The magic of teaching

Takalani Siala, Grade 8 - 12 Mathematics teacher, Dominican Convent, Belgravia, Johannesburg. Part of Zenex-ISASA Mathematics & English Project.

The road to the classroom

I wanted to be a pilot when I was in high school. I had a few bursary offers when I completed Grade 12, but the teaching bursary was the most lucrative. It included a stipend, which meant that I could start helping at home in Limpopo while studying. So I took the bursary.

However, as you grow your priorities change – it was no longer about money. I had been chasing money long enough, now it had become bigger than that. I have no regrets taking the teaching bursary because I fell in love with teaching from the start. I realised that I wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives. I started as a teacher after obtaining my BEd. That was in 2006, while doing Honours part time.

When I started I had given myself five years of teaching. Now every year feels like my first year in teaching and I have no time line because I enjoy being in class. I think I love teaching so much because I teach Grade 8 - it is always interesting to watch them grow and flourish as learners. Five years goes by so quickly!

Learners tend to stay in contact for the first year after they leave school but after that their lives take on new directions and priorities. And that is fine – it is not as if they do not appreciate their teachers.

The deep end and its rewards

When I started as a teacher in 2006, I joined Sekolo sa Borokgo, a low-fee independent school in Randburg, Johannesburg – one of the longstanding Zenex partners in the project. I was a mentor in the project and provided overall support to the learners. I was thrown into the deep end, as I was young and could not say no! I had to ensure that project-supported learners passed all their subjects and if they were failing any subject, I had to mediate between the relevant teacher and the learner to find out where the challenges were and how we could improve the learner’s performance.

“it was no longer about the money . . I realised that I wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives”

This made my experience of teaching different from the start. I got to understand the whole spectrum of challenges facing learners and teachers. It changed how I saw teaching from the outset as it was not just about seeing the learner from the perspective of the subject I taught.

Personally, I learned how to provide overall support to learners from being part of the project. However, I support all learners equally, not just the project learners. The project showed me the value of having a one-on-one relationship with learners. You cannot support the learners if you do not know them as a human being, you need to know their background and communicate with them about matters beyond what you teach.

The school recognised my passion early on and made me a Grade coordinator. This role enabled me to collaborate with my colleagues to find ways to support all our learners – it was not just about supporting the project learners.

There are few things more rewarding than seeing the spark in learners’ eyes when you show them that you believe in them. Not many people understand how fulfilling this is.

Then, obviously, it is rewarding seeing the results of the project. Being part of the project has been a great motivator for me – seeing how much people are investing in learners to help them realise their potential. You cannot underestimate your role as teacher in making sure that potential is realised.

Building dreams

As a teacher, you are shaping people’s lives. If you have only one learner who comes to school looking forward to being taught, a teacher must rise to the occasion for that learner. If you come unprepared you are crushing that learner’s dream. If I only make a difference in one learner’s life, I will have succeeded.

“There are a few things more rewarding than seeing the spark in learners’ eyes when you show them that you believe in them”.

My mathematics teacher in high school was the one teacher who stood out in my schooling days. He was always prepared for class. We could see through the teachers: we could see who just came to class because they had to and those who were committed to their craft. This had a real impact on me as a teacher.

Teaching is not always easy. Sometimes there is resistance from learners. Some learners do now want to open up and don’t what anybody to know anything about them. If I just went to class to teach mathematics this wouldn’t frustrate me. However, I try to understand my learners as people, and as such I take on a lot as a teacher.

That being said, nothing is more fulfilling than being teacher. Zenex supported a learner who came from an extremely poor background. The learner went on to become a Dux scholar at Dominican Convent. This was just magic – I celebrated this learner’s success. This girl spoke openly about her life and background, and she made it clear that she came to school to do well so she could lift herself and her family out of poverty. She was so focused, she put me to shame - I was not that focused as a learner. Learners such as these inspire you.

About the Project

Ms Siala participated in the Zenex Foundation-ISASA Mathematics & English Project which was rolled out from 2007 – 2016. The project was rolled out in partnership with ISASA (The Independent Schools Association of Southern Africa) and learners placed in ISASA-affiliated schools. The project offers economically disadvantaged Black (African, Coloured and Indian) learners with potential in Mathematics and Science an opportunity to attend independent schools that can help them achieve quality results in Mathematics, Science and English. The learners are provided individually supported learning experiences including academic, life, leadership and social skills. The ultimate goal of the project is to increase the pool of Black learners who qualify to pursue Mathematics and Science related degrees and associated careers.