Dr Anneliese Schauerte gave herself six months to get to grips with “this teaching thing”. She simply wasn’t convinced that she would cut it. And if she didn’t take to her new role as a maths lecturer at the University of Cape Town (UCT), she’d find another job, and take comfort in the fact that at least she’d tried. That was 25 years ago …
The year was 1994, a significant year for South Africa, with the dawn of democracy – and serendipitously, for Schauerte too. Teaching swept her off her feet, and she’s never looked back.
This year, UCT will award Schauerte the institution’s acclaimed teaching accolade, the Distinguished Teacher Award (DTA), for her contribution to teaching and learning. Schauerte is one of two members from the science faculty to receive the award; her colleague, Associate Professor Jeff Murugan, will also be honoured with a DTA this year.
“I am thrilled,” said Schauerte.
“Teaching is difficult, and teaching maths is especially difficult. There are many challenges, and to get past them, I really put my heart into it. The fact that it’s been affirmed by the university means a lot to me.”
Initially, she was terrified of teaching. Once she had completed her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at McMaster University in Canada, a career as an academic seemed quite appealing. She loved the research aspect, but remained unconvinced about the teaching component. Nonetheless, Schauerte accepted a six-month contract position at UCT.
Before leaving Canada, she enrolled in a “helpful” short course the university offered to PhD graduates who were about to be “let loose on some poor, hapless undergraduates”.
“I didn’t commit till I was in the job; and I told myself, ‘Look, you can survive anything for six months’.”
The course helped immensely, she said. It gave her the opportunity to practise teaching, run ideas past fellow students who were in the same boat, and develop tools and techniques to overcome her anxiety.
“I didn’t commit till I was in the job, and I told myself, ‘Look, you can survive anything for six months’.”
She had never expected to like it.
“[But] honestly, I loved it. The mathematics we teach at UCT is of value – it’s interesting stuff, and I had no idea that I would enjoy it so much.”
By the time her contract ended, Schauerte was already applying for a permanent position. And while she’s moved office several times in 25 years, she has stayed put in the department.
Schauerte teaches a third-year pure maths course to maths majors, as well as a service course to second-year engineering students. Clarity and meaning are fundamental to her teaching sessions. All her classes are recorded and uploaded to UCT’s Vula site, for students to access as necessary.
Other than implementing a few basic, standard teaching guidelines, there really is no winning formula, according to Schauerte.
Her success as a teacher, she said, comes from explaining the subject clearly and precisely. She also pays careful attention to where her students are in understanding the subject matter, and where they want to be – and how she can get them there.
Meaning has an equally essential role to play.
“Mathematics has a narrative and a plotline, and this is something students generally don’t come from school believing,” she said.
Nine times out of 10, students come to university thinking that mathematics is about facts and techniques that they learn from a teacher. Schauerte said it’s her job to ensure they start seeing the subject differently.
“My teaching style is twofold; I try to make the subject as clear as possible, and at the same time I try to make the reason we’ve adopted certain techniques clear too.
“Students need to know why we do things in a certain way.”
Time and hard work
Getting students to complete the required work is critical. Ultimately, Schauerte said, success also depends on the student, and how badly they want to do well. While she doesn’t deny that some subjects are more challenging than others, she believes all can be conquered with hard work and by investing enough time.
“A person who wants it and who’s willing to work hard at it should be able to succeed. I truly believe that.”
“A part of me wants to say that it’s half the battle won, but actually, it’s three-quarters of the battle won, as a teacher.”
Also, students need to believe in themselves and their abilities, and teachers need to help them identify their strengths by encouraging in-class discussions and debate on the subject matter.
“A part of me wants to say that it’s half the battle won, but actually, it’s three-quarters of the battle won, as a teacher,” Schauerte said.
As no one operates in isolation, she said, her colleagues have played a massive role in her success at UCT. They support and advise her where necessary, and have proven to be “good springboards”.
“It’s a tough job, but it’s always the people present who make it worth doing – my colleagues and my students.
“There have been astounding colleagues at UCT, for whose presence I am immensely grateful.”
And while Schauerte has had many role models along the way who continue to shape and impact her career, mimicking them is not part of her teaching plan.
“As a teacher, I believe that we all have our own individual strengths, and playing to those is what makes us unique and successful,” she said.
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