‘Pillar of strength’ wins 2019 Stella Clark award

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‘Pillar of strength’ wins 2019 Stella Clark award

A mother, caregiver, mentor and pillar of strength is how second-year LLB student Sandiso Sifumba described his high school English teacher Thuli Shongwe, the recipient of the 2019 Stella Clark Teachers’ Award.



Shongwe, who teaches at Mandlesive Secondary School in Mpumalanga, was selected to receive the prestigious University of Cape Town (UCT) accolade thanks to Sifumba’s sterling nomination to the Stella Clark Teachers’ Award committee.

Clark was a language development lecturer in UCT’s Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED), and the award seeks to honour her memory by shining a spotlight on teachers making a marked difference in the lives of disadvantaged children in underprivileged communities.

“She listens, she understands, she motivates and encourages. She wants to see us succeed.”

The university calls on students each year to put forward the names of standout teachers who impacted their lives significantly during their school careers. They are also required to motivate why their teacher is best suited for this award.

“Mem Shongwe is such a wonderful role model, not just for me, but for every learner who comes through her classroom door. She listens, she understands, she motivates and encourages. She wants to see us succeed,” Sifumba said.


‘Each one, teach one’

In Shongwe’s class, learning is engaging, interactive and fun, he said, adding that many ask how she manages to get this right, especially with a subject like English.

Her classes are relevant, he explained, and her comprehension tests are almost always linked to a current affairs story in the news – that’s how she gets it right.

“She knows what we’re interested in and if we can relate to something, we want to know more. That’s her trick to getting us to learn. It’s what I loved most about her classes.”

Her hands-on approach is what her learners value most, he added. In her class, she always pairs academically strong learners with weaker counterparts to foster a culture of peer-to-peer teaching and continuous learning in and outside her classroom.


This approach, he explained, is based on the African proverb, “Each one, teach one”.

Another of Shongwe’s innovative and successful teaching techniques is her tailor-made reward system. Instead of rewarding the top pupil in the class, she rewards learners based on their improvements in the subject.

With her new seating arrangement of paired learners, the class average increased from 56% to 90%.

“She has her learners’ best interests at heart. She’s always challenging us to work hard and to dream beyond our social setting,” Sifumba said.

“I am here for business and I am in the business of getting my learners to get distinctions. They need to work.”

Targeting distinctions


For Shongwe, being in the classroom surrounded by her learners and teaching a subject she loves makes every day worthwhile.

When asked about her teaching methods, she said: “Love your learners. I love my learners and I love them – all of them – the same.”

But she’s no pushover, she added. She’s at school to do her job and to do it well, and she makes that clear to her learners every day.

“I am here for business and I am in the business of getting my learners to get distinctions. They need to work,” she said.

Preparing lessons to which learners can relate takes research and hours of hard work, which Shongwe said as a teacher you need to love and enjoy to achieve the desired result.


Of the award, she said she is humbled and honoured that her contribution to the field of teaching has been recognised by the university, and that she has able to make a difference in the lives of her learners.

“I am excited to be here and to receive the Stella Clark Teachers’ Award. This is a very important moment in my career as a teacher.”

“This is a very important moment in my career as a teacher.”

As a token of appreciation to UCT for honouring one of its own, Mandlesive Secondary School is establishing a Stella Clark Corner in its library. The corner will comprise UCT pamphlets and brochures, as well as a tablet or laptop computer with internet access in order for learners to obtain information about the institution online.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said this award helps cement the ties between UCT and South African high schools.

Addressing Shongwe and the rest of the audience, Phakeng said basic education is one of South Africa’s pressing challenges and that the country needs good teachers to turn the ship around.


“Some people say we need resources, policy change, the best curricula and a good environment. Yes, that is important. But if we don’t have good teachers, we still won’t have a solid education system,” she said.


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