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How employing student teachers as teaching assistants can transform SA’s education system

by Media Xpose

Around four-fifths of Grade 6 Mathematics learners in South Africa are taught by teachers with Maths subject knowledge below the Grade 6 level. This is according to the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust’s (OMT) Education Research Report (based on an analysis of data from the Southern and Eastern Africa Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality).

The report, released on 12 September 2023, also notes that “only around 55% of South African [Grade 6] teachers met the intermediate benchmark of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) – which 82% of all Grade 4 learners achieved internationally”.

Wynand and Gemay van Heerden, co-owners of the Edify extra-lesson schools (which specialise in Maths, Science, Accounting and languages), can attest to this, based on interviews with potential teachers. “Some Maths teachers can’t do Maths – we ask teachers with 10 years of experience teaching matrics to explain basic Grade 8 questions, and they get them wrong. This is such a big issue for us and inspired us to start making a difference to our country’s education,” says Gemay.

Wynand adds, “We also found that Bachelor of Education (BEd) graduates with excellent marks did not know the syllabus and could not teach a class. In response, we initiated Edify’s teacher training programme six years ago – a resource for student teachers to work with us for two or three years. By the time they walk out of university, they are among the best teachers in South Africa.”

“We feel very positive about the youth of today,” says Gemay. “They’re willing to learn, hard-working, committed, open-minded and have energy. We employ the top graduates from our programme and the others have the skills to be able to teach at any school in South Africa.

“Young teachers relate better to learners. Our teachers build up a personal relationship of trust, which fosters receptiveness in learners.”

The OMT Education Research Report found that among the most significant challenges in the basic education system are teachers’ lack of subject knowledge and there being no standard period for teaching practice. The report suggests pre-employment teacher training as one of the best levers to turn the basic education system around.

Tying in with this, Edify’s teacher training programme provides student teachers with the necessary subject knowledge, teaching skills and practical teaching experience to ensure that when these BEd students graduate, they are equipped with world-class skills.

The OMT report advocates employing youth in schools as teaching assistants. This correlates with Edify’s model, where student teachers work as teaching assistants and attend daily pedagogical and subject-based training sessions on its Gauteng campuses after their morning lectures, and earn while they learn.

Training is tailored to each student teacher and, as each progresses, they become increasingly involved in teaching extra lessons to Edify’s learners (many of whom attend top schools).

There is no formal application process for Edify’s student teacher programme – applicants are often referred by university lecturers or their peers.

“Marks are not our primary consideration; we understand that not all applicants have had equal opportunities in terms of their own education,” says Gemay, “Passion for teaching, energy levels, aptitude and attitude are key criteria for the student teachers in our programme and the experienced teachers we employ.

“When you walk onto one of our campuses, there’s a buzz that’s created by the teachers – it’s a consistent high-level energy. Everyone at Edify has a can-do attitude: ‘I’m here to do something, I’m here to make a difference. Let’s do this. We can do this together.’”

Two current BEd students in the Edify programme, Sineliso Magagula and Mzwandile Damane, demonstrate these qualities.

“Edify has played a massive role in shifting my perspective,” says Sineliso, “It’s helped me break through limitations and believe that if you want something, you just have to go for it. It’s changed the way I interact with people and even how I speak. It energises me, adds value to me as an individual and what I have to offer.

“I’ve been able to help my mother buy a house, assist my siblings with school fees, help my grandmother financially and support my church, and next year I’m buying a car. It’s had a significant impact financially, but these are just material things.

“It has benefited me academically and helped me reach my potential. I used to struggle to do as well as I wanted. I joined Edify in June last year; this year I set a goal of achieving 100% for Maths, and my average is 98%. I achieved nine distinctions in the second semester last year. I’ve been accepted as a member of the Golden Key [international collegiate honour society], which is made up of the top-performing 15% of students in a faculty, and includes universities from all over the world.”

Mzwandile was born near Mbombela in Mpumalanga, where he attended a state school with few resources. He was raised by a single mother and focused on academics as a path to self-empowerment. He was accepted to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand and University of KwaZulu-Natal, but opted instead to study education at the University of Johannesburg because of his passion for teaching.

Mzwandile says “The level of education at Edify is top quality. At high school I had to work hard in order to understand what I was being taught, but Edify just simplifies Maths like it’s one-two-three. Edify has instilled an even greater passion for teaching in me. I’ve benefited financially and been able to improve my family’s life.”

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