Youth voices: this is how a champion teacher changed my life

Gracious Lekgoathi is a Youth Capital Influencer based in Johannesburg.

The reality is that many learners can struggle for years to catch up with their peers. These learners often don’t have the foundational literacy and numeracy skills essential for academic success. Without the foundational reading skills to grasp the curriculum, many learners become disengaged and drop out before completing matric.

In South Africa, eight out of ten Grade 4 learners cannot read for meaning in any language. Gracious Lekgoathi was one of them. She was unable to read for meaning by the time she reached Grade 5. Had things been different, Gracious may have found it very difficult to pass matric. But her story took a positive turn thanks to the support of positive role models: her grandmother, a committed principal and an inspirational teacher.

Her experience shows that having just one caring adult to support a learner through school dramatically improves their chances of finishing matric. We spoke to Gracious about the experiences that shaped her learning journey.

Gracious Lekgoathi’s story

Studies Civil Engineering Technology at the University of Johannesburg.

 “I struggled with comprehension and the construction of words. Whenever I opened a book, I struggled to read the words aloud and they did not make sense. It left me feeling frustrated.”

What was your experience of school while struggling to read?

I was not happy at school. I would become frustrated every time a teacher asked me to read or inquired about my homework. I would often lie to my grandmother about not having any homework. Other times, I would simply copy my friend’s homework because I couldn’t do it on my own. And, I would try to avoid doing oral presentations in class.

As I progressed from one grade to the next, I realised that my teachers were not able to devote attention to learners, like me, who had fallen behind. Instead, priority was given to learners who were performing well in class. I think many teachers tend to use a one-size-fits-all strategy, which is why I didn’t get the support I needed at the time.

Did your guardian know that you were struggling at school?

I lived with my grandmother and she noticed that my marks were slipping. By the time I reached Grade 4, my grandmother began to take more interest and would ask to check my homework. It didn’t take her long to realise that I couldn’t read properly.

She tried to find a solution by alerting my teachers that I couldn’t read. Unfortunately, the teachers were not receptive to her concerns so she moved me to another school. At the new school, my grandmother addressed the issue with the principal on my very first day. She was persistent!

Did things change at your new school?

Yes, the teacher who assessed my reading on the first day at the new school stuck by me. She asked me to stay behind after class and gave me books to read so that I could practice. With her help and encouragement, I was soon able to do my own homework.

My confidence and my marks began to improve. I was motivated to keep pushing myself and wanted to be a top-performing learner. When I started high school, my principal noticed that my report card had dramatically improved so she decided to contact my grandmother to discuss my progress and the type of support I still needed. With extra tutoring, I managed to become the number one learner in my class from Grade 8 until matric.

So, this teacher made a big difference in your life?

She helped me to truly appreciate the value of education and hard work. I went from having low self-esteem to becoming a confident learner who enjoyed going to school. I went from someone who used to copy homework to a learner who helped others to do theirs.

When I arrived at my new school, I was labelled the ‘girl that did not know how to read’ but I left a young woman at the top of her class. I used to get standing ovations at the end of oral presentations. What a change!

Could other learners also benefit from positive role models?

Having a positive role model can help to anchor a learner, especially if they come from challenging home environments. A personal anchor can help to silence disruptive voices by reminding the child that their dreams are possible. Schools should also be safe spaces in which learners feel comfortable to ask for help when they are struggling.  

Gracious Lekgoathi shares her story during a taping of a television programme about school dropout.