Why (your) teaching matters

By Melanie Skead

Can our teaching transcend conformity and retrogression? Can our teaching play a role in dealing effectively with racial tensions? Our teaching matters because it is here that we find “the most radical space of possibility”.

Kan ons onderrig uitstyg bo konformisme en agteruitgang? Kan ons onderrig ‘n rol speel in die effektiewe oplossing van rassespanning? Ons onderrig maak saak want dit bied ‘n ruimte wat besonder oop is vir moontlikhede.

Ingaba ukufundisa kwethu kugqithisa ukuvumelana nokubuya umva? Ingaba indlela esifundisa ngayo iyayidlala na indima yokuhlangabezana ngempumelelo nenkxalabo ngokobuhlanga?  Ukufundisa kwethu kubalulekile ngenxa yokuba kulapho sifumana ukuvuleleka kwamathuba “okwenzeka kweenguquko ezigqibeleleyo”.


We have set out on a quest for true humanity, and somewhere on the distant horizon we can see the glittering prize…In time we shall be in a position to bestow upon South Africa the greatest gift possible – a more human face (Biko, 2004:108).


More than fifty years ago, the renowned psychologist, Carl Rogers, set out to document ‘’a view of what education might become’’ by sharing a number of “urgent’’ concerns in what he described as a ‘’fearful crisis’’ (Rogers, 1969: vi). As I reflect on why teaching matters, I am drawn to Rogers’ concerns and am taken by surprise at how apt these still are. I ask myself: can our teaching help our students to ‘’live comfortably’’ in a changing world? Can our teaching play a ‘’role in dealing effectively’’ with ‘’racial tensions’’? Is our teaching ‘’defensive’’ or ‘’open to true communication”? Can our teaching transcend ‘’conformity and retrogression”? Most urgently, can we use our teaching to ‘’meet the growing student revolt … against the whole social value system” and can we let our teaching take us to spaces that are ‘’outside of the ‘halls of learning’ ‘’? (Rogers, 1969: vi-vii). My immediate reaction is a resounding ‘’yes!’’. Then, just as suddenly, I turn to the years following Rogers’ initial observations and feel a deep sense of unease as my thoughts move from possibility to practice. In how far, I wonder, have we succeeded in teaching to elicit ‘’a transformative student experience’’? Has it brought about “transformational change’’ for our students to ‘’be 21st-century citizens and achieve their full potential’’? (Stellenbosch University Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019-2024). Our teaching matters because it is here that we find ‘’the most radical space of possibility” (hooks, 1994:12).

I am drawn to voices that have shaped my own teaching and my vocation, echoes that resonate with me daily. I find a refrain: freedom and the possibility of teaching courageously (Freire, 1998; Palmer, 2017), of ‘’pervasive’’ (Rogers, 1969:5) learning through ‘’openness to experience’’ (163), and of ‘’cultivating humanity’’ (Morrow, 2009:10) in service of “human flourishing’’ (69). How might we ‘’transgress those boundaries’’ (hooks, 1994:13) that confine change, using our teaching in novel but authentic ways so to live our values in ways that matter? At SU we are claiming learning as the heart of the matter: as a ‘’partnership’’ that ‘’flourishes through shared endeavour’’ (Stellenbosch University Teaching and Learning Policy, 2018), potentially drawing our students and ourselves into affirming, self-actualising spaces in which everyone matters and everyone is heard. In doing so, we hope to edge towards an ‘’engaged pedagogy’’ (hooks, 1994:13) so to ‘’practice freedom’’ in our teaching and crafting a university within which every student and teacher might thrive.

One way in which we might do this is to consider in how far equity (Stellenbosch University Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019-2024), by way of restitution and fairness, underpins our praxis. By recognising that what, how and why we teach might inadvertently marginalise students, in particular those who do not ‘’fit in’’, we create possibilities for a truly humanising education. We have the choice to ‘’transgress’’ (Freire, 1998; hooks, 1994) and embrace our ‘’unfinishedness’’ (Freire, 1998:52) with ‘’hope….though I know that things can get worse, I also know that I am able to intervene to improve them’’ (Freire, 1998:53).

In closing, I leave a few thoughts with you:

  • If we are to (re)place teaching as central to learning and the greater good, those who teach need affirming spaces that afford them the freedom to teach in ways that are not held captive by external pressures to measure the immeasurable and the meaningless
  • Teaching in ways that matter requires a deepened understanding of the inner and outer lives of all those present
  • Equity is more than diversity and equality: teaching matters because it holds the power to redress inequitable conditions and opportunities for access, learning and success for teachers and students who are marginalised by unrecognised bias.

This is the first in a series of blog posts intended to challenge how we might use our teaching for what matters most, to find passion and hope within pressure and possibility. Through dialogue, we might shift our individual and collective assumptions, opinions and practices. We invite you to join in this discussion.


Biko, S. 2004. I write what I like: A selection of his writings. Johannesburg: Picador Africa.

Freire, P. 1998. Pedagogy of freedom: Ethics, democracy, and civic courage. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, Routledge.

Morrow, W. 2009. Bounds of democracy: Epistemological access in higher education. Cape Town: HSRC.

Palmer, P.J. 2017. The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher’s life. Twentieth anniversary edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Rogers, C.R. 1969. Freedom to learn. Columbus: Charles E. Merrill.

Stellenbosch University Teaching and Learning Policy [Online]. 2018. Available: http://sunrecords.sun.ac.za/controlled/C4%20Policies%20and%20Regulations/Teaching%20&%20Learning%20Policy%20approved%20SU%20Council%2026.09.18.pdf   [2020, 3 February].

Stellenbosch University Vision 2040 and Strategic Framework 2019-2024 [Online]. 2019. Available: http://www.sun.ac.za/english/about-us/strategic-documents [2020, 3 February].


Melanie Skead

Melanie Skead is the Director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at Stellenbosch University where she works full-time in the field of Higher Education Development. She is passionate about equity, redress and transformation in global and local higher education. She describes herself as a ‘’humanist with a teacher’s heart’’ who is deeply privileged to have participated in higher education change since 1988. You can find her at mskead@sun.ac.za


Disclaimer: All views expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of the University of Stellenbosch

Download the Terms and conditions of use

No Comments

Post A Comment