Finding a working recipe
In 2000, I was teaching general sciences and mathematics to the general education band and biology to the further education and training band at Holy Cross High School in Umtata, now renamed Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape. A young girl arrived from another school to complete grade nine at Holy Cross. She struggled so much with mathematics that almost the whole class noticed.
The boys, especially, started making fun of her. It was terrible. While she kept trying hard to make sense of what was happening during the lesson, it was painful to see and hear the other pupils poking fun at her. Each time she asked a question they would whisper among themselves, and if she gave a wrong answer the whispering would become worse.
This behaviour continued until I felt I needed to do something. Thank God, I remembered the maths and statistics tutorial sessions that I had attended at university. Each tutorial session was essentially an additional instruction opportunity in which the emphasis was placed on solving a long list of problems related to statistics and mathematics. The tutor would let us ponder and complete the questions by ourselves and then go around to check to see if we had applied the relevant theories and used the correct formulae. This educational approach proved to be very fruitful because, as students, we were given an opportunity to assess ourselves as we worked through the problems. Whenever one of us encountered a problem, the tutor would be on hand to assist us in our bid to find the answers on our own. This is what inspired and helped many of us to pass mathematics at university.
<strong>Tackling maths problems every day</strong>
As I reflected on the suffering that the poor girl was going through, I began to wonder whether the tutorial approach that had worked so well for us at university might work for her too.
I called her and suggested that she buy an exercise book and come to collect maths questions from me every day. I instructed her to go through as many problems as possible and carefully follow the steps we had used in class. I told her not to worry if she got stuck at any stage. Rather, she should identify where she experienced difficulties and let me know. I assured her that I would then gladly assist by taking her through the problem until she understood the work clearly.
She came to me every day at the close of the school day to fetch a list of maths problems. We got into a nice routine and I made sure I went through the problems she worked on at home, helped her through specific areas in which she had difficulty and then gave her some new maths problems to complete at home.
<strong>Turned the corner</strong>
I can proudly say that this approach transformed the girl’s experience of school life. By the third term of that same year, she was among the top achievers in maths. She was even outperforming her critics and she continued to maintain this standard throughout the rest of the year.
It makes me feel humble that, through my work as a teacher, I managed to put a smile on the face of a child who had been so sad in the earlier part of the year. My experience taught me a very valuable lesson: that I should not ever give up on a pupil. As teachers, we should never forget to remember that the future of our pupils is in our hands.
Pumzile Ngudle teaches life sciences at Umtata High School in the Eastern Cape