Master mathematics teachers as mentors for underperforming and disadvantaged schools

  • Annemarie Hattingh Sentrum vir Wetenskap, Wiskunde en Tegnologie Onderwys Universiteit van Pretoria
Keywords: profementorskap, ssionele ontwikkeling, meester-wiskunde onderwysers, gedifferensieerde raamwerk


The work of teachers has a significant role both with regard to learners’ achievement and their opportunities in life. In the context of a developing country, particularly with respect to township and rural schools, it is a common occurrence that many practising teachers are un- or under qualified for the teaching of mathematics. What kind of professional development would be effective for upgrading the content knowledge and professional competence of such teachers? It is the aim of this article to give an overview of a professional development approach, called mentorship by master mathematics teachers, which had a positive effect both on teacher learning and their learners’ performance. Where mentorship usually focuses on the induction of beginning or student teachers, the Teacher Mentorship Programme (TMP) in this case, had as its target experienced teachers who had been teaching mathematics for years in township schools, but without the appropriate qualifications. The mentee teachers had never previously, due to no fault of their own, been exposed to excellent teaching practices as learners, student or practising teachers. The TMP was an initiative of a university’s Faculty of Engineering, that collaborated with private engineering companies and the Department of Education with the aim of preparing more and better equipped Grade 12 leavers who enrol for studies in engineering and technology related fields. The intended outcomes of the TMP were:

  • To improve teachers’ content knowledge, pedagogical competence and attitude towards mathematics and science.
  • To broaden teachers’ knowledge of careers related to the mathematics, science and technology fields.
  • To improve learners’ attitudes towards mathematics, science and related careers.
  • To increase the number of learners who enrol for mathematics on the higher grade which is the equivalent of “core” mathematics in the new National Curriculum Statement.

Why a mentorship programme? A common theme occurring continuously in professional development research is that ad hoc workshops do not seem to have the sustained impact required for significant teacher change and the improvement required to enhance learners’ performance. A pure workshop approach also lacks in-context follow up support and reflection on newly acquired innovations. The body of research recommends that in-service programmes need to be school-based, they need to address the learning needs as identified by teachers themselves, and, lastly, they need consistently to be subject focused. Through the latter approach, teachers are not merely cast into the role of a technical-rationalist to receive knowledge, but instead, they are perceived as knowledge producers through joint reflection with expert mentors. The article further describes the requirements and some characteristics of master mentors that were appointed in the crucial role of change facilitators. The impact of the four year programme (2003-2006) is briefly provided through statistical lenses, while the qualitative themes that emerged as the biggest learning and developmental needs as reported by teachers themselves are narrated. Teachers mostly needed support with subject conceptualisation, pedagogic content knowledge (how to teach challenging concepts) and portfolio assessment. A detailed account of results can be found in Fricke (2008). In conclusion, the article offers a possible theoretical framework for designing and negotiating an individualised professional development plan. The suggested theoretical frame departs from the Zone of Feasible Development (ZFD), analogous to Vygotsky’s ZFD which describes the “distance” between actual performance on the one hand and the idealised performance an individual can achieve under the guidance of an expert on the other.

Original Research