More than just teaching

2007-12-05 00:00

TEN years ago, two teachers from Edendale and Imbali decided they needed help. Increasingly, the challenges and problems faced by pupils in their daily lives were coming through into the classroom. This was creating barriers to learning, which teachers couldn’t ignore. But they couldn’t deal effectively with them on their own.

The two teachers turned for help to the psychologists at the then University of Natal. The result was the launch of Sizabantwana, a support group for teachers at Imbali and Edendale schools, which last month demonstrated its staying power and its value by celebrating its 10th anniversary at a function on the local campus.

Lungisile Mantshongo, who has been leading the project for the past five years, says the range of psycho-social issues facing pupils is extensive. The Grade 6 maths and life-orientation teacher from Philani Primary School in Imbali says the issues include “anything from health problems to learning difficulties or abuse”.

The Sizabantwana group, which consists of members from 16 mainly primary schools meet, every two weeks and invites organisations and partners to provide workshops and training.

“We’ve had counselling-skills training, bereavement-counselling training and a programme on combating gender violence,” says Mantshongo.

“But our focus is broad,” she says. “It could be that we need to help an academic underachiever or a child who is starving.”

For one initiative, the group invited agricultural expert Dr Albert Modi from the University of Kwazulu-Natal to talk about planting vegetable gardens.

“We’re also fast-tracking abuse cases, accessing services for children and distributing items to children in need,” says Mantshongo.

Mantshongo, who is soon to hand over the leadership reins of the group to a successor, says her perception is that the challenges facing children are growing.

“There’s poverty, bereavement and sickness. Some of our children are on antiretroviral medication. At our school this year, we’ve had three funerals for Grade 1 pupils. There are a number of children who don’t have the required documentation to access ARV treatment.”

While the ultimate beneficiaries of the Sizabantwana support group are the children, the teachers involved in the group have benefited in more ways than they initially expected.

“We’ve all gained skills,” says Mantshongo. “The work of the group has impacted on our personal lives and on our attitudes. We are now capable of being leaders. We’ve learnt to be independent and assertive. Some of us have been encouraged by this experience to study further or to take up roles that we would never have imagined possible before.”

Sizabantwana also gives teachers valuable emotional support and a chance to deal with some of their own stress.

“We laugh and cry together,” says Mantshongo. “Some give good advice and we have mourned the deaths of some group members together.”

UKZN psychologist Carol Mitchell, who led the group for its first five years, describes the relationship between the School of Psychology and Sizabantwana as “a problem-solving collaboration”. According to Mitchell, Mantshongo has been identified as a critical resource in her school.

“She is known as the person who helps the children,” says Mitchell. “For me, Lungi is a cultural guide. She and others in the group remind me that the challenge as a psychologist is to remain relevant in the real world.”

The relationship between the schools and the School of Psychology has also paved the way for a service learning component to be introduced, which gives psychology students an opportunity to work in communities as part of their academic programme.

A mentoring project sees second and third-year student volunteers visit Sizabantwana schools once a week to provide mentoring to a pre-identified child.

“The students engage with the child, play, talk or help with school work,” says Mitchell. “The emphasis is on the development of a relationship because it is through this process that issues or problems emerge. Over the years, our students have referred children they think need help to the Child Advocacy Centre, to hospitals or to social workers.”

The longevity of the Sizabantwana group, one of three teacher support groups originally set up in 1997 as part of a broader primary school support project, is testament to the commitment of its members. For Mantshongo, however, there’s also the proof that the group is making a difference in the lives of children.

“We are making an impact,” she says. “I do it because I love children. A positive change in the life of just one of them would be good enough for me.”

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