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Ms. Mpompolas, a South African Teacher, Wins Prestigious Africa Continental Best Teacher Award

Op-Ed: Nisha and Quentin Wodon

Nisha is the Director a.i. of the UNESCO Regional Office for Southern Africa (UNESCO ROSA) based in Harare. Quentin Wodon is the Director of the UNESCO International Institute for Capacity Building in Africa (UNESCO IICBA) based in Addis Ababa.

Ms. Vasiliki Viki Mpompolas, a teacher from Technical High School situated in a small mining town called Kimberley in the Northern Cape Province in South Africa, won the African Union’s Continental Best Teacher Award. Together with seven other outstanding teachers from Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, and Nigeria, she will be recognized at an event for World Teachers’ Day (on October 5) organized by the African Union Commission and UNESCO IICBA.

Best Teacher Awards are a great way to recognize outstanding teachers. The awards can raise the appreciation of teachers in society while demonstrating that hard work and innovation can make a difference for learners. The African Union Commission instituted the Continental Best Teacher Award in 2019. Winners receive cash gifts and are celebrated. As argued by IICBA in a report led by Steve Nwokeocha and Aminata Sessay in the IICBA Studies series entitled “West Africa – Investing in Teachers and School Leaders: Professional Standards, Teacher Education, and Working Conditions,” teacher awards are important to celebrate the unique contribution that teachers make to their students, their communities, and societies.

In an interview with IICBA posted on IICBA’s website, Ms. Mpompolas was asked why she is passionate about teaching. She answered: “Without a shadow of a doubt – my learners, they are my life. They teach me way more than I can ever teach them. Coming in at a very close second is language, as I believe that it not only forms the basis of a learner’s academic success, but is also imperative to ensuring that well-rounded, insightful, articulate, open-minded, competent, and contributing South African citizens are produced. Language is a vital part of human connection. It is an important tool used to shape our thoughts, ideas, and emotions and reveal them to others in a manner that everyone can understand and relate to. A common language is a symbol of social solidarity. It helps to create cultural ties, friendships, and relationships. It has the power to build societies and is what makes us human… I am a firm believer that one of the chief ways to truly value our own unique cultures and identities is through language. I

encourage my learners daily to embrace their cultures and traditions and to be proud of them.”

Teaching is a demanding profession. It is also one of the most important professions for a society’s development. In economic terms, the changing wealth of a nation is the set of assets that enables it to produce future income. At the World Bank, this wealth can be measured as the sum of natural capital (such as oil, forests, or land), produced capital (investments in roads, factories, etc.), and human capital (the value today of the future earnings of the labor force), plus a residual category called net foreign assets. Globally, human capital wealth, i.e., people account for two-thirds of wealth, a much larger share than natural and produced capital. In South Africa, the share is a bit lower, at 57 percent, but this is still the largest source of the country’s wealth. In turn, education accounts for a large share of human capital wealth. Investing in education is one of the best investments that countries can make.

But for investments in education to bear fruit, we need great teachers. Unfortunately, globally and again in South Africa, we face a shortage of qualified teachers. This year, the theme for World Teachers’ Day is “The teachers we need for the education we want: The global imperative to reverse the teacher shortage.” Estimates suggest that African nations will need to recruit millions of teachers to respond to rising educational attainment and population growth, not to speak of the teachers needed to achieve targets set forth in the Sustainable Development Goals. This will not be easy in a context where teaching may not be seen as an attractive profession and many teachers already lack the qualifications they need.

What can be done to reduce teacher shortages and ensure that teachers can excel? There is no panacea, but priorities should include improving teachers’ working conditions, ensuring quality pre-service education, providing continuous professional development, and establishing clear career paths and related competencies. As noted in IICBA’s study on investing in teachers in West Africa, most countries still have a long way to go. The same is true for South Africa.

Much remains to be done, as too many children still do not learn enough in school. Asked about advice she could share with other teachers, Ms. Mpompolas responded: “Take it one breath at a time. This is a thankless job, yes, but at the same time, the most rewarding. Do not let the bad days overshadow the good and remember why you started in the first place. Despite all the challenges faced by teachers every day, I still believe that this is the best profession in the world. Very few people have the opportunity to touch so many lives in their lifetime. It is a true blessing and a privilege that we too often overlook due to the endless administration, politics, bureaucratic red tape, parental involvement (or lack thereof), unruly learners… The list is endless. Ultimately, when you go home, unwind and assess your day. You can almost always recall a moment in the day when one of your learners came up to you and gave you a hug, or a sweet, or an “I love you, Ma’am,” “Thank you for the lesson, Ma’am,” “Thank you for seeing me, “Ma’am,” “Thank you for listening, Ma’am” or, “You’re the best, Ma’am.” We often overlook these moments and shrug them off as trivial, but I can guarantee you, not many other professions are blessed enough to experience unconditional love as we do.”

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