachers, high school teachers and lecturers at college. Gamache (2002, p. 286) concurs, as he argues in a similar manner that a person’s practice is explicitly or implicitly rooted in some theoretical framework, and my framework was my teachers and lecturers. To change is not easy (Fullan & Smith, 1999; Fullan, 1999, 2003). This was especially true of me, as I saw my traditional way of teaching as the truth, ‘the one and only way’. Thus, for me to change, I had to unlearn what I saw as truthful or ‘the only way’ (Flemming & Lynch, 2005). I was of the opinion that new ways would have to show that they are fruitful before I could embrace them (Mumtaz, 2000).

My initial conception of teaching was thus viewing teaching as a craft and as labour (Wise, Darling-Hammond, McLaughlin & Bernstein, 1984 in Hoban, 2002). As a craft, I saw teaching as something that can be mastered by accumulating a repertoire of skills over a period of time. The more I taught, the greater my mastery (Hoban, 2002). As laboured, I viewed teaching as a set of goals, lesson plans and skills that can be designed by others (Hoban, 2002), for example by following the Department of Education’s curriculum instructions, to the letter. Thus, I had a closed view of teaching and of the curriculum, i.e. what has worked well in the past will result in learners achieving similarly in the future, the so-called ‘it has proven itself for years’ argument. This way of thinking assisted me in establishing an orderly system that does not need or that does not want to change.