When Sfiso Kubeka realised that bursaries were readily available to pupils who excelled in Maths, he made it his life’s mission to help learners at Menzi High School in uMlazi, KwaZulu-Natal, not only excel at the subject but love it too. This week a decade of hard work, dedication and humility as a Maths and Science teacher paid off when he received the 2018 Stella Clark Teachers’ Award.
The annual award acknowledges the outstanding work of talented teachers who, despite working in difficult circumstances such as impoverished environments, manage to motivate their learners to perform well. The award was established in honour of Stella Clark, a former teacher and UCT lecturer in the Centre for Higher Education Development’s (CHED) Academic Development Programme, after her death in 2005. Each year CHED awards a deserving teacher who has been nominated by a UCT student.
And the ceremony was the ideal place to share the teaching methods he uses to inspire learners.
“Thank you for this memorable opportunity. I am deeply humbled to be part of this auspicious occasion,” he said after accepting the award from UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price.
Kubeka started his teaching career at the school almost 10 years ago and described his journey as one that “has been characterised by strong, diligent and focused leadership.”
Most Menzi High School learners come from informal settlements in uMlazi, the fourth biggest township in South Africa. They generally face poverty and overcrowding, which affects their ability to study productively, he said. A lack of role models poses another challenge. However, despite their circumstances, Menzi matriculants have managed to achieve between 98-100% pass rate over the past decade. Across all grades, the pass rate has been 95-100% for the past 20 years.
Kubeka explained that the excellent performance, particularly in Maths, can be attributed to a willingness to admit learners to the school irrespective of their previous performance in the subject, which dispels the notion that the subject is difficult. Special attention is given to formal and informal assessment and each quarter learner-performance increases until a 98-100% pass rate is achieved. Top pupils are also identified and receive coaching to become peer tutors under his watchful eye.
Kubeka himself was inspired by his teachers, who he said were very supportive of pupils’ education despite poor infrastructure and poverty. His Maths teacher inspired him to love the subject. “I believe the learners I teach deserve the same support,” he said.
But his sights were not initially set on teaching and he first studied mechanical engineering. However, when he wasn’t accepted to complete his in-service training, he decided to study a degree in Education. “It was a blessing in disguise,” he said.
A 12-hour work day is the norm for Kubeka who can often be found at school from 6am-6pm, said deputy principal, Nozipho Ndlanya. “He always wants to help, and he will never brag about it. Sometimes we are not even aware of what he does and only get to know about it a year later,” she said. He has been known to assist students with registration fees and food and even helped a security guard at the school.
UCT Accounting student Nonkululeko Biyase nominated Kubeka for the award and paid tribute to him at the ceremony. “A good teacher is the reason why ordinary students realise extraordinary dreams,” she said.
“The first time I touched a computer was here at UCT. [At high school] I had to share books with five other students. Menzi High School is very old and often has broken windows. I even had to share a desk with three other pupils. That did not stop me, but motivated me,” she said.
“I decided to nominate Mr Kubeka because he was my Maths teacher who encouraged us. He was more than just a Maths teacher – he was a life coach.
“I never really liked Maths – I enjoyed accounting more. He helped change my perspective and helped me love every subject,” she said.
Kubeka said that one problem facing education was that teachers did not understand the subject content that they were meant to teach.
“I once ran a workshop where we used to give pre- and post-tests to teachers. In many cases teachers got 20% in the grade 12 papers. The main problem is that some Maths teachers don’t understand Maths. If we can recruit as teachers the people who received distinctions in grade 12, I think all these problems will be solved.
Dr Price said that the quality of school education is often a topic of discussion at UCT as the University has to deal with the consequences thereof.
“We are often disappointed by the fact that students are not adequately prepared, and it forces the University to create bridging programmes and academic development programmes that provide lots of support in order to ensure the success of our students.
“And given what we know about the secondary school education system…It therefore is especially important to give credit where it is due and praise the stars in that system who are even more remarkable and praiseworthy because they are in a system where many schools are not succeeding, said Price.
So what words of wisdom does Kubeka pass on to his students as a recipe for success? “Just be humble,” he said.