Beyond the call of duty

Dedicated teaching in Nkomazi has raised the matric pass rate.

A trip to any school in Mpumalanga’s Nkomazi region is sure to be bumpy and dusty. And, like most of the houses in the villages, the schools are impoverished.

In a classroom in Magweni, southeast of Malalane, December Mpapane (46) is hard at work with a Grade 12 Nkomazi High School class.

His pupils, clad in yellow shirts and maroon jerseys, sit on plastic chairs with school bags on their laps to press on. Desks or tables are a luxury they do not have.

Sitting in neck-straining positions, they deftly work through the problems with Mpapane and give the correct answers in unison.

At the end of the year, Mpapane is aiming to get no fewer than 10 ­distinctions from this class of 75 pupils.

It’s not an empty boast. Mpapane has an impressive 15-year track record and he doesn’t intend to slack off now.

Mpapane and his enthusiastic pupils are just one part of the success story of the schools situated in the sugar cane and citrus-rich Nkomazi region bordering Mozambique and Swaziland.

The schools are badly under­resourced and Nkomazi is beset by common South African social problems: grinding poverty, joblessness and child-headed households.

But the Nkomazi region’s overall matric pass rate has consistently over the past few years been above 70% and some individual schools consistently achieve above 90%.

Last year, Nkomazi got a 77.5% overall pass rate, following the largely urban Steve Tshwete area in Middelburg, which scored 84%. It scored 76.2% in 2011.

Nkomazi’s teachers are a ­dedicated lot and Mpapane is a ­perfect example.

When he’s not teaching grades 10, 11 and 12 classes at Nkomazi High, he traverses villages in his Ford ­Focus or in taxis to help other schools – for free.

The married father of 10 children spends his own money, and clocks in to work on weekends and public holidays too.

“I want the kids to get better jobs and live better lives than myself and their parents,” Mpapane said.

“Every day I work with the children until 6.30pm. When I have money for petrol, I use my car to teach at other schools and when I’m short of cash, I board taxis.”

Mpapane’s poor background was education’s gain, but a loss to the medical world.

When he finished matric in 1989 – he is an alumnus of Nkomazi High, in fact – he wanted to become a ­doctor, but had no money to go to university.

He started teaching at Nkomazi immediately and registered for a correspondence teaching course in 1996. But he canned those plans ­after the Mpumalanga education department promised to help him get a diploma through its recognition of prior learning programme.

He re-registered with Lyceum Correspondence College when the department failed to keep its promise and got his diploma in 2002.

“I wish to study further, but I don’t have the time,” Mpapane said.

His pupils’ success has helped Nkomazi High School enormously. It gets private sponsorships to help send pupils on educational-holiday camps.

Nkomazi achieved a 91.3% overall matric pass rate in 2012. All of Mpapane’s 59 pupils passed and 11 scored distinctions for maths.

Nkomazi principal Sandile Shongwe summed it up: “We excel here because of Mpapane’s work.”

Lizel Lubisi (16) struggled with maths before joining Mpapane’s class.

“I had problems with mathematics, but when I reached Grade 10, Mr Mpapane made it seem so easy. I’m sure of a distinction this year,” she said.

Mpapane is not the only hero teacher making the Nkomazi ­region tick.

At Mjokwane High in Naas, near Komatipoort, the space between the front row of desks and the wall in each classroom is barely a metre.

It is badly overcrowded, with about 65 pupils in each classroom.

“Our resources need to be topped up, but we have to fight the same battles all the time because we lack funds,” said principal Esther ­Mncina.

“Maintaining a photocopying machine is such a struggle here,” she said.

Mjokwane is a no-fee school ­because its pupils and their families are too poor to afford any fees.

Last year 93.8 % of its matric ­pupils passed. The previous year, it achieved a 98.9% pass rate and in 2010 it was 90.8% – with a 100% pass rate in both maths and science.

Mncina said: “We’ve developed a culture and parents demand a 100% pass rate, which has become a song. Teachers and pupils work very hard, and they take it further by ­going to class on Saturdays and Sundays.”

Teacher Luke Chuma said an adopt-a-learner initiative that he championed a few years ago had worked wonders.

Each teacher adopts one pupil and takes it upon themselves to check all that child’s work every day.

“That helps to motivate these children. Some don’t have parents and this means they have somebody who cares about their work and listens to their problems,” ­Chuma said.

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