South African Teacher Defies Convention... And The Students Are Prospering!
A world of wonder awaits if you open your mind to it … both inside and outside the classroom | Photo Cred: Good Work Foundation | Supplied

“Learning can be exciting. To me, wonder and learning should not be mutually exclusive.” – Teacher and Good Work Foundation CEO Kate Groch.

 

Mpumalanga, South Africa (22 August 2022) – “I fought very hard not to be a teacher,” quips Kate Groch, the CEO of Good Work Foundation (GWF). But sometimes, you can’t fight your destiny. Today, not only is she a seasoned teacher, but Kate has also been instrumental in revolutionising how children and adults learn in rural Mpumalanga.

Anchored in her own experiences of “adventuring” while teaching, she and her team have built a successful rural supplementary education model based on the concept of “wonder-filled learning”. It’s all about bringing the joy of discovery and the thrill of soaking up new knowledge back into the classroom.

Kate’s mother, Maureen (also known as Gogo Mo, who has come to be regarded as GWF’s “wisdom counsel”), is a teacher, so it was in the DNA – much as Kate, who studied zoology, tried to resist it. But as the young Kate volunteered at community projects and did environmental education at Lapalala Wilderness School, she gradually realised that “teaching is choosing me”.

A good teacher follows different paths and methods, and it was while Kate was teaching Biology at a Johannesburg high school that her restless spirit caught up with her.

“I enjoyed it and loved the kids and being in class, but I became frustrated with the scope of the curriculum. Who decides what is important for these kids to know?”

Here, she references the author John Gatto, whose book Dumbing Us Down rails against the fact that most schools teach children how to follow orders “like cogs in an industrial machine”.

Learning in nature’s classroom

Her sense of adventure led her to accept a position as a travelling tutor to young Bronwyn and Boyd Varty, the children of conservationists Dave and Shan Varty. Imagine sunny al fresco learning under trees with the bushveld as your classroom and having local hunters and villagers as your personal on-site history and geography teachers.

From living with Kenya’s Masai people and raising orphaned leopards along the Zambezi to swimming with turtles in Zanzibar and navigating the colourful bustle of India, this was true wonder-filled, experiential learning – for both the kids and for Kate.

South African Teacher Defies Convention... And The Students Are Prospering!
Nature’s classroom … holding classes under wide-open skies opened Kate’s eyes to a different approach to being a teacher, teaching and learning | Photo Cred: Good Work Foundation | Supplied
South African Teacher Defies Convention... And The Students Are Prospering!
Nature’s classroom … holding classes under wide-open skies opened Kate’s eyes to a different approach to being a teacher, teaching and learning | Photo Cred: Good Work Foundation | Supplied

“We threw everything [conventional] away, tore down classroom walls and learnt under a tree and from the local people. The fact that I kept learning with the kids was a bonus. I wish I could make a tonic out of the experience and bottle it!”

Not everyone, of course, is able to travel around the world to immerse themselves in culture and nature as a matter of course.

But it did prove a turning point for Kate: “There was no chance of me going back into formal teaching again.”

Her worldview and concept of education had been forever altered.

Later, Kate established an educational volunteer-based organisation with Shan Varty in the Free State town of Philippolis called Future Nature, creating learning opportunities for rural communities through immersion in nature – and building a preschool for the village children. The impact was startling. And that got Kate thinking.

Seeing the world through a different lens

People volunteering in Philippolis started to see the world differently and how they could make a contribution.

“They saw that if you show up with the intention to serve, you can change people’s lives just by being you,” says Kate.

“All these experiences taught me that learning can be exciting. To me, wonder and learning should not be mutually exclusive. I experienced wonder-filled and collaborative learning and was inspired to try to recreate that – but it had never crossed my mind that technology can be that ‘wonder moment’ for kids. 

“But if you think about it, Lego is the coolest thing on the planet, and coding a Lego robot proves that tech can be that wonder catalyst. Showing kids a 3D movie or augmented reality, or how the robot moves when you code it, unlocks those moments. Yes, tech is just like a pen or a tool for learning – but a very cool pen.

“So, how do you leverage tech to get more people to experience those moments in a rural area?”

Using tech to spark moments of wonder

And so, the seeds were sown for the flagship Hazyview Digital Learning Centre in Mpumalanga, with the help of the Vartys and other partners and donors. It was a massive leap of faith – especially for someone like Kate, who confesses she is “the most un-techno person I know”.

The vision of using digital technology to open up the world of learning and create a pathway into the world of work started slowly taking shape. When the Hazyview campus was built in 2012, and the young people started streaming in for supplementary lessons, what had seemed like an impossible dream suddenly became concrete.

South African Teacher Defies Convention... And The Students Are Prospering!
Technology, creativity and fun! Good Work Foundation loves stimulating young minds | Photo Cred: Good Work Foundation | Supplied

Its success – equipping rural communities for a 4IR future – led to five more satellite digital learning campuses being built in Mpumalanga and Philippolis.

Looking back on the past ten years and the thousands of young lives that have been enriched thanks to a path Kate initially never saw herself following, she chalks it down to being receptive to the messages the universe sent her way.

“Even if I won the lottery, I’d still do it the same way,” she laughs. 

And for Kate, seeing her adopted daughter, Maya, flourishing is a daily reminder that “no matter where you’re born, you can achieve anything if you’re given the opportunity to learn”.

Today, as she focuses on fundraising and scaling up GWF’s operations for further impact, Kate reflects, “I still learn huge amounts every day; there’s so much to learn. My teaching journey has mostly been about me learning and realising that there is a bigger thing that needs to be done.

“It’s about breaking down the walls of the classroom – metaphorically – and refusing to be confined and defined by those walls. Especially now, we need not be confined by geography. The world is our classroom.”

Be a champion for wonder-filled learning! Donate to Good Work Foundation


Sources: Good Work Foundation 
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Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.

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