Teachers are like second parents, they shape the life of the children under their care, writes Jemi Sudhakar. But parents who are teachers, I believe, are more than second teachers. Today, on this World Teacher’s Day, I want to pay tribute to teacher Mapodi Sehoole who played the dual role of being my teacher at school and a teacher at home as a mother. Having a parent as a teacher was a privilege but also brought certain pressures which can be daunting, but can also pay dividends if taken to heart.
Her route to becoming a teacher was characterised by many detours. After completing her form three, now grade 10, in 1957, her parents wanted her to become a teacher, but she ignored the advice as she had set her sights on becoming a nurse. Her ambitions of becoming a nurse were not successful and she found herself working as a domestic worker in the suburbs of Pretoria. Having passed grade 10 in the 1950s meant one was very educated by the standards of the time. Her “madam” quickly noticed her talent and advised her to consider going back to school as she did not belong in the “kitchens”. This followed frequent verbal exchanges and disagreements between them.
After much struggle she managed to get an opportunity to train as a nurse in 1968, however, she was unsuccessful and ended up unemployed. Given her level of education, she managed to find private teaching appointments in the local schools in Marapyane and the neighbouring villages. Seventeen years after turning down her parents’ advice to consider teaching as her profession, she got a one-year teacher-training stint with the then Bophuthatswana territorial government which was offered to people who were teaching without formal qualifications.
This opportunity meant that she would have to leave her children for an entire year to train in Hammanskraal while working as a private teacher. The year was 1974, I was nine years old, and for the first time I tasted the realities and hardships of living in a child-headed family and the mischief that can be the result. Substance abuse formed part of occasional recreational activities. School absenteeism, which included times when I would be looking for part-time work in order to earn an income to sustain myself, also became part of that reality. There were times when there would be no food and I had to improvise. I also learnt how to cook at the age of nine. I was nearly a victim of the migrant labour system. A system that breeds child-headed families and school drop-outs who then became the source of cheap labour for the apartheid economy.
Things changed suddenly when my mother qualified as a teacher at the end of 1974. At the beginning of 1975 she got a post at a local primary school. This brought about stability, certainty and hope for the future. For the first time since I was born, I had a parent who was a professional and earned a salary. I also had constant parental supervision. I was assured a decent meal every day.
The following year I transferred to the school where she was a teacher, which meant I had not only the eyes of my class teacher on me, but also those of other teachers at the school by virtue of being a teacher’s son. This does not only give children of teachers an unfair advantage over other learners in terms of expectations for them to perform, but that pressure gets carried over to the home. Starting from 1975, it was ingrained in me that I needed to perform well at school: my books were checked on a regular basis, my dress code was monitored on a daily basis. There was even an attempt to teach me how to write, as my handwriting was regarded as not up to scratch.
Upon qualifying as a teacher, she started studying for her matric through correspondence and we both obtained our matric qualification in 1983. A year before that, she had planted the idea in me to consider going to university, which came as a shock as no one in our family had ever been to university. That is when I started experiencing her as a mother, teacher, mentor and visionary. She would always admonish us: “I don’t want you to waste your time like I did.”
I registered for my first degree at the University of the North (now Limpopo) in 1984 and upon completing it in 1987, she urged me to register for an honours, much to my surprise, given the need for me to start helping to pay for the education of my siblings and building a decent home for the family. When I completed my BEd Honours at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1988, she advised me to continue with my master’s degree studies. When I protested, saying it’s enough, I needed to help her with some of the responsibilities at home, she said, “My son, I am still strong and can provide, please further your studies as far as you can.” She showed me the unselfishness of a mother and a teacher. She knew better.
Professor Chika Sehoole (left) and his mother, Mapodi Sehoole, in 1991.
All that advice and admonition stood me in good stead because when I started working in 1991 with a master’s degree and could not fit into the teacher training college culture as a 26-year-old, it was easy for me to apply for and secure a scholarship to study overseas. This would not have been possible without the good and solid foundation I’d had. Six years later this helped me return to university to study for a PhD, which I completed in 2002. This would not have been possible without my loving, caring, inspirational, visionary mother and teacher, Mapodi Sehoole. Her leadership and mentorship provided me with the cultural capital and capability to navigate constraints and gain access to academic life. They also laid a solid foundation for the subsequent accolades I acquired as a Rockefeller Postdoctoral Fellow and a Fulbright Fellow in the US; and currently as Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria (UP).
She went on to obtain a Senior Education Diploma with Vista University in 1997 at the age of 60 and retired five years later as a deputy principal after serving at the same school for 27 years. She is now 83 years old, growing frail, but still leading a self-sufficient life in retirement.
On this World Teachers’ Day I want to celebrate you, Mapodi Sehoole, as an unsung heroine. You have proven that not only can teachers be parents at school, but parents can be teachers at home. Your love and guidance of your children are of benefit to the nation. My sister (Malebo) is serving as a nursing sister with a BCur degree in Mahikeng, my brother (John) is a small-scale farmer in Marapyane with a BSc in Agriculture from North-West University and an Honours in Land Development from UP. Your labour, visionary leadership and sacrifices are not in vain. You are indeed a world-class teacher. Happy Teachers’ Day, Mapodi’a bo Kote!
Professor Chika Sehoole is Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. World Teachers’ Day is commemorated annually on 5 October.