Practical experience: where teachers truly learn

Elizabeth Mbatha, Grade 3 Literacy, Numeracy and Life Orientation teacher, Highlands Primary School

Career change

My teaching journey began in 2013. Until 2003 I was in the corporate world, working for one of the Big Four banks in South Africa. But, 13 years ago I resigned to be a full-time mom. My husband and I decided together that it would be better if I was at home to support my children. However, by 2009 it was becoming tough with only one income in the household, so I started looking for work again. However, instead of taking a job, I decided to study to become a teacher.

It wasn’t a new idea. I had always wanted to be a teacher and when I finished matric I was planning on going to a teacher training college. However, the bank was hiring at that time and so I decided to start working to earn money immediately, but teaching has always been my passion, and the time was right to follow my passion.

By 2013 I had obtained a Bachelor of Education degree and I am currently in my third year of teaching.

I immediately enjoyed teaching. My first year’s class was my guinea pig – I challenged myself to do well with them. However, learner discipline seems to be getting worse because of large classes and 2015, my second year, was difficult. Learners come to school with many social issues – they are affected by drugs, gangsterism and violence in their communities. I try to create a support network in class so that learners can support each other without having to share their individual problems with other learners.

Getting down to business

“The project has shown how I can do things practically, whereas my studies were heavy on theory.”

When the Zenex Literacy Project started in 2015, it proved to be a massive help – not least because it revived my passion. The project introduced much-needed routine in class. With a solid routine in place, discipline became less of a problem.

This really changed things because when I started teaching it honestly felt like my head was going to explode for the first three months. I had to teach and do admin – it was overwhelming because as a new teacher you only think about teaching, but very soon you are confronted with massive admin responsibilities. Studies do not afford enough practical experience.

One of the older teachers was very helpful, but experienced teachers cannot always be with you as a mentor as they also have classes to run. The project was very useful because the workshops gave me practical experience of how to teach, such as how to run group-guided reading in class. I do this better now than I did in 2014. The project has shown how I can do things practically, whereas my studies were heavy on theory. I also have a reading corner – which I did not know of before.

Overcoming challenges

Many learners are being taught in a language other than their mother tongue. I learnt something from a colleague, and it really works: I test the language competency at the beginning of the year and then group learners into appropriate groups. I have used Grade 1 and 2 books for some Grade 3 learners, as well as helpful resources form the internet. I gradually move these learners onto easier Grade 3 books. We also expose children to technology – they need these skills in the 21st Century and we have computer lessons at Highlands.

Despite everything, teachers are measured on the performance of their learners, but I believe we should also be measured on more than just academic performance - people should look at the social development of learners as they become well-rounded, confident individuals. As teachers we have a lot to do with this.

The performance of learners, especially in the early foundation grades, is dependent on a triad of factors: teachers, learners and parents. Teachers need parents to provide support but very often they don’t, and the result is an increased burden on the teacher. Many of my colleagues work under very difficult circumstances, but despite the challenges, teachers get rewarded by watching their learners succeed.

About the project

The Zenex Foundation Literacy Project is an innovative teacher development intervention to assist teachers in the Foundation Phase with Home Language and First Additional Language literacy teaching, aligned with the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statements. The project seeks to understand the conditions and factors that are required for teachers to provide Foundation Phase learners with a (sound) foundation in home language and English literacy competency.