On International Teachers’ Day we honour the teachers who change the world. One of the remarkable educators who captured our imagination is the acting principal of Ukhanyiso Primary School, Mrs Funeka Phakade. She is holding a golden thread, first received as a girl from her beloved headmaster, now passing it on to tomorrow’s teachers. Sitting in her office at the end of Term 3, Mrs Phakade points at the line of trophies filling the display cabinet. These trophies are just one of the ways that you know you are impacting young lives. She’s currently dealing with children who have returned from months of Covid-19 lockdown, having regressed during the lost months, but her heart is full of hope and determination.
Training to be a teacher
My training to be a teacher started as a little girl attending Kwezi Primary School in Queenstown. My life was changed by an interaction with the school principal, Mr Mbijekana. He was a shining light, and I went on to Masibulele College of Education in Whittlesea to complete a senior primary teachers’ diploma. I found I was in my element teaching that age group. To this day, when I return to my home in the Eastern Cape I make a point of visiting Mr Mbijekana. His commitment to and empathy for children from poor households inspired my vocation as a teacher. When I think about Mr Mbijekana, I understand why I am a teacher.
A meaningful career
Principal Mdingi was not looking for a senior primary teacher when I arrived at Ukhanyiso Primary School. I wanted to live close to my husband, who had work in Gauteng and I was desperate. At the interview I said, “I know I love the kids, and if you give me a chance, I will excel! If I’m no good, then chase me away, but please let me to prove myself.” Despite my inexperience and anxiety, I became a grade one teacher, realising quickly how much these children needed me.
I wanted to dig deeper and improve my understanding of foundation phase education so pursued an Advanced Certificate at Wits University. My interest then stretched to management so I enrolled at the University of Pretoria for a B Ed (honours) in Management. Happily, this led to my appointment as a HOD in Foundation Phase in 2013. Last year, in 2019, I was appointed as the Deputy Principal! Before closing for lockdown, Mr Makgalo, the sitting headmaster, was reassigned to Matshidiso Primary, and I became acting principal.
Benefit of JumpStart
When the programme was introduced, we were unsure about whether it would help us teachers. We soon saw that JumpStart was reinforcing the activities we do in class. The activities in the NumberSense workbook cater for learners at every level. The tutors monitor and pace the children according to their individual capability. JumpStart has been funded by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and we have seen a significant increased the standard of maths in our school. Some teachers need help teaching maths. You need to love maths yourself before you teach it to someone else. The tutors are chosen because they have the interest and are willing to help with maths. With this programme, the attitude to maths at this school has changed dramatically.
During lockdown, the tutors helped our learners at home so that they didn’t forget what they did at school. Parents received airtime and data, and the tutors helped parents in WhatsApp groups. If they don’t have the basics by the time they’re in high school, it’s too late. All the learners at Ukhanyiso now enjoy maths, because they understand the subject fully thanks to the JumpStart intervention.
Mrs Phakade reflects on JumpStart tutors
One of the primary benefits of exposing tutors to quality teachers is their learning on the job. All the tutors are committed to their own learning and always eager to help. Zanele Skenjana is very good with the children. He is able to manage them calmly. The children are always quietly focused. He attends to them with gentle instruction. Sinentlantla Ndumela is specialising in robotics and coding. She’s so keen to do this. Last month we got a laptop for her to learn robotics. She always makes herself available to explain what’s going on to each student. She communicates patiently until they grasp the concepts required to go forward. It is a pleasure to work with young people of this calibre.
Zanele Skenjana’s life has changed since starting at JumpStart under Mrs Phakade’s tutelage. He was fascinated by the new learning methods. He enjoys assisting learners according to their needs trying to improve their strong and help them with their weak points.
“Engaging with Mrs Phakade twice a week since working with her while she was teaching Grade 1 until now as Acting Principal has impacted my life positively. Mrs Phakade is a wonderfully warm person who believes in ubuntu,” said Zanele. “She’s open to developing new ideas, and encourages
experimental thinking and growth. Her warm hearted nature is very welcoming and her non-judgemental willingness to instruct us tutors has shown me the way to become a realteacher. She’s a leader by nature!” Tutor, Sinentlantla Ndumela, spoke highly of Mrs Phakade too: “She is a great leader who puts other people’s needs first. That’s the reason why people respect her authority. Her reputation inspires me, as does her character. Her behaviour more than anything else shows me what kind of teacher I want to become. I look up to her and she guides me towards accomplishing my goals. I want to consistently develop and sustain my cooperative working relationships because of her input in my life.”
After lockdown, what is the situation at the school?
The situation is challenging, but manageable. The foundation phase learners have regressed quite a bit. We’re struggling to take them into the next grade. We have to go back to what they did in the first term. We are offering Saturday classes for extra support to those learners who weren’t able to keep up during lockdown. The majority are showing up for those classes. All my staff are committed to picking up the lost time. With my JumpStart tutors, there is real commitment and dedication.
Teachers of the future – real people not artificial intelligence!
I like how JumpStart is encouraging youth to take up teaching as a serious career. A country without teachers has no future. In some jobs, AI can replace people, but nothing can ever replaces a teacher. We saw this during lockdown, where some parents couldn’t teach for a variety of reasons. Teaching is still the foundational profession. All other professions come from teachers. We need to encourage youth to see this.
Afezekisiwe Kula was painfully shy, but she wrote well and had a beautiful handwriting script. I noticed that she was regressing. She showed me a powerful poem she had written about her single mother’s struggles. The district was not accepting written submissions, so I entered her in a poetry eisteddfod. I encouraged her to try. That day she won first prize for the district! This little girl discovered a gift for public speaking. We now have her trophies on our display cabinet and I get reports from her mother that she is doing well in high school. Her mom tells me that I opened her voice.
When I think about Afezekisiwe, I understand why I am a teacher. The golden thread passes through teachers that share their knowledge. The children I teach and the tutors I mentor will pass on the love of education that I was given. From Mr Mbijekana to me and on to others. In their own time, in their own way, they will keep education strong.
Partner with JumpStart to invest in future teachers
If you would like to support South Africa’s future teachers on this International Teachers’ Day, please consider a donation to The JumpStart Foundation Trust. We are a Public Benefit Organisation with the goal of accelerating South African youth into the digital economy through education, qualification and employment. Your contribution will fund the studies of high potential youth like Zanele Skenjana and Sinentlantla Ndumela. Partner with us and qualify for your SARS Section 18(a) certificate or to meet your BBEEE obligations. Email Betty Oliphant for more information.
Cover image courtesy of MSDF. Photographer: Ropa Chiradza, Katatom Productions.