The Role of Teacher Unions in the Education Sector

Teacher unions are a vital stakeholder in education. Over the past few years they have played an increasing role in teacher development and the debates around the professionalisation of teachers. The Teacher Development Community of Practice (CoP) explored some themes on the topic, in the context of a presentation by Duncan Hindle, the former President of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and Director General of the Department of Basic Education.

Mr Hindle took the CoP through a brief overview of international debates on definitions of ‘unionism’ versus ‘professionalism’ and reminded participants of key events in South Africa’s own history of teacher development (such as the closure of teacher training colleges). He looked at the different roles of key players in teacher development, including the national department, the provincial departments, the unions, higher education institutions, the South African Council for Educators (SACE) and, of course, teachers themselves.  As he noted, this complex context means that:


“A single narrative is hard (if not impossible) to develop, because teacher development takes different forms, takes place in many ways, and for different reasons. It includes career related development, development as a professional, and many other aspects.” 


Mr Hindle’s presentation sparked robust discussion in the CoP, with a number of different positions being put forward on who should do what, and how it should be done, in relation to both initial and ongoing development of teachers as professionals. Some of the key themes were:

–    Accountability resides in a number of different places and at different levels, ranging from individual teachers themselves to the final accountability of the Department of Education. However, teachers need to take seriously their own accountability for their own professional development.

–   SACE’s system of CPTD points led to a discussion on tracking teacher performance in general. How to motivate teachers to engage in their own professional development was a key topic, and the question of whether or not this should be backed by pay generated different views. Evaluation of teachers is in general a highly emotive topic in the profession as there is a lack of trust between different circles of stakeholders (e.g. departments, unions, schools, and teachers). We need to learn to communicate across the circles.

–   What is the best form of teacher development? Here the focus was on the usefulness (or lack thereof) of short-term, off-site curriculum interventions, as opposed to longer term, on-site mentoring models.

Pat Sullivan, as the CoP facilitator, reminded the group that a task team has been formed to map the teacher’s journey from pre-service to possible options for retired teachers to play a role. This group began its work recently, and smaller task teams are in the process of mapping different parts of the teacher’s professional and career journey. Watch this space!

Click here to see Duncan Hindle’s presentation.