Learning to Teach Mathematics at Tennyson House

Renuka Vithal

University of Durban-Westville, South Africa


Tennyson House is what is commonly referred to as a shelter for ‘street children’. It is the only shelter in the city of Durban that caters exclusively for girls. The main focus in this presentation is on a tutorial programme in which student teachers take responsibility for the mathematical growth and development of a learner who lives at Tennyson House.

The programme was set up through a collaboration between myself as mathematics teacher educator, an educational psychologist in the faculty Cheryl Smith who works extensively with street children and the director of Tennyson House, Robyn XXXX. It was designed to achieve multiple goals based on the principle of reciprocity. This meant that clear goals were identified and agreed to which would benefit both student teachers and the girls at Tennyson House. Student teachers in their third year of study in a Bachelors degree in which they have chosen to major in Mathematics Education to teach in the senior secondary phase participated in the programme. They were attached, in pairs, to a learner at the shelter and were responsible for her mathematics educational needs for a year. The learners at Tennyson house range in age from about 9 to 16 years of age and are invited to live at Tennyson house during which time they are assessed, placed in school and counseled to be reunited with their families.

The programme that unfolded was a multi-faceted one. It included weekly tutorial sessions planned, prepared and delivered by student teachers which were supervised by me and integrated into the mathematics education curriculum itself. Student teachers presented their cases to their colleagues periodically during lecture time and they were required to produce a detailed portfolio, which constituted part of the assessment for the student teachers in their final mark. In addition there was a visit to the school in which the girls were placed and a visit by the girls to the university.

One of the main indicators of the success of the programme was taken to be improvement in school mathematics performance of the girls. But the learning gains from the project have gone far beyond initial expectations. The student teachers got an opportunity to practice and observe ‘theory-in-action’, were inducted into an authentic professional discourse and dialogue as they reflected on this micro learning situation, and had to directly confront their own prejudices such as racism. For the girls, there was significant improvement in their mathematics performance; but also an experience of a role model of young adults who are similar to them but whose lives have taken quite another direction and hence made visible a different future. And as the director reported, the most frequent reason given by the girls for not absconding from the shelter is the special supervision and support they received from the student teachers through the programme. As a teacher educator, it gave me new insights in understanding what it means to become a teacher. It was clear that knowledge and skills in teaching mathematics were developed but the programme offered an opportunity for student teachers to learn to be ‘caring’ towards learners in their mathematics teaching and to show commitment and dedication. They were learning to teach mathematics in a context in which it mattered if the learners learned because the consequences of teaching and learning or failing to teach and learn were authentic and tangible. It was a chance to make a real difference in the life of a young person whom society had almost given up on.