Dreaming of a better education system

Matseliso L Mokhele

“It is my passion to thoroughly research the education system in South Africa in order to identify the challenges teachers have in the classroom, to review the current interventions available to support them and see how we can address these issues in a lasting and meaningful way.”

Bursaries, scholarships, grants and prizes

Awarded a Thuthuka Grant by the NRF to undertake research on Teacher-led Professional Development Programmes (2014)

“There are serious problems in our education system,” said Professor Matseliso Mokhele, a Research Associate Professor at the University of Fort Hare in East London, “but if we all stand together and hold hands we can make a difference.”

Matseliso, who has a PhD in Curriculum Development, said she realised this during the two years she spent in a classroom in Lesotho after completing her Bachelors of Education. Her experience as a teacher of development studies at the time left her with the distinct impression that the continuous professional development (CPD) strategies of the Department of Education in that country were ineffective.

She remembers going to a workshop once and thinking that none of what was being shared was relevant in her teaching environment. The facilitators spoke about doing a certain experiment in the science laboratory and Matseliso was thinking that they don’t even have a science laboratory, let alone a microscope.

“I enrolled for an Honours degree in Curriculum Development at UNISA, but by the time my first assignments was due, I hadn’t even begun to work on them. I realised that I would need to shelve teaching, which I loved very much, and go back behind the desk to equip myself to cope better with my teaching responsibilities in later years,” said Matseliso.

Although she was initially in two minds about her decision because of the financial implications of giving up her employment to study full time, in hindsight, it was one of the best decisions of her life. Not only was she equipping herself as a teacher, but she also happened to stumble upon what has since become her passion.

Matseliso completed her Honours degree in one year as opposed to the two years it usually takes and then enrolled for her Masters’ degree at the same institution.

Throughout this time, she continued to offer her services as a research assistant in her supervisor’s project, which was researching the training needs of mathematics and science teachers in the Mpumalanga area.

“She is one of the very few young black South African woman scholars I know who does not think that the world owes her anything,” said Professor Loyiso Jita, Matseliso’s mentor, “she is always willing to earn her accolades and the many awards she has received, both as a student and researcher bear testimony to this work ethic. Matseliso is one of a very few South Africans to have won a grant from the American Education Research Association.”

After completing her Honours and to her great relief, owing to the voluntary work she was doing for her supervisor, Matseliso was offered a research scholarship by the National Research Foundation (NRF) which took the edge off the financial pressure. At the same time, she was also offered a Canon Collins Scholarship to complete her Masters degree.

“The time I spent out in the field collecting data opened my eyes to the broader state of teaching in South Africa, not just from my own perspective, but from the perspective of other teachers. I saw many teachers who were thrown into the deep end, being tasked to teach subjects they themselves had no specific training for, especially in the areas of mathematics and science,” Matseliso said.

Matseliso realised that attaining a PhD would be a passport to a world of career opportunities and better positions that she would otherwise not be qualified for. Between 2008 and 2010, Matseliso worked at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) but eventually the commitments of a full-time job, concomitant with completing a PhD, took its toll and she had to decide between the two.

“Getting a PhD was my goal, so I resigned from my position at the HSRC and instead took up a position as a lecturer at UNISA which afforded me the time I needed to complete my PhD, which I did in 2011,” Matseliso said.

It has been a long road but Matseliso now holds the position of Research Associate Professor at the University of Fort Hare in East London where she is responsible for increasing research productivity in the Faculty of Education.

Through an initiative started by her, staff members in the faculty now have a forum where they can present their work in progress related to their Masters and doctoral degrees in order to get constructive feedback from peers and to stimulate conversation surrounding their research.

“I have also revitalised our student Research Seminars, where the Masters and doctoral attend research workshops in order to spur them on to greater heights and to speed up the process of them finishing their studies,” she said. Matseliso shuttles back and forth between the rural Alice campus and the city campus to ensure that all Fort Hare students receive the benefits of these seminars irrespective of their geography and socio-economic status.

“It is my passion to thoroughly research the education system in South Africa in order to identify the challenges teachers have in the classroom, to review the current interventions available to support them and see how we can address these issues in a lasting and meaningful way,” said Matseliso.

So far, her research has already unearthed several challenges that educators face, chief of these, being the communication breakdown and lack of synergy between classroom educators and the officials or managers of the education department on issues of curriculum implementation.

“The key argument in my research is that perhaps it’s high time we have ears for the teachers. Currently, we don’t really know what they want, what they need, as we mostly just keep imposing on them, streamlining curricula, introducing this programme, then that, without ever stopping to first ask teachers what they want and need,” Matseliso asserted.

Also on her list of challenges in the education system is the fact that a lot of money is being spent on teacher intervention programmes and workshops that have not produced the desired results.

“Teacher re-deployment continues to be a problem, where teachers move from one school to another because of the changes in the post establishments. A teacher may sometimes be asked to teach English this year, and may be moved to another school next year where they may now be responsible for mathematics and the next year, Afrikaans, all because of the challenges around the stability of the post-establishments. The irony of the example presented here lies in the fact the redeployed teacher may have graduated with a degree in Art or Religious studies even. In an attempt to guarantee their jobs, teachers may often find themselves teaching subjects they are not qualified to teach and thereby never get the opportunity to become specialists in one subject, because they are re-deployed as the needs arise.”

An issue that burdens her no end relates to the inequalities between schools in our country. Equal standards of schooling with adequate access to all the resources necessary to teach the curriculum thoroughly could become a reality if all of South Africa share a common vision and stand together to realise it.