University of Cape Town: UCT alum receives SA’s Best Teacher Award

Helping learners to grasp difficult concepts, witnessing their “aha” moments and celebrating them, and nurturing a love for science within the classroom is what motivates and inspires Dr Mariëtte Wheeler – the recipient of South Africa’s 2021 National Best Teacher Award. With this approach to her craft and to her learners, she hopes to unleash troops of young, inquiring and solutions-driven minds into the world.

Dr Wheeler, a life sciences and marine sciences teacher at Protea Heights Academy in Cape Town, and a University of Cape Town (UCT) alum, accepted her prestigious award from Minister of Basic Education Angie Motshekga last month.

“Awards such as this one highlights the important work of our teachers and their significant contribution to our learners’ lives.”

“I am overjoyed by this award. The teaching profession is so often criticised, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, teachers have been working harder than ever before. Awards such as this one highlight the important work of our teachers and their significant contribution to our learners’ lives,” she said.

A journey of discovery

Wheeler began teaching in 2016. Both her parents, Dr Jan and Annetta Wheeler, were teachers and her father often encouraged her to take up teaching as a career. But she had other plans.

Wheeler was set on becoming a researcher. She obtained her BSc in Zoology from the then University of Port Elizabeth (currently Nelson Mandela University) in 2000, her honours in 2001, and her MSc in 2004. She didn’t just leave it there. In 2009 she obtained her PhD from UCT, and her doctoral research focused on “The effects of human disturbances on the seabirds and seals at sub-Antarctic Marion Island”. In her field, she worked as a biologist for various organisations including the South African Butterfly Conservation Assessment at the then Animal Demography Unit at UCT.

After much deliberation on how best to use her research, she decided to take up teaching, and returned to UCT in 2015 to complete her Postgraduate Certificate in Education.

“I’ve been on a journey of discovery since 2016 and I am blessed that I’m able to merge my passions for the environment and my research in this area with the work I do in the classroom,” Wheeler said.

Smiles and cheerful greetings

Her classroom is her happy place, and learners’ warm smiles and cheerful good morning greetings are the perfect start to her day.

But it’s hard work, and as each learner is so different, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to the profession. Instead, adopting a multi-faceted approach to teaching, developing close relationships with learners and encouraging an open-door policy are what’s needed to do well in the job. Beyond the curriculum, Wheeler also encourages her learners to become responsible citizens by getting involved in school and community projects.

“You’ve got to be versatile and prepared to be a life-long learner.”

“To be a good teacher takes many different shapes and forms. You’ve got to be versatile and prepared to be a life-long learner. You’ve also got to embrace various teaching methods and resources to remain relevant to your learners,” she said.

More than that, Wheeler said she also believes that learners should not just learn from their teachers, but that they should also be able to learn from each other. Therefore, she especially enjoys incorporating the flipped classroom technique. She explained that the blended learning technique gives the learners the opportunity to work on tasks in groups and present their work to their peers in creative ways.

But it’s not always smooth sailing. Ensuring that learners remain engaged, despite distractions like mobile devices and social media, can be quite a daunting task. However, using the internet and social media to your advantage to encourage critical thinking in specific subjects is the way to go.

All-round achievers

Wheeler said nurturing young minds who are not just book smart, but who are in tune with the world’s challenges, is her number one priority. So, she encourages her learners to immerse themselves in the world around them, to observe challenges and to find solutions to those challenges.

To help them achieve this, her learners participated in a training session facilitated by iNaturalist – a social network for naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists. Today, her learners’ observations are recorded and assessed, and are used by scientists and researchers for conservation decision-making. Her Grade 11 marine sciences class also participated in the 2021 UNESCO/Prada Sea Beyond plastic pollution initiative.

“As a teacher, I am glad that I am able to make a difference in the world by following my passions: research, being in nature and teaching learners.”

“It’s important that as teachers we help to develop responsible citizens and get them involved in various local and international initiatives is one way of doing it,” she said.

Wheeler’s practise what you preach philosophy means that she too is involved in nature conservation activities. Her role as the chairperson of the Friends of Bracken Nature Reserve, a volunteer group that promotes the interests of a nature reserve in Brackenfell in Cape Town, keeps her very busy.

Award-winning teacher

Of her award, Wheeler said she is delighted and incredibly honoured to be recognised as the country’s top teacher. She said awards such as this demonstrate that good teachers play a critical role in children’s development, and that their work is appreciated.

“When I first started teaching, I was very focused on getting through the content. But I soon realised that it was so much more than that. Building relationships with your learners is at the heart of it all,” she said.

“As a teacher, I am glad that I am able to make a difference in the world by following my passions: research, being in nature and teaching learners.”

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