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UP Education Dean salutes his Grade One teacher
5 October 2018

Every year on 5 October, the world celebrates Teachers’ Day. This day was inaugurated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to focus attention on the contributions and achievements of teachers, and to highlight teachers’ concerns and priorities regarding education. 

South African teachers have many concerns that impact negatively on their status and standing in society. Teachers seem to no longer be appreciated. Yet, if you can read, write or solve an equation, you know who to thank. So much of what we know about the world comes from our teachers, who equip us with the knowledge, skills and wisdom we need in our lives.

But, the nobility, status and high esteem in which teachers used to be held is waning.

Recently, Gadimang Mokolobate, a 24-year-old maths teacher, was stabbed to death by a 17-year-old pupil in a classroom in Zeerust, North West, allegedly for reprimanding the learner for ill-disciplined behaviour the day before. A 15-year-old pupil from Eldorado Park, Johannesburg, was arrested after pointing a gun at his teacher and threatening to shoot. The deterioration in learner behaviour in school is blamed on the culture of rights that learners enjoy.

There is a need to reclaim authority and control over our schools and restore the dignity and status of teachers in our schools. Teachers are a resource and asset which can never be replaced in a nation. If you undermine or kill a teacher, you undermine and kill a nation.

Research has shown that when parents choose the kind of school to send their children to, the academic performance of learners, including learner discipline, become important considerations. Who ensures good academic performance of learners and discipline, if not a teacher? Why do teachers worry themselves with ensuring that learners are disciplined and perform, if not because teachers care?

Great teachers care about their students. They want them to succeed and are also committed to helping them achieve their goals. Teachers care about their students’ happiness, well-being and life beyond the classroom.

It is for this reason that on World Teacher’s Day, I want to pay tribute to my Grade One teacher, Mrs Motlaji Moche, from Marapyane village in Mpumalanga. The way she went about doing her work has left an indelible mark on my life. Her dedication to her work in a resource-constrained environment is what makes her one of the unsung heroes of this nation.

Allow me to take you down memory lane to what her classroom looked like in 1972: She taught 100 children in a classroom convened under a tree. In order to cope with the numbers, a platoon system was used, under which 50 of us came to school from 7:30 am until 11:00 am. The next group joined at 10:30 am and finished at 2 pm. There were no teaching aids, and we used small stones to learn how to write and count.

Even without teaching aids, Mma Moche was patient enough to use everything at her disposal to facilitate learning. She used to spread us on the school grounds and used the sand to teach us how to write. She would patiently move from one learner to the other on the dusty grounds and under the trees to ensure that the right things were done.

She answered the call of the liberation movement at the time when the apartheid government underfunded the education of black people, and vowed to use everything at her disposal to ensure that black children acquire literacy and numeracy skills in the first year of school.

Every teacher knows that there are some children who put their hand up for every question, who long to be noticed and crave attention. There are others who only want to stay quietly at the back of the class and strive to be invisible. It takes the special skill of teachers to encourage the quiet ones to speak out and have confidence in their ability, while keeping talented children grounded and respectful of others.

I was on the quiet side of Mma Moche’s class. But one day she took me by surprise during the school concert when her class was invited to perform some songs and poetry at a function. At that concert, after the first song, without giving us prior warning, she pulled me from second row of the choir, together with one other learner, and asked the two of us to recite an Afrikaans poem, “My Katjie”. That was my first public performance ever.

Some of the world’s most famous people point to a special teacher as the inspiration behind their success. For me, it is to my Grade One teacher – who believed in me, who provided opportunities for me to display my courage and recite a poem – that I owe thanks for all the public appearances I have made in different parts of the globe.

Careful, patient teaching brings out the best in all of us, and helps us to fulfil our potential.

The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report of 2017 found that 78% of Grade 4 learners cannot read with understanding. This is a national crisis, and the majority of those learners are in predominantly black schools with inadequate resources. Are we going to blame lack of resources, or the quality of teachers for that? Mma Moche ensured that a black child could recite an Afrikaans poem with understanding in the first year of school.

These days we have better-qualified teachers than the generation of Mma Moche, many of whom did not have a matric certificate. However, they were able to deliver literate learners.

The generation of Mma Moche would be the first ones to raise their hands these days when President Cyril Ramaphosa makes a call to say, “Whom shall I send to assist us in solving the literacy problem in our country?” They would heed the call and answer, “Thuma Mina!”. I would like to ask our current teachers and those entering the teaching profession, how would you like to be remembered by your learners, more than 40 years from now?

Mma Moche turned 90 this year. Among her contributions to this nation is that from her Grade One class of 1972, she produced the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria, and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Happy World Teachers’ Day, Mma Moche, an unsung heroine!

Prof Chika Sehoole is Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. An edited version of this column appeared in Independent Media titles countrywide on 5 October 2018.

- Author Prof Chika Sehoole
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Prof Chika Sehoole