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Be the teacher you needed when you were 12

The Japanese have a word, Ikigai, for which there is no English equivalent. Roughly translated, it means “reason for being.” If you love doing something that the world needs, and you do it well, you will feel fulfilled in that which you have been called to do. That’s what teaching is: it’s not a job – it’s a calling. What I love most is engaging learners in the learning experience, encouraging them to garner, share and generate new information. Teaching is what I am... in essence, I’m in love with learning. Five years ago, I was nominated for the National Teaching Awards for the first time, but I had no idea to what extent it would shape my approach to teaching for the next half-decade to come.

I often find myself amongst more experienced teachers. They’ll comment that I’m part of a generation that grew up with computers in our homes. I gently correct them, telling them that I actually did not have a computer until I was well into my tertiary studies. ICT is not something that one needs to be exposed to at a young age in order to benefit from it; whatever your background, whatever your age, you will always be able to learn something new, whether you view yourself as a novice or expert. The difference between those that learn from and those that shun ICT is often the somewhat stubborn determination that makes the one group keep trying, keep struggling, until they get the result they want.

This resilience builds our character; it drives us to succeed. It took me five years’ worth of trying, struggling, learning… to finally win the provincial award for Excellence in Technology Enhanced Teaching and Learning. It is a worthwhile lesson – especially for the kids in my class. If they see people around them persevere and succeed, they are much more likely to model their own behaviour on what they observe. When one of my Grade 7s asked me what my favourite word was, I said, “Try.” Success is not the be-all and end- all of that which we do, but it is instead that which we learn along the way.

The more I learn, the more I want to learn. If you stop learning, you stop living. I want everyone to feel the seemingly indescribable sensation of holding in the palm of your hand all the knowledge in the world, access to far-off lands, insight into all sorts of oddities. We should cultivate in our learners this inherent need to explore, learn, share and create. We should teach in such a way that they find themselves brimming with excitement for the experience that school offers, to discover what each lesson, each day brings. Our learners must feel inspired to learn in a way from which they will benefit for many years to come. Expression, discovery, creation, collaboration... so many facets of the learning experience are available to the modern-day teacher, if only they dare to use it.

A new way of thinking

Our kids are not recipients of information and consumers of content. They take ownership of their work and collaborate on learning projects and tasks. They need to be part of the learning process – we are not there to feed them facts. I teach my kids to take responsibility for their work – I give them the opportunity to guide their learning and explore topics without me having to spoon-feed them. I see myself as a facilitator, a helping hand, not a tour guide through the curriculum. This means they take ownership of and pride in their work. ICT needs to be presented as a way of thinking, a way of doing, not just a replacement for the things that used to be.

Everyone learns differently, so we need to create opportunities for learners to showcase their strengths… demonstration, explanation, writing, creating… there needs to be a space for them to explore what works for them. This is where ICT can really shine. We are able to customise tasks and assessments to help all learners reach their potential, whatever their challenges may be. Learners who are encouraged to take part in inquiry-based learning, take ownership of and responsibility for their own learning as well as for the learning of others. We are better together. Learner-centred lessons where learners are able to utilise their strengths can help build social cohesion and highlight positive values that we as a society should encourage. They help one another deliver the best work possible. We have to give them the chance to succeed. Kids need a teacher on their side - I strive to be that teacher!

Forward-thinking teachers are a necessity. We must guard against stagnation, thinking that our current way is the only way. We must always keep learning. The perfect teacher does not exist. The question we need to ask ourselves is whether we truly are the most effective teachers we can be. My answer to this question will never be yes. I can always do better. This is why teachers will never be replaced by computers, but those who cannot use a computer will be replaced by those who can. In a fast-paced, ever changing society, we must keep asking ourselves how we can improve our skills to cater to those who have been entrusted to our care.

When I am asked why I became an educator, I respond with, “Be the teacher you needed when you were 12.” In a world that is made for those that fit the mold, those that fit in, those who belong, there needs to be someone who looks out for those who don’t. I believe that ICT is the way to do this. It allows me to accommodate, encourage and empower those who face an uphill battle, whatever the cause.

As educators, we have a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous opportunity, to work with young people. What we must understand is that kids will remember how you made them feel. We call them our kids for a reason: they are a part of who we are, the reason we do what we do. When you look back at your life one day, there will be no monuments for the hours you put in, the red pens you emptied and the grey hairs you accumulated as a teacher. What you leave behind is so much more than that… it will be a sense of fulfillment, a sense of a life well-lived, well spent. It will be the knowledge that there are hundreds of people in whose lives you made a difference, hundreds of your kids who were made to feel like they matter. There is no such thing as a perfect teacher. We have to keep learning, keep improving, keep moving forward. That’s why I strive to be the teacher I needed when I was 12.


Nikki Potgieter

La Rochelle Primary School for Girls

2nd Runner Up, National Teaching Awards 2021 in the Technology-Enhanced Teaching and Learning Category