Adding Up To More
Updated: May 3
Out of communities where the narrative is around poverty and gangsterism, comes a story of hope. And it starts with mathematical literacy and mothers. An organisation called MathMoms working in under-resourced communities in the Western Cape has a simple vision: “Learner by learner, school by school, community by community, we will improve maths results, resulting in an improved economy.”
Bertha Losper, MathMentor and Director at MathMoms explains that the organisation was started as a response to challenges faced by their communities (gangsterism and unemployment) and the desire to tell a different kind of story – one of hope and of communities that care.
“Our Managing Director, Sonja Cilliers, was involved at some of the primary schools, providing Tension & Trauma Releasing Exercises (TRE™) to learners. As Sonja got to know the schooling communities, she became aware of their challenges: overcrowded classrooms, overworked teachers, and many children falling through the cracks. As is the case for South Africa as a whole, mathematical literacy was a big problem, with learners exhibiting poor results in systemic tests,” Bertha recalls.
That was when Sonja saw an opportunity: to create a programme that will address the academic issues, while also addressing the emotional needs of learners and community members and creating much-needed job opportunities. Creating MathMoms was the result.
The organisation recruited retired teachers who love maths as MathMentors; mothers in the community to create a safe place for children to gain confidence in maths (MathMothers), as well as educators to collaborate with.
“The first project was piloted in 2016 at Valhalla Primary, with me as MathMentor (I’m a retired teacher from the community), and eight MathMoms – women whose children were learners at the school, and who were picked by the school to participate,” Bertha continues.
“We worked with 32 Grade Three learners that year. In 2017, the programme was extended to three more schools in Elsies River and Ravensmead and was registered as a non-profit company (NPC).”
Since then the MathMoms organisation’s reach has grown to 17 schools with 12 Mentors, 53 MathMoms, 25 interns and approximately 1 000 learners in 2020. During 2020 they also scaled to other communities. Their YearBeyond intern programme launched at schools in Bishop Lavis, in partnership with the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture’s After School Office, as well as their Grade Two programme at schools in the Rawsonville area.
Women recruited from the community receive mentoring from retired teachers to tutor foundation phase learners in basic math skills. These MathMoms then work with two learners at a time during school hours. Children in the MathMom’s neighbourhood also receive guidance from her as she is required to support at least four children at home with maths and homework.
In addition, MathMoms receive training to learn about trauma, adult and child psychology, life-skills, and related themes. A six-week TRE™ course helps the MathMoms work through their own trauma so that they can help the children in their care. TRE is a series of simple exercises that helps release deep muscular patterns of stress, tension and trauma.
Angie Nguala, a MathMentor who also did the TRE course says that it changed her life. She had been newly diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and had to take many pain killers daily.
“I didn’t know how to cope with the pain or with the emotional baggage that I’ve been carrying with me for years. I’ve seen psychologists and have gone for counselling, but I’ve never been able to get rid of the trauma that was still with me.”
Angie explains that TRE was her go-to solution whenever things became too difficult and when she had flare-ups from the arthritis. Using TRE, she “vibrates or shakes it out”. “Ever since I’ve started with TRE my pain has reduced,” she shares.
It also helped Angie get a handle on her anger. “It had a tremendous impact on my personality. I’m a better person – I used to go from a green robot straight to a red robot, with no orange in between. I am much calmer, healthier and happier. I can finally cope with my circumstances and be the person I want to be: a confident person in control of her emotions.
One that can lead and be there for other women that have experienced the same traumatic events that I have gone through.” These days Angie uses the exercises whenever she feels overwhelmed with emotions, or to let go of a hectic week.
The triangle of trust
Managing Director Sonja Cilliers says that there were many challenges to overcome. “We seek to address the problems of unemployment, lack of opportunities and safe spaces, and individual and collective trauma. Working with the trauma of our beneficiaries has been the most challenging, but ultimately most rewarding. We speak of the MathMom’s Triangle of Trust, within which the women and learners in our programme can heal and flourish.”
Sonja explains that the three sides of this triangle are relationship building, skills transfer and nurturing love.
Relationship building: nurturing caring and positive relationships between the women; between adults and children; and between schools, parents, and broader communities.
Skills transfer: creating opportunities through training, up-skilling, and providing the women with relevant work experience. “We see the programme as a stepping stone to greater things, and some of our participants have found full-time employment or enrolled in further tertiary studies.”
Nurturing love: “We speak of placing each other and the learners in ICU: I see you. Creating spaces where people are recognised and celebrated, given the opportunity to share their stories, and have access to a support network that takes care of their emotional needs.”
Getting parents involved
Sonja says that increasing the involvement of parents or caregivers at schools has been one the organisation’s aims from the start. “School closures during lockdown showed us how important it is to equip parents and caregivers with the necessary skills and knowledge to support their children academically (and emotionally) at home. For this reason, we launched a Positive Parenting Course this year (2021), after the success of a parenting course we piloted at one of our schools in 2020.”
The course focuses on attachment styles, child development, and transferring literacy and numeracy skills, and working through the parents’ own trauma.
“Despite the challenges of last year, it was a year of growth for MathMoms. We have grown so much in the past five years, which is a testament to the talent and love in our communities,” Sonja concludes.
The programme’s results are telling. Not only are the MathMoms and the community more resilient, but the children’s academic growth shows that it works. Their 2018 results show that 61% of participating learners improved their maths results in the Grade two programme, and 46% of learners improved their maths results in the Grade three programme.
To find out more about MathMoms, watch the short documentary below.