Educators passionate about environmental issues are not that common in our schools.
This is a pity, because a healthy environment is essential for a healthy community, and if nothing else, our teachers are building citizens capable of contributing to future society.
“Understanding basic ecology and how the earth works is most important and helps learners to understand so many other things – the basic values of life.” says Antonia Mkhabela. Since 1991 she has been a teacher at Shea O’Connor school, for the past 15 years filling the role of vice principal – and environmental champion.
Inspired by examiners reports on poor performance among learners in environmental studies, Antonia set out to explore the challenges in the environmental learning process. Recently, she completed her Masters Degree in Education – focussed on the of sustainability competencies in the CAPS Life Science curriculum and investigating the teaching methods and assessment practices. Her work informed by the concepts of justice, equality, responsibility, and a deep love of nature.
Antonia feels fortunate to have grown up on a midlands farm with plenty of opportunity for exploring – weaving fragrant gum leaves into skipping ropes, nibbling resin instead of sweets, collecting interesting stones and splashing in the stream. “We played outdoors, walked to school across fields and picked pomegranates, nuts and other fruit freely. We did not realise that this was healthy living. We were not afraid of snakes because we learnt naturally that they are not harmful if you leave them alone.”
Over the years, Antonia has observed that some teachers are not confident about teaching environmental subjects and few have been able to integrate the learning into their lives and classrooms. “Mostly, we focus on theory too much. There is a need to involve outdoor activities and to use local environmental issues to enable learners to understand their environmental context. Learners do not want to be spoon-fed. They love doing their own research. It is easier than many teachers believe, and really important that the children fiddle and experience theoretical concepts, practically. The school yard provides many learning opportunities.”
While the lessons that form part of the curriculum are important, learners’ outcomes are not assessed in a single year, but over a period of time. “In our school, I can clearly observe the changed attitudes learners have to environmental issues. This year, our Enviro Club has almost 100 members!” Clearly, Antonia is an inspiring teacher. Learners call her subject ‘Makoya’ meaning ‘the real subject’! She is also delighted to report how parents are getting involved when the children share their ideas at home. “Especially creating outfits from recycled materials for the Trashion Show, organised by the Dargle Conservancy. Parents are so thrilled to be working with their excited and capable children. Many report that they have improved communication now, and of course, better understanding of the problems of waste.”
Determined to help those keen to improve their environmental content, Antonia plans to use her new knowledge to motivate other educators – sharing methods, ideas and assessment techniques at the Department of Basic Education, Life Science Cluster Meetings, and to assist youth groups to address local environmental concerns. A keen hiker herself, Antonia dreams of being able to take all the nature lovers and environmental activists she works with to visit wild places.
Antonia’s studies have been sponsored by N3 Toll Concession. Commercial Manager Con Roux is overjoyed and so proud of her achievements. “Antonia is a remarkable person and such an inspiration. She overcame so much and dug so deep, just for the sake of the children she teaches. Exceptional.”