Performing social justice in South African education : how teachers negotiate the complexity of teaching in an unequal world.
This study explores teachers’ practices of social justice and equity in contexts that are steeped in historical inequality and injustice. Recognising that social justice and equity are difficult to realise but essential to making a difference in the lives of poor, marginalised learners, this study charts the lived social justice existential experiences of seven teachers. This lived social justice problematic analysed at the micro-level of the school and classroom, required a more subtle, nuanced and complex theoretical language that social justice and equity theory did not provide in consolidated form. Instead, the thesis used more finely-grained theoretical concepts to understand the complex, fraught and contested space of teachers’ practices of social justice and equity. Using a theoretical bricolage that included Boltanski, Bourdieu, Bernstein, Social Realism, and social justice theory, alongside conceptual knowledge from various empirical studies, the thesis positioned teachers at the epicentre of the research. This theoretical framing influenced by Boltanski in particular, foregrounded the voice and critical capacity of teachers. However, the complexity that surrounded their practices revealed the tensions, contradictions and difficulties that challenged and prevented them from exercising critical capacity and from being completely agential. Their inability to be agential was partly determined by structural inequality. Thus, the thesis is also respectful of Bourdieu’s emphasis on the structural conditions that reinforce and reproduce inequality. Teachers’ historical, social and political habitus influenced their pedagogical classroom practices as well as their personal and professional responses to learners illuminating how teachers’ practices are strongly conditioned and constrained. This thesis presents unique narratives of teachers’ struggles, resilience, despair, hope and perseverance, where teachers’ ways of knowing and being are valued and centralised, and their pragmatic responses to learners’ needs are understood. Methodologically and analytically, a grounded theory approach, together with narrative inquiry was used in the production and transformation of interviews, field observations and lesson observations conducted with the seven teachers who taught in poor schools that comprised predominantly black, African learners. This approach, which provided the means to remain close to the data, was informed by my theoretical decision to centralise the voice of the teacher. Significant to the study are the complexities that surround teachers’ identity negotiations and re-negotiations influenced by historical, religious, social, economic, community and political dynamics. Working within such unequal and deprived contexts teachers struggled to negotiate coherent, authentic selves and still remain responsive to their own internalised expectations and demands as well as that of learners and broader normative discourses of social justice and equity. This thesis posits a call for a re-framing of social justice and equity that is more cognisant of the complexity of teachers’ lived reality. When teachers fail to successfully negotiate the complex nexus of values, emotions, contextual challenges and expectations this results in fragile, divided selves. In such an emotional landscape they are unable to successfully negotiate sometimes untenable demands and expectations, and thus experience burnout, demoralisation and disquiet. This is compounded by their own pedagogical limitations, and a lack of expertise, that reinforces cycles of failure for both teachers and learners. But despite repeated failure, some teachers experience success in significant ways that motivate teachers to continue to work in the hope that they will help learners realise successful futures of their own.