Excellence is our North Star

An Interview with TEACH South Africa Ambassador Itumeleng Molefi.


The Past

Where did you go to university?

I went to Wits University.

What were you studying?

I obtained a Bachelor of Sciences Degree in Pure and Applied Mathematics and I did an Honours in Physics as well.

What where you planning to do with your qualification?

I was interested in pursuing my Master’s Degree in Physics and possibly becoming an academic.

How and when did you come across TEACH?

I first came across TEACH in 2012 during a Career Exposition at Wits University when a couple of friends and I were considering what to do with our lives the following year. At that time, I was in the process of completing my undergraduate degree. I went through the selection processes, but I could not accept an offer to be placed as the university has a policy that states that there is a limited number of years that a student can have between completing their undergraduate and post graduate degrees. So I decided to complete my Honour’s Degree in 2013 and become an Ambassador in 2014.

The Present

Where are you placed?

I am placed at Carnarvon High School in the Northern Cape.

What did you find when you got there; how was it different to where you are from?

I am from Buckley West which is also in the Northern Cape, but Carnarvon is slightly bigger than my hometown. I had a little bit of a struggle adjusting to the social structure I found in Carnarvon as it was different to the one in Buckley West. For instance, Buckley West has a sizeable and distinct black community whilst Carnarvon does not. But my focus was to establish myself as someone who came to give back through education and distinguish myself through my conduct. Fortunately, Carnarvon still has some ‘Small Town values’ where educators and the teaching profession, in general, are respected and held in high esteem. So I was able to gain the respect of the community through my work and the way I chose to carry myself whilst interacting with members of the community.

How was the overall teaching experience?

It is one of the most difficult things if not the most difficult thing I have done in my life. I honestly believe that after this, there is nothing that I cannot do. Being a teacher is hard in itself, but being placed where we were, made the experience just that bit harder. I had to adjust to the culture of the town. Yes, I can speak Afrikaans, but I had never been taught in Afrikaans or had to teach in Afrikaans. So I had to overcome the language barrier. You also get a sense of being isolated from the rest of the country and you feel you are not as exposed to as many vibrant and diverse cultures as you would be in a big city.

What were the challenges you encountered and how did you overcome them?

The challenge always has been and continues to be getting learners to change their attitudes towards education and lives in general. To get them to be self-motivated and appreciate the value that education can bring to their lives. To try and remedy this I put up posters in the classroom of quotations and pictures of famous people that have uplifted themselves from dire situations. I also have strategy sessions where I call friends from varsity that are either continuing their academic studies or working in the industry and they get to talk and interact with my learners and share their experiences. I do this because I want them to connect with people that have made a success of their lives, and I want my learners to see themselves in these people; I want them to start thinking positively about a future they could have for themselves.

Classroom management has also been a challenge. From my experience so far in life, I have noted that human beings generally misbehave because they have some pain in them that they do not know how to alleviate. So when a learner consistently misbehaves in class, I speak to them on an individual basis and I try to get to get to the source of what is causing their pain. Sometimes you find that it is a personal issue and sometimes you find that the personal issue is tied in with larger societal issues like alcohol abuse and child neglect. Most of the time my interventions have helped and there has been a noticeable and lasting change in the attitudes of some of my learners. Some of my learners’ relapse back to their negative attitudes. I guess it reflects the complexity of dealing with individuals that have to make their own choices.

What are the rewards of teaching?

I think as teachers we spend a lot of time explaining concepts and ideas to learners trying to get them to assimilate knowledge and apply it in their daily lives. I think one of the biggest rewards of teaching is when the learners have an epiphany and understand what you are explaining to them. It’s almost as if at that moment you as well have an epiphany and you realise that your efforts are not all for nought. It is also a great feeling knowing that you are contributing to the development of the next generation.

What do you believe you will leave behind at your school in terms of a legacy?

I think most learners view science as difficult because they have a view that the concepts taught in the subject are set in stone and cannot be challenged, changed or improved on. Also, the learners view science as a subject that is not really useful to them outside of the classroom and academic environment. What I try to do is make the learners aware of how science is useful to their daily lives. I try to integrate science into extracurricular activities such as the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. So the learners are learning concepts in class that they can use to apply to a project they are entering into the Expo. I also call experts from outside our town to come and advise learners on their projects, on how they can make it better both scientifically and competitively. I am happy to report that we have been relatively successful in our efforts in the Eskom Expo and although we have never gotten gold; we have never failed to get a podium position. I think that is the legacy I want to leave behind, that I have changed how science is taught at the school by making it more relevant and less intimidating for the learners.

The Future

What is the SKA Project?

The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) is the world’s largest radio telescope. It deploys thousands of radio telescopes allowing for a square kilometre or million square metres of data collecting area. It exceeds the image resolution of the current Hubble Telescope and will augment and complement other large telescopes, such as the optic and infrared, that are still being built and developed and due to be launched in the next coming decades.

Tell us about the story involving you, TEACH and the SKA Project.

Well after I matriculated from high school, I applied to various institutions and organisations to fund my studies at university. The SKA Project was offering bursaries for learners to go study physics and engineering degrees at university and I was fortunate enough to be one of the recipients. And whilst studying physics at Wits University I came across TEACH. Initially, TEACH had planned to place me in another province. But then a situation arose where TEACH needed someone with knowledge of the Northern Cape to go and teach there. So that’s how I found myself being placed in Carnarvon. But what TEACH did not know and in essence, I did not know as well, was that the position I was going to fill was funded through a partnership with the SKA Project. And if you remember my studies were funded by the SKA Project and through my desire to give back to the community and society; I was now helping the SKA develop young scientists and engineers in its surrounding community. You can call that coincidence or providence; depends on what you believe.

What does the future hold for the relationship between you and the SKA?

Well if I was to define our relationship status right now, I would say it is complicated. Look, I can confirm that I am in talks with the SKA regarding my future next year. We are still trying to work out how we can carry on the relationship in a functional and mutually beneficial way. I want to go back to Wits University and get my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Literature. So we are still trying to work out how and if we can make the relationship work.

What inspired you to register for a Literature Degree?

I know what you are thinking, they are polar opposites, right? However, if you ask anyone who knows me, they will tell you that I am an ardent reader. So for me, it seems quite natural to pursue a degree in Literature because it’s something I have always wanted to do.

Is this the end of Itumeleng Molefi in the classroom?

Well, I think I have gotten to a point where I realise that I have done all I can do for now. The TEACH South Africa Ambassador programme runs for two years and I extended my period of service by another 2 years. I think the time has come for me to move on to something new. I don’t think this is the end for me in the classroom; you can say I am taking a “sabbatical”. I think the change in environment and the experiences I am going to obtain whilst studying, can only enrich the learning experience I will provide to learners in the future.


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