Marjorie Brown. Picture: BUSANI BAFANA
Marjorie Brown. Picture: BUSANI BAFANA

Dubai — SA can deliver effective education if teachers and teaching are respected and valued, says Johannesburg history teacher Marjorie Brown, who was short-listed for a global teacher prize worth $1m that was presented in Dubai on March 18.

Brown, a history teacher at Roedean School in Johannesburg, was nominated for the prestigious $1m Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize 2018, after making a final short list of top 10 teachers from an initial pool of 50 teachers in the world chosen from 30,000 nominations and applications from 170 countries.

The Global Teacher Prize, launched in 2014 by the Varkey Foundation, honours and seeks to improve the status of teachers across the world.

Brown said she was honoured to have been nominated for the award and making the top 10 finalists list even though she did not win it.

Andria Zafirakou, an arts and textiles teacher from the Alperton Community School, Brent, in London, won the massive prize and was presented with a trophy at a glittering ceremony hosted by comedian and actor Trevor Noah.

The other eight finalists were Nurten Akkus (Turkey), Luis Gutierrez (Colombia), Jesus Insilada (Philippines), Glenn Lee (United States), Diego Mahfouz Faria Lima (Brazil), Koen Timmers (Belgium), Eddie Woo (Australia) and Barbara Anna Zielonka from Norway.

A brief on the top finalists for the Global Teacher Prize describes Brown’s work in starting and leading the Kids’ Lit Quiz in SA programme, devoted to improving children’s literacy in what is still a very unequal society. SA has won the international Kids’ Lit Quiz three times in the past 13 years.

Brown is also credited with introducing the Phendulani literacy quiz in poorly resourced schools across SA. The Department of Basic Education is using the quiz as a pilot project in 45 new reading clubs from 2018.

"I wondered why me as I have just been doing what needs to be done as a teacher in our country," Brown said on the sidelines of the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai.

"We live in a very unequal society and I have put my life into working in education with people who have the resources and people with nothing, and I feel honoured to have been selected."

Citing illiteracy, poor teaching, insufficient learning time, violence and the legacy of apartheid as some of the problems dogging SA’s education system, Brown said investment in better teaching and in teachers would be a start.

"I think legislators need to collaborate with teachers," she said. "Often legislators make political decisions and do not sit in the classrooms to see the impact of their decisions on the children.

"We have seen the impact of not much progress in the 20 years of democracy, and politicians have a duty to say what is wrong — and who knows the education system better than we do? Teachers are the foot soldiers who need to be consulted."

Brown, who teaches about SA’s violent past and its links to the education system, said she tried to make her students understand that they had the power to change their world.

She has run debating competitions in her school to shape open minds that will foster global citizens.

"But we need educators to be present and to treat children with respect, and to really want those learners to grow and to develop a growth mind-set in whatever they do.

"Teachers are the activists of the future and we must not see teaching as just a job. We have such a responsibility to grow the youth, as we know the majority of the youth in the world are going to be in Africa."

Brown pointed out that 78% of children in grade 4 in SA did not understand what they are reading. Arguing that resources were not the problem, Brown said efforts should be focused on enabling educators and boosting literacy in early childhood education.

"We have to build the building blocks in early childhood education, build literacy, and from there we can start to build an education for critical thinkers and not just rote learners.

"We have to build an education system were children are figuring out solutions, and that starts with literacy and early child education."

She said teachers needed to regain their status as role models in SA.