University students elect their hero teachers



Earlier this month, the University of Cape Town (UCT) honoured a teacher at a high school in Mpumalanga for her superior teaching record and the positive influence she has in her community.

This year, the winner of the annual Stella Clark Teachers’ Award is Thuli Shongwe, a caring and inspiring English teacher at Mandlesive High School in Kanyamazane, Mbombela, who regularly helps produce more than 90% grade 12 pass rates.

Teachers are nominated by former learners who are now studying at UCT. In his nomination, law student Sandiso Sifumba spoke glowingly of Shongwe’s innovative teaching methods, the peer teaching strategies she used to ensure individual attention in large classes, and the ways she worked with learners and opened up their worlds with relevant, contemporary subject content.

He described her as “a pillar of strength, who motivated her students by emphasising that our intelligence skills and abilities go beyond the walls of the classroom”.

Shongwe has initiated many learner-centred development projects at the school, such as an educational festival, a debating club, a library club, support for schoolgirls, extra classes and much more. In Sifumba’s words: “Mem Shongwe always has the best interest at heart of the learners, constantly challenging us to dream beyond our social settings.”

This is the 13th year that the Centre for Higher Educational Development at UCT has made this award. It has brought us into contact with remarkable teachers from across South Africa, who have all achieved excellent grade 12 results. It is particularly significant that the nominations for this award come from UCT students who describe the teachers they believe helped make it possible for them and others to pursue their dream of getting a tertiary education. At a time when our education system is in crisis, these nominations remind us of the values that underpin good teaching and learning practices.

What is palpable in the students’ descriptions is their esteem for their teachers. Using words such as “living legend”, they describe people who sacrifice their personal lives to be available to the learners, often for 12-hour days. Many of the teachers have multiple roles as heads of department, deputy principals, examiners and school textbook writers.

Mathematics and science teachers especially are often famous in their districts; they teach learners from many other schools after hours, on Saturdays and during the holidays.

The nominating students describe their respect for their teachers’ clear routines and boundaries. They describe how their teachers’ passion and commitment to teaching have inspired them, opening them up to new worlds and the joy of learning.

One student says of a former teacher: “I used to hate physics until I met him. He made me love, enjoy [and] at the same time pass physics because of the way he taught it. I even have an ‘A’ for physics on my matric certificate. He used to encourage me to work hard because he believed in me. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him.”

Another student recollects: “My classmates and I loved maths. Every day, after the maths period, we used to come into small groups and discuss what was being said during the period. If we had anything that we did not understand, we used to go to the staffroom and ask our teacher during the lunch time.

“She was approachable, she never chased us away saying it was her break time. Instead, she always tried by all means to make us understand by explaining and giving us relevant sources of information.”

Many students were taught in large classes with limited textbooks, no laboratories, libraries or computers. Their teachers had to play “catch up” because the educational building blocks were not in place in the senior years. The students write in reflective and analytical terms about the skills they have learnt from their teachers and how the teachers worked with them, using peer learning, innovative games and their home languages to facilitate understanding.

Teachers went to considerable trouble to find extra resources and to encourage learners to participate in extra-mural activities. Students tell how their teachers facilitated debate and took their views seriously.

A striking feature of all the nominations is the extent to which teachers take on custodial and pastoral roles, feeding hungry learners, paying their school fees, providing guidance and, in one case, even taking a destitute learner into her home. One student whose father was jailed wrote about how his teachers provided financial, emotional and academic support, “opened doors” and “changed my life when I had already given up”.

Educational research has shown that motivation, investment, effort and affirmation are central to successful learning. Teachers’ passion, dedication, discipline and care are evident in the nominations by UCT students.

In the words of one student: “During that year I was doing my matric and knew nothing about physics because I had fooled around in grade 11. Mr Maseko then taught me the basics of physics, which was not part of his job, but because he is a very kind-hearted teacher with love for his students he did not mind sacrificing his own time for me and my fellow former schoolmates. He also sacrificed his weekends to give us extra lessons to ensure that we understand our school work as much as we could.

“He was not only our teacher but he was also our father because of the love he had for us, his students. In the end I got myself a symbol B.”

In the face of the pessimism about the failure of our schooling system, these remarkable individuals remind us of the excellence, creativity and dedication that does exist in the system.

These hero teachers have persisted in the educational system for many years and have succeeded despite their circumstances. We need to honour these teachers and their students, to learn from them and, especially, to put systems in place to support them.

The Stella Clark Teachers’ Award was established in 2005. It acknowledges the work of exceptional teachers — the unsung heroes who go beyond the call of duty to motivate and inspire learners to perform well and rise above their circumstances. The award was established in honour of Stella Clark, an extraordinary UCT lecturer at the Centre for Higher Educational Development’s academic development programme who died in 2005.

Rochelle Kapp is an associate professor in the School of Education at UCT. She chairs the Stella Clark Teachers’ Award committee

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Rochelle Kapp
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