‘Her fervour was contagious’ – UP Dean on supervising Minister Naledi Pandor’s PhD studies

Posted on May 16, 2019

Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Naledi Pandor recently received a PhD in Education at UP. Professor Chika Sehoole, Dean of the Faculty of Education, told Primarashni Gower about his experience of supervising this high-profile cabinet minister

PG: How did you feel about being the minister’s supervisor?
I really felt honoured after being approached to supervise her, but the feeling was a bit subdued as we agreed from the outset that we would keep it from the public until the work was done.

PG: Were you shocked when she first approached you with her request?
I was. I received a call from her office, so I went there in 2014, when she was the Minister of Science and Technology, believing she was going to offer me a job in government. Instead, she told me that she had decided to pursue her doctoral studies and that she had been referred to UP. She was told to ask for me to be her supervisor, given her topic of research. Seeing my surprise, she explained that she wanted to do this for a long time as her parents always encouraged them to have doctoral degrees. She could no longer postpone this matter and therefore wanted me to supervise her. She had approached two people in other institutions who had discouraged her from studying. Her fervour was contagious, so I decided to accept the challenge and make a success of it.

PG: Was she a good student?
She was the kind of student every supervisor could only wish for. She worked hard and did not want to submit sub-standard, mediocre work. In some instances she would miss the deadline for submission and would say: “I am not happy with the draft. I am still reading further.” The Faculty of Education has seven mandatory support sessions of one week each for its master’s and doctoral students. Minister Pandor took leave to attend these sessions. I was struck by her humility and willingness to learn from students and lecturers who conducted those sessions, and she was happy to be sitting in the classroom again.

PG: Please describe your relationship with her.
I previously worked for the Department of Education, as a Chief Director, before it split into DHET and the Department of Basic Education. At the time Dr Pandor was Minister of Education. After I agreed to supervise her, she set the rules for the relationship and asked me to call her by name, and she would call me Professor. Calling her by name made the relationship much easier, and she was the ideal student. Whenever I was not happy with the quality of her work or the approach she adopted, I sent it back to her. She did indicate in media interviews that it did sometimes bring on the tears.

PG: Please explain the supervision strategies you employed.
I knew from the beginning that I was dealing with an exceptional student. Given her profile as a politician and cabinet minister, I knew that her studies would draw attention, so I came up with a plan on how she should manage her studies and how I would support her. I knew that the drafts she submitted took lots of time and sacrifice on her part, so I decided to give her feedback within a week or even within a day or two in order to keep her motivated. I knew that she could write well, so my role was to guide her to conform to the conventions of academic writing, which are different from writing speeches or submissions in government. Dr Pandor did not disappoint throughout her studies, hence the work she produced received acclaim from international examiners. I hope that what she learnt through this journey and the outcomes of the study will assist her in her portfolio as minister.

PG: Is she the first high-profile person you’ve supervised?
Yes. I have supervised students from the African continent who were university officials, but no one at ministerial level.

PG: How many PhD students have you supervised in total?
I have now successfully supervised 11 doctoral students to completion.

PG: Why did you become a teacher?
I decided at the age of nine that I wanted to become a teacher. That was the year my mom went to train as a teacher. Ever since, I have been able to teach every grade I was in, from standard one [grade three] to doctoral level. Whenever a teacher did not turn up for class, I would stand in for him/her and get the class to do some work. I taught everything, but after I qualified, I taught Afrikaans at college for nine months and then left to pursue my research interests until I became an academic, teaching Education Policy. I love teaching and I use every opportunity to share my skills and knowledge.

PG: Why should people choose careers in education, and how will their jobs be affected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution?
Teaching is a calling, and only those who believe that should follow careers in education. It requires patience, empathy, humility and wisdom to guide students through the learning process. Future teachers will have to be agile and adapt to the changes and challenges presented by the use of technologies in order to be responsive to the needs of their learners and the labour market.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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