By Ellen Chilemba
Every so often, you hear about an extraordinary individual who has devoted their life to the betterment of others, and through their actions embodies the values of global citizenship.
Marjorie Brown is one of these people.
Throughout her life, Marjorie has shown an extraordinary commitment to improving her society – driven by the goal of creating a more just and equal world for all those who live in it.
As a young woman in her 20s during apartheid, she became a member of the Black SASH, a resistance group formed by white women who used their social position and privilege within society to critique the power structures that marginalised and disenfranchised people of colour.
With the introduction of the Bantu Education act in the 1990s — which aimed to level the playing field between how black children and white children were educated (until then only white children’s education was prioritised and funded) — she became a teacher.
She has now been a teacher for 23 years, dedicating her career to helping her students understand the current social, economic, and political inequalities that plague their society by looking to the past — and showing them how their history continues to affect their present.
The ways in which the past influences the present is most clearly seen in the educational landscape of South Africa today.
Some 78% of fourth graders do not comprehend their reading material and literacy scores are critically low in primary schools.
School dropouts are at a crisis point and by Grade 12, only 52% of the age appropriate population remains enrolled in school.
Many of these realities are a direct legacy of the apartheid-era policies that allocated children different access to educational resources based on their race. These inequalities persist to this day.
So, in order to combat these inequalities in her own students, Brown started the Phendulani Quiz to boost literacy and access to reading material in poorly-resourced schools.
The programme works through a partnership between a well-resourced school and an under-resourced school, to share resources and bridge the economic divides leftover from apartheid.
The two schools sign up for the quiz competition together, the well-resourced school helps the under-resourced school secure reading books for the quiz, learning resources, and transportation to the quiz.
Only the students of the under-resourced school actually participate in the quiz, but the preparation is done collaboratively, and both schools attend to cheer each other on.
The pupils in the poorer schools do not have functioning school libraries, and so the books provided for the quiz are often the only reading material available in the community.
The quiz targets improving literacy levels, vocabulary, emotional intelligence, and a global awareness, and winners receive prizes such as books and financial support.
It is also geared towards promoting local and global culture with content predominantly coming from local authors, highlighting the struggle for equality in South Africa, and present world issues such as the Syrian refugee crisis.
The quiz has been extremely successful in improving average testing scores from a 40% average to over 80% average.
While the quiz was initially tested out by the Provincial Education Department in just 30 reading clubs in Gauteng province, its incredible results have now inspired officials to request that it be rolled out across all provinces.
“It’s an exciting space, the children just love it and you see their growth by the day of the quiz, and there is a magnificent community of generosity formed from publishers, partner schools and surrounding community,” said Brown.
Brown’s efforts have not gone unrecognised and she is, justifiably, one of the 10 finalists for the Global Teacher Prize selected from over 30,000 nominations and applicants from 173 countries around the world.
Speaking about the finalist teachers and their work to transform communities across the world, Bill Gates said:“When you think about what drives progress and improvement in the world, education is like a master switch — one that opens up all sorts of opportunities for individuals and societies.”
“And research has shown that having a great teacher can be the most important factor that determines whether students get a great education,” he added.
Sadly, teaching is still not prioritised as a profession — either in terms of remuneration, resources, recognition, or prestige.
Countries with limited resources and high education needs find it hard to pay enough salary to teachers to attract them to the profession and keep them there — especially for the most remote, vulnerable areas.
We need more teachers like Marjorie and recognising and sharing her story, and those of others, is a way of shining a spotlight on educators who change lives.