UP Education Dean: A tribute to Professor Michael Cross, the teacher who taught me that education is not just a technical space

Posted on October 05, 2021

Every year the world celebrates World Teachers’ Day, and it is customary to focus on primary or secondary school teachers. I have also done that in articles I’ve written over the past five years in celebrating this day. This year I want to focus beyond primary and secondary school and celebrate teachers at university. University lecturers are also teachers. But because they deal with adult learners, their role extends beyond just teaching and also involves mentorship and role modelling. Those who do their work well demonstrate that there is never a time when one does not need a teacher and that teaching is a life-long career and activity.

This year I want to celebrate Professor Michael Cross as a champion and embodiment of teaching as a life-long career.

Professor Michael Cross. Image: Supplied

I met Professor Cross in 1988 when I registered for a BEd Honours Degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. Prof Cross lectured me in Political Economy of Education for a semester at honours level and Comparative and History of Education at master’s level. Hundreds of student teachers passed through his hands during his four decade-long career as an academic. My meeting him was the beginning of three long decades of a relationship (and friendship) that was characterised by teaching and learning, mentoring, and role-modelling.

His legacy is that of instilling the discipline of writing and scholarship and producing the next generation of black academics. He would always talk inspirationally about the need and role of a black intelligentsia in South Africa who would step into the shoes of Jabavu, Moroka and Plaatje. He set himself the mission of training and producing this intelligentsia. He instilled in his students critical thinking skills, inculcated the art of writing that is characterised by clarity of thought and expression. He believed scholarly writing should not end in computer folders but should be disseminated in different forms: be it journal articles, book chapters or books.

I was privileged to learn the art of essay writing from this giant; that to make it in academia one needed to learn how to write for publication. Coming from a Bantu Education background where rote learning was the norm, and there was no expectation made of black people to produce knowledge, this was a difficult task. Professor Cross showed his mantle by patiently working with his students, teaching them the art of writing essays around an argument.

He was a believer that to change the face of knowledge production in this country, new voices had to be brought on board. This could be accomplished through teaching, training, mentorship or role modelling. He would supervise a dissertation or thesis with the end goal of having it published. To instill such beliefs and courage in young black students during the dark days of the apartheid era was quite visionary and transformational of him.

His training skills were effective. The first essay I wrote for him, in which I learnt how to write around an argument, I got a distinction pass. That was a breakthrough and all the subsequent essays I wrote for my master’s and doctoral studies were awarded a 74% mark and above. I used the same approach for my doctoral thesis, and it got a good pass with a recommendation to look for a commercial publisher to publish it as a book.

During my doctoral studies I wanted to have international study experience and sought opportunities to travel abroad for my studies. One day he called me and advised: “You know, the kind of training time which you get from supervisors here in South Africa you will never get in the US. In South Africa we make time for our students more than the US professors do.” After that conversation I focused on continuing to work and complete my studies with him.

My doctoral studies journey was filled with challenges, and I was in danger of not completing them due to slow progress. He cautioned me: “Chika, do you want to suffer? If you don’t want to suffer make sure that you finish your PhD.” He advised this because my doctoral studies were funded by a scholarship with the condition that if I completed my PhD I would not have to repay the award. He further quipped: “Can you imagine if you complete this doctoral degree how your world will change for the better, what impact this will make to your family and the rural community of Marapyane where you were born?” As a way of managing my time and commitments he further advised: “You must learn to say ‘no’. You cannot be available for all invitations to parties, family gatherings and social events. People need to miss you, and when they ask where Chika is, the answer should be, ‘He is a doctoral student at Wits, he is busy in the library.’ You will complete this degree and you will go and join them.” I took the advice and the results were evident.

The solid training and mentorship I received from Professor Cross laid a good foundation for my future academic career. In the process of completing my studies he handed me over to Professor Jonathan Jansen, who was then the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. Professor Jansen employed me as lecturer and within five months of completing my PhD I secured an international postdoctoral scholarship funded by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Center for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. There I was under the tutelage of another world scholar, Professor Fazal Rizvi. He helped me to translate my doctoral thesis into a book within four months after securing a publishing contract with Routledge. My academic career blossomed through the tutelage of this black intelligentsia (Cross, Jansen and Rizvi).

Professor Cross was proud of and always celebrated the achievements of his students. He modelled what mentorship was. He opened his house to his students, took them to conferences, not to listen, but to make presentations; he ventured into their social lives to ensure that all is well with them. He was more than his students could ask for from a teacher, lecturer, and mentor. He was a trailblazer. Now as Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria, I still use the skills, insights and pearls of wisdom he imparted to me during our training sessions.

Education is not just a technical space; it is infused with the personal, ethical, spiritual and political. Michael taught me how this was so, and I as an educator have a responsibility to do the same with the next generation of scholars and teachers. We need to remember that through education we build our personal and social relations, and these relations lie at the heart of the educative process. It is through these relations that we build our individual and collective futures. 

Professor Cross succumbed to COVID-19-related complications on 6 June 2021. At the time of his passing, he had authored 15 books, of which six were single authored while nine were co-authored. He produced  27 book chapters and 45 articles in leading scholarly journals. At a mentorship level, Prof Cross produced 37 Med/MA graduates, 15 PhDs and mentored 12 postdoctoral research fellows, including several who were still under his supervision at the time of his passing. Professor Cross received the first Association for the Development of Education in Africa Award in 2012 as the most Outstanding Mentor of Educational Researchers in Africa. This was testimony to his great passion of developing young scholars. He proved that there is never a time when we do not need a teacher.  At the time of his passing he was Director of the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

On this World Teachers' Day, October 5, we celebrate your life and contribution to humanity and scholarship. You deserve the honour of the World Teacher of the Year. Robala ka kagiso.

Professor Chika Sehoole is the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria.

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 5 October 2021.

- Author Professor Chika Sehoole

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

COVID-19 Corona Virus South African Resource Portal

To contact the University during the COVID-19 lockdown, please send an email to [email protected]

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences