In every organisation there are unsung heroes behind the scenes. At JumpStart that person is Betty Oliphant, our office administrator. She is the person who plans, organises, orders, checks and double checks to ensure smooth running of our events and processes. In March this year at our annual strategy planning session, Betty received a long service award for ten years of loyal service. She was the very first staff member appointed to JumpStart, and her inspiring story this month includes her recollections of the project’s early days.
Behind the scenes
Betty is a force to be reckoned with, enabling JumpStart to honour the promises we make to our partners. With her involvement we are able to provide the training and support that promotes maths education in under-resourced foundation phase classrooms around the country. It follows that a good grasp of mathematics keeps the books balanced so that we can show funders how their money has been spent. Betty ensures that we get our own sums right! Did we order enough workbooks for all our schools? Have they been delivered and accounted for? Were all salaries paid? Betty keeps tabs on the logistics that impact many tutors at schools in four different provinces. With her keen attention to details travel and catering are correctly budgeted, organised, and purchased. Betty ensures that every aspect of our operation is tallied and monitored.
Betty’s mother was a live-in domestic worker so they moved often. As a little girl, her favourite possession was her wax crayons. “I used to draw pictures of people and even though it wasn’t perfect, it was authentic. I loved creating beautiful vineyards, mountain views and sunsets. Later, in high school, I used pencil, fusing in the different textures in clothing design and architectural drawings.” Although Betty dreamed of attending the National School of the Arts, the school fees were beyond the family’s means. Her artistic ambition could not take flight in Zandspruit, an informal settlement where life was hard. Social challenges included peer pressure, criminality and teenage pregnancy. It was also clear that career opportunities for artists were severely limited. So, with no clear vision for her future Betty felt confused and alone and she failed her Grade 11 exams.
The silver lining
“The amazing thing was that my teachers liked me. I was one of those struggling learners, but my English teacher in particular recognised my potential. That relationship helped me grasp that people learn differently. I was slow to understand and had to repeat Grade 11, but I learned a lot about myself.” She explains, “It was a turning point where I learned discipline. My friends had moved on without me. I was forced to reconsider my own mindset, but I refused to give up and my maths marks started improving.”
When her maths teacher said, “Oliphant, stand up!” Betty thought she was in trouble. “Instead my teacher said, ‘I’m very proud of your results! You’re going to get top marks in the final.’” After finishing matric Betty went to her grandmother in rural Limpopo. “There was no way to check the results, so I waited, wondering if I might get a certificate pass. When my mother finally called she was standing beside the school principal, unable to speak with excitement. They said my marks were good enough to qualify for a bursary and maths was 63%. It was so surprising but I finally realised I was not an ordinary person. I needed extra time compared to other learners.” This valuable insight that has stood her in good stead in other situations.
Early days at JumpStart
Another lucky break came when Betty found her way to a part-time position at JumpCO, helping the receptionist. The organisation ran a maths programme in local high schools and the CEO, Steve Mahony, spoke about shifting his focus to primary school maths. “I was very interested in that,” says Betty. “Soon I was going from school to school, tutoring learners in classrooms on the basics of mathematics. On my return to the office I helped with the admin that keep the project working smoothly.” When she received her 10-year long service award, Mahony said, “What has struck me about Betty Oliphant, is her tenacity to embrace the momentous changes of the programme over time. She has really held our center through many years and she is an easy and approachable role model to young interns whose experiences were just like hers.”
Stop start studies
Betty tried various courses along the way – a diploma in business administration, excel, advanced excel, and a course in relationship training, which introduced her to science of communication, connection, and building solid relationships. “That helped me do my job, as I interact and help with different kinds of people. I wanted to understand how people think without judging them, so I could get along with them and assist them,” she explains. Betty started a BCom in Business Administration through UNISA but found it too challenging. She switched to a BEd (Intermediate Phase) and settled in happily. She completes her teaching practical later this year, so graduation is now in sight.
The art of sharing knowledge
“I realised that I would make a good teacher because I spent so much time in different schools. For me, the education space is a kind environment, where I learn something new every day. When the kids go home, I know I’ve done my bit. That’s an added satisfaction!” she says. Betty’s love of art is now expressed in fashionable clothing designs that she sews herself. With her love of art it was logical that she chose this as a teaching subject. “I’m confident that my passion will rub off on my students. Those learners will learn so much from what I have studied of visual and fine art. I’ll be very happy to pass that knowledge on,” she continues. Currently she works with fabrics, beads and textural arts. “My current beadwork is a creative expression of my Setswana heritage,” she says.
Learning as a way of life
Continuous effort and determination to find new ways of learning are core themes in Betty’s life. Now she dreams about writing textbooks for learners about the arts and she hopes to progress to an Honours and eventually a Masters degree. “What surprising paths there have been on the way! When I was in school my maths was not good, so it’s hard to believe that now I do all those calculations on a daily basis. People have entrusted the organisation to me to ensure that everything runs well. My own transition is mindblowing to me! I look at that little girl who was in a cocoon and couldn’t blossom, and marvel at how I got to where I am now. I had to fail first, in order to understand what I’m doing and why…”
Get in touch with Betty Oliphant
Betty is keen to help your company to partner with us to expand our programme to schools in your area. Email Betty Oliphant and learn how to optimise your Skills Development expenditure or meet your B-BBEE scorecard. She’s looking forward to hearing from you!