Smarties, projector pens and naughty jokes – How William Smith taught a nation

2019-04-28 10:00
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With his white board markers, a projector and a box of Smarties, against the backdrop of the picturesque Knysna Lagoon, William Smith demystified maths and science for generations of South Africans. Across the country through the 1990s, he made the subjects accessible to children irrespective of race or class as they watched and learnt from the ground-breaking Learning Channel on SABC 2. 

This past Thursday, Smith, who turns 80 years old next month, was bestowed with a national order – the Baobab in Silver – for his contribution towards the country. Photographs of President Cyril Ramaphosa hanging the award around the neck of the man who has become known as the country's teacher, set off a flurry of nostalgia with thousands of tweets of gratitude being sent out.

"I'm shattered about the response, I'm sort of thinking hang on when am I going to wake up? There have been thousands of tweets. It's absolutely amazing," Smith tells me the day after the awards ceremony. Listening to his voice immediately transports me back to my teenage home, sitting on a peach leather couch with my Physics notes on my lap. It's surreal.

"It's coming from people who were taught by me, who are now adults, who look back on their past and are saying, that did help me achieve what I did. That's the ultimate desire of any teacher, to have people say that part of my success is thanks to you! You couldn't want more," he says.

Smith's secret was that he was not only a teacher, but also an entertainer. He used simple language and cheeky jokes to win over his adolescent audience.

The way to teach is to entertain

"I had a philosophy that the way to teach is to entertain with your subject and that worked very well on TV because TV is entertainment. I had a sense of humour and I used to tease the girls and I would be locked up in jail if I did that today," he confesses. "We had 'the sex life of the elements' and carbon was 'the proverbial queer, he can love anybody' and that gives life to organic chemistry and it worked! I met people in America and the UK who I taught and I still remember that and it was all the naughty ones and that was the aim of it."

He was authentic and built a rapport with his audience. "I just decided I am me and if you don't like me, turn me off. To be a good teacher, I think you need to be relatively stupid. A very bright person struggles to understand the problems and everything to a bright person is obvious. If you go into this thinking you're special, you're dead. You have to accept you're going to get questions you don't know, so don't ham it up. If you get caught as a bluff, you're dead. It was a hang of a privilege. I was in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge and the right experience and it just happened," he reminisces humbly.

Smith was born into the world of academia. His parents were veritable science rock stars of their era. His father was the highly acclaimed ichthyologist who was the first to identify the coelacanth in East London in 1939, a fish long thought to be extinct. Together with Smith's mother, Margaret, the couple researched and published their studies on the coelacanth submitting their manuscript four days before Williams' birth. The J.L.B Smith Institute of Ichthyology was set up in their honour at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Ironically, William's mother received the same national order he did, but in Gold, from State President PW Botha in 1987.

Smith acknowledges his parents' achievements but does not seem to embrace them.

"They were both professors and that's why I grew up a bit warped," he quips. "I don't claim them too much. You know you can choose your wife but you can't choose your parents. It was a situation of either you basked in their shadow which meant you never developed yourself or you broke away totally and did something different."

He chose to break away and do something totally different. At first, he did follow their paths through academia, obtaining a BSc in Physics and Chemistry, an Honour's and a Master's (which he achieved in seven months) but while doing his Doctorate, he dropped out. He made a movie called Dynamite that "nearly killed" his parents. He worked at AECI and Afrox and then changed career paths into education.

The perfect revision for exams

Smith started Star Schools and struck on the concept of teaching large volumes of children at once. Broadcaster David O'Sullivan recalls being a pupil in 1979 and attending Smith's workshops. "He did a pull-out supplement in the Star newspaper. It was called Star Schools. I used to collect them – filled with tips and examples to demystify algebra and trigonometry. In the build-up to the matric exams, he took over the large His Majesty's Theatre and ran all-day workshops. It was the perfect revision for the exams. Thousands of students packed the theatre for those classes," he recalls.

In 1990 Smith began producing The Learning Channel with the financial backing of Hylton Appelbaum, then executive director of the Liberty Life Foundation. At one point, when he was at TV Africa, he had a hundred million viewers a day across Africa. "That was the most difficult thing I ever did because we had different countries, different syllabi, different backgrounds and you had different languages and we were working on satellite phones. It's been just amazing."He became so popular that he once even judged the Miss South Africa contest, a moment which he humorously describes as the "culmination of his career calculating figures".

Through most of it, Smith lived with his wife Jenny and their three daughters in Knysna. The family owned the pristine 150-hectare Featherbed nature reserve on the western head, which Smith inherited from his father. He personally ran the ferries that cruised tourists around the lagoon and it was not uncommon to hear his familiar teachers voice exalting the Knysna Loerie or Black African Oyster Catcher as you drifted through the heads. Smith sold the reserve in 2008 to businessman and developer Kobus Smith. 'It's carrying on better than ever, even after the fires,' says Smith. 'He's been able to do things we would never have been able to do.'

Four years ago, Smith and his wife followed their daughters to Australia and now live in Perth. He doesn't want to get political, but there is a sense that he became somewhat disillusioned with the country and its prospects for his own children. Prior to emigrating, he went to see the country's Education Minister (which he declines to name) to propose a revolutionary teaching programme to be rolled out in collaboration with the government. He was sent packing because the Minister told him she could not support him politically as it would be the end of her career, even though she knew the project would work. It left Smith devastated, believing she was more concerned with her own political survival than the education of millions of children. He won't say if this contributed to his decision to go.

William Smith received National Baobab order for h

"You know, things were happening. Things were disturbing; the Eskom story, we saw it coming. The roads were deteriorating. Hospitals. Education, well, I don't know. I looked at this and I just thought, wow."

Returning back to South Africa this week to national acclaim has been overwhelming for him. His kids have been keeping him updated with all the tweets that have been posted because he claims to be computer illiterate. "Why buy a dog and then bark, let a dog bark," he argues about learning new technology.

People 'don't understand fractions'

I ask him if enough emphasis is placed on mathematics and science by teachers in classrooms in SA today and he responds with a maths question for me. It takes me straight back to my teenage years, watching him on TV. 

"What is two divided by half?"

Thankfully I answer correctly. Four.

"You know how many people say it's one? In an audience of a hundred people, fifty say one. Because they don't understand fractions!"

Smith's point is that we are teaching our children the wrong maths and science, that is irrelevant to their everyday lives. "When do you actually use these damn things? Arithmetic is far more important. I think we are teaching in some cases for the sake of teaching. If you look at your schooling and you say, how much of that have I actually used. I mean studying Shakespeare in English, is it really going to help you?"

As we reflect on his national order, it's evident that Smith's wisdom and exuberant TV teachings are needed more now in our schools than ever before. In 2018, just 51% of matrics passed their mathematics exams while 62% passed in Science. Out of a total of 270,516 mathematics writers, 37% passed with 40% and above. The percentage pass was consistently between 30 and 35%. Also concerning is that less than half of all matriculants actually chose to do maths as a subject.

We can only imagine how things would be different if that education minister had accepted Smith's offer instead of prioritising her personal political survival.

But as the country's teacher emphasises, it is also up to the children themselves to determine their own destinies. "You can take a horse to water, you can offer kids education, but if they don't take it and work on it, honestly they're going to get nowhere. Their achievements had a hell of a lot to do with it. That's the problem with education, you've got to use it."

Read more on:    william smith  |  education  |  mathematics
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