By Lesedi Ntuli
1.) How did you get involved in education?
I really enjoyed my grade school education. My mother worked as an occupational therapist, and my father worked with adults who had disabilities, so their professions helping people must have rubbed off as well, though I didn’t like to admit it. I also took a class in highschool called Teaching Academy where I got to return to my old grade school and help in the classrooms. My grade 6 teacher was a real encouragement when I worked in his class. In university I was still undecided about what to study. I knew I wanted to be in a service/advocacy oriented field. I knew I wanted to be an advocate for people who otherwise would not have the support. I taught as a special needs teacher for 5 years, and loved the work with students but did not enjoy the tedious paperwork. I needed a break, so came as a volunteer to Grahamstown. I got involved with several projects: Amasango Career School, Kuyasa Special School and the Holy Cross school (only an after school programme at that time) and GADRA Education. While here I came to realize the critical nature of education, not just to get good grades, but to develop oneself, build self-confidence, and to be curious about the world I lives in. I really took my education and my profession as a teacher for granted. Here I saw a real need, and recognized that my experience teaching in the U.S. was valuable. My abilities met with a real need, and thus became my passion for education in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
2.) What’s your current connection to education?
I am running a project at Ntsika Highschool called Inkululeko. I work with 18 talented grade 8 and 9 learners from 4 different schools who really want to do well in school and in life. We commit 3 days a week to working on Maths, Natural Science and Language studies. We do a lot of projects and group work to learn the concepts teachers are teaching during the day so learners can really understand what it is they are trying to learn. We try to do this in a way that builds their confidence and helps them to figure out how to learn for themselves and find creative new ways to use the information they learn. I am also a learner myself studying for a Master’s in Mathematics Education Research at Rhodes. I am researching how learners think creatively to solve mathematical problems in grade 8 and 9. If learners can solve mathematics problems in creative ways, there is nothing stopping them being able to solve any and all problems that come their way in life.
I fell in love with Grahamstown in 2007 when I first came. I met my wife Zinzi here, so this place is full of friendships, family and memories. Also, I see Grahamstown as a microcosm of the world. Resources are available, and there is a full spectrum of living situations. If we can develop as a community here in a positive direction for all, then there is potential for the world at large.
4.)What is your favourite book from your childhood?
Go Dog Go! was the book that I remember making the connection that the funny squiggly lines on the page were letters that combined to make words that told me what was happening with the pictures in the book. I also loved “Where The Wild Things Are” and “Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” We all have bad days and that is okay.
5.) What motivates you to stay in education?
The learners I work with. They are like family and their sense of humour, energy, and growing confidence inspires me B. Because there is a real need for education beyond what happens in the classroom. C. There is a lot about school I get frustrated with, but I am always in awe of what the power of inquisitive learning can do.
6.) If you were forced to go back to school, which grade would you return to and why?
4th Grade, I just loved it! 6th grade too! Mostly because of my teachers Mrs. Looper and Mr. Wheeler.
7.)What’s the one thing about you few people know?
I am very excited for a hike I am going to do. My friends and I built a cart to carry water and supplies and we are going to go on a 200km hike through the Karoo! I am super excited for the challenge. I love to be outdoors.
8.) If there was one thing about education in South Africa that you could instantly change, what would it be?
I would hope for a magical creative, adaptive and vibrant energy to revitalize our teachers. South Africa has very good teachers, but they are tired, overwhelmed. If we could start directing our interests into how to support teachers with strategies that work for the difficult situations they are working in rather than continually telling them how bad a job they are doing, then we could build teacher confidence, and find pockets of greatness in an otherwise overwhelming situation. Teachers need the energy and adaptiveness to come up with creative ways to make things work in overcrowded, underesourced classrooms. We need to recognize and encourage those rock star teachers that I know are out there and develop an ethos in the schools that recognize the giftedness of some of our teachers.
9.) What do you think the community can do for education?
If the community at large can begin to see the brilliance of our youth despite limited opportunities to shine. There are so many things we take for granted about what happens outside the classroom in regard to education. Playing board games, organized sport, debate clubs, social events. Most of all learners need opportunities to be recognized for the unique individuals they are not just whether or not they are top ten at school. Improving education requires holistic supports. The issue of improving schools will take a lot of time. In the meantime the community must also find ways to support and encourage learners while in their communities.
10.) Do you like green eggs and ham?
Only if it is in can on a pan eaten with a mop while drinking a soda pop.
Deputy Director and Curriculum Advisor of Inkululeko, Matt Kellen, is a teacher by trade who studied Special Needs Education at Western Washington University. After teaching for three years in the United States, he was eager to see what it was like outside of his corner of the world. The corner he landed in however, was Grahamstown.
During this time, Kellen found that he was passionate about collaborating with others to provide innovative solutions to educational challenges facing the Grahamstown community. In 2009 he returned to the US and later came back to start the non-profit organisation. The project, which means freedom in isiXhosa, is aimed at assisting learners from previously-disadvantaged backgrounds to individually and collectively improve on areas of academic deficiency. “I strongly believe that education has the potential to empower, which is why Inkululeko offers this space for learners to pursue their dreams of higher education, regardless of socio-economic status” Kellen said.
Continuing with his work of transforming education in Grahamstown, Kellen added that despite teachers being the driving force behind educational innovation, they cannot think for learners, nor can they impose their thoughts on them.
“One of our main focuses really is to ensure that the learners are able to think critically and not just take in things like a parrot. All the skills, support and guidance we provide them with, help challenge the bigotry of low expectations for township youth” he said.
Kellen emphasised that while many of the learners he works with are from marginalised backgrounds, he is determined to make a change, even with the country’s undeniable problems with the quality of basic education. He added that providing such opportunities and support can have a monumental impact on how learners view themselves, and in turn, how they view what is possible in their own lives. “The main problem is that most of these learners struggle because of lack of quality education. It is not that they are inherently unable to succeed” he said.
Although the project requires commitment that is enormously demanding, Kellen stressed that it has been a pleasure working with a group of learners who are able to develop the knowledge, skills and values to enable them to thrive once they get to higher education institutions.
“They continue to surprise me, really. It is like they have taken ownership of the project” he said.
However Kellen added that while the organisation itself is going well, being an outsider has proved to be a bit of a challenge.
“I view my work as detective work. There are many things I am unaware of, and as I continue to work with students and rely on their insight, the complexities are more clearly revealed. This process takes time which is frustrating,” he said.
As an outsider with objective eyes, Kellen believes that he is able to be a detective in sorting out what the real issues are for the learners.
“In relying heavily on our learners to show us the challenges, they are more able to take ownership of their successes in overcoming those challenges’ he said.
In addition, Kellen said that he hopes to see a collective impact on improving the country’s education system. “In the words of Paulo Freire: knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.
To me, what this means is that the freedom that comes with education is the ability to think for oneself based on one’s own restless inquiry, and then pursue what is good and right and just with tangible hope that you can be part of the solution or at least less a part of the problem” he said.