William Smith recalled that in his day, he was no more than “an average student.” But he believes that made all the difference in his teaching career — a career that in turn made a difference in the lives of millions of South Africans.
The 79-year-old Smith, who for over 15 years taught math and science on SABC’s The Learning Channel, was presented a National Order award — specifically, the Order of the Baobab in Silver — by President Cyril Ramaphosa during a ceremony on April 25.
Through his television show, which first aired in 1990, Smith managed to demystify those subjects for even the most disenfranchised viewers. Small wonder that he was hailed on social media after he was honored.
“I feel amazed,” he told the Sunday Times. “There is no greater feeling than having people who have been out of school for years thanking me for contributing to their success. Yes, I taught them, but they took my lessons and well done to them.”
Known for his animated hand gestures and ink-stained fingers, Smith reached as many as 100 million viewers a day. He was also honored as one of South Africa’s top three presenters in 1998, and earned the Impumelelo Gold Award for Innovation in 2005.
Not bad, considering his humble educational roots.
“Contrary to popular belief, I was an average student,” he told Times Select. “I wasn’t smart in maths.”
But in the long run, he believes, that helped.
“Had I been a numbers person from the start, I would not have been a good teacher because everything would have been so obvious to me,” he told that same outlet. “Pupils’ concerns and challenges would have frustrated me. I would not have understood why they struggled with simple concepts.”
Smith is now retired and living in Australia.