‘Love the children you teach’ – Limpopo principal’s philosophy for shaping young minds with special needs

‘Love the children you teach’ – Limpopo principal’s philosophy for shaping young minds with special needs
Philemon Tema won the Excellence in Special Needs Leadership award in the National Teaching Awards. (Photo: Supplied)

Philemon Tema is passionate about helping to teach pupils with physical impairments, and has just won an award for his sterling work.

Teaching is more than just a job for Philemon Dipolelo Tema (43), principal of the Bosele School for the Blind and Deaf in Limpopo. He recently won the provincial Excellence in Special Needs Leadership award in the 2023 National Teaching Awards, so clearly he cares about the welfare and future of the pupils under his watch.

As principal of the school, which is based in Hlogotlou, southeastern Limpopo, Tema’s challenges include overseeing hostel parents and teachers preparing pupils for school every morning. He must also make sure the pupils are properly fed and, most critically, ensure that the teachers are effectively teaching the school’s curriculum.

Then he takes care of the school’s administrative duties, while also teaching mathematics to the Grade 7 class. In addition, he has to ensure that all staff members, from  security guards to teachers, discharge their daily duties effectively and efficiently.

This is no mean feat, since there are 84 staff under him, with 30 teachers and 54 support staff. There are 284 pupils.

“I generally believe in a shared vision, which gives rise to collective and shared leadership. I engage my teachers and encourage them to engage me and each other robustly so that decisions taken are owned by all,” Tema said about his formula for success and his leadership philosophy.

Teachers need to understand how these children learn, including knowing the barriers posed by the conditions.

The National Teaching Awards were launched by the Department of Basic Education in 2000 to recognise excellence by teachers who often operate under difficult conditions. The department says “such teachers provide for better futures for learners, because the lack of quality education is a major factor behind many social, political, economic and health challenges faced today, as well as contributing to poverty, prejudice and conflict”.

As the principal of a school of learners with special needs, Tema faces great challenges. “The biggest challenge faced by hearing-impaired learners is delayed language development, which emanates from little or no communication from home in the first four years of the child’s life,” he said.

“This significantly affects learning at later stages. However, the migration of early childhood development from the Department of Social Development to the Department of Basic Education is a crucial step in the right direction… as it allows schools to receive children early in order to close the  language development gaps.”

Pupils with visual impairments previously struggled because of a lack of teacher support material, including textbooks, owing to the complexity of producing Braille books. “This challenge is gradually being addressed by the department through the provision of technology,” Tema added.

Teachers responsible for shaping young minds with special needs need special skills.

“Teachers need to have skills for reading and writing Braille to teach visually impaired learners and sign language skills to teach hearing-impaired learners. They need to understand how these children learn, including knowing the barriers posed by the conditions,” Tema said.

“I encourage my teachers to teach with the heart. That is, they should love the children they teach.”

The school has partnerships with organisations such as DeafSA and the South African National Council for the Blind, which provide expert support.

The journey

Tema trained at the University of Limpopo and started work in 2004 at Engabezweni, a public school in Mpumalanga.

In February 2008 he was appointed departmental head at Izithandani Intermediate School, where he served for six months before being transferred to Setotolwane School for the Blind and Deaf in Polokwane. He joined Bosele School for the Blind and Deaf as principal in 2018.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Parents report dire shortage of school places for autistic children in Gqeberha

“I saw an opportunity to try a new challenge in a space that was unfamiliar. Through that journey the passion for learners with special needs developed,” Tema explained.

He dived into acquiring the skills needed to excel as a special needs teacher.

“I took advantage of departmental bursaries and programmes to equip myself. As time went by, I realised what I was doing was more than just an employment opportunity – it was an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable members of society.” Mukurukuru Media/DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 P1


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