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teaching is a work of love

by Mpule Dorcas Sekabate (South African Democratic Teachers Union)

In school, we were advised to think of the careers we want to follow when we finish school. I was doing maths and science and wanted to be a chemical engineer and if that failed, a dentist. Teaching was my last resort when everything else failed. I guess the universe had other plans for me. In my training as a teacher, I was never prepared for the fact that teaching requires more than just interacting with learners in the classroom. If one is going to make a meaningful change in a child’s life it requires engaging with learners beyond the classroom. It demands that a teacher gets to understand the learners and the environment they come from.

I started teaching at the age of 21. The excitement, and at the same time anxiety, were overwhelming. I wondered if I would be a good teacher. As per the norm of the school, I was given a class to be in charge of. Throughout my training years I told myself that I would not want to be that teacher that learners are afraid to talk to even when they have problems or challenges with the subject. When I first met my class, I gave them rules for their behaviour. Some of the things I expected from them were respect of each other, dedication to their schoolwork, support of each other and most importantly, discipline at all times. I assured them that whilst I was their class teacher I was also their sister, mother and most of importantly their best friend.

I took time to understand each one of my learners. I monitored their behaviour and their performance in different subjects. I was only teaching them mathematics but it became important for me that they perform well in all their subjects.

At the school where I am a deputy principal, there was a particular girl in my class who was very hyperactive and did well in her schoolwork. I will call her Lee. I had never seen Lee wearing a skirt, nor had I ever seen her in the company of other girls except when she was with her best friend. Otherwise the rest of her friends were boys. I had something in common with Lee, which is the love of soccer. Lee was the best soccer player. She spent her weekends playing soccer in the township.

The one thing about Lee was that she would be caught doing mischievous things, always with boys. One of the things they were caught doing was smoking. Lee’s behaviour irritated some of my colleagues who would pass nasty remarks about her. Some of them would even ask if she was a girl or a boy. I did not like the comments my colleagues made about Lee. They made no comment about the boys who were misbehaving equally. For me, such behaviour was expected from any child. In my colleague’s eyes Lee’s sin was that she did not present herself like a typical girl nor was she behaving as society expects girls to behave. She preferred doing gardening to sweeping the classroom and trousers to skirts.

At our school there is a policy that from January until May girls are only allowed to wear skirts, and not trousers. The uniform committee always ensured that this is adhered to. They would stand at the gate to make sure that learners are in their proper school uniform. Girls in navy skirts and yellow shirts and boys in navy trousers and yellow shirts. Those not wearing the proper uniform would not be allowed into the schoolyard. The committee would also go class to class to check on the learners who came to school earlier for extra classes.

When the committee got into Lee’s class there was mumbling especially from girls. They were complaining about Lee. Lee tried her best to plead her case but the committee would not listen. Lee’s class teacher came to my office to plead her case. He said that Lee was crying hysterically because she didn’t have a skirt at home either. Her situation meant that she might drop out of school. The class teacher asked me to intervene and not tell other committee members that he had asked for my help.

I asked him to send Lee to my office. When she got to my office, I asked her to go home and tell her mother to write a letter saying that she did not have a skirt and has not worn one since she started attending school. She quickly ran home and came back with the letter signed by her mother. I told her to go back to class and if anybody asked about her uniform, she should refer them to me. The next hurdle was that I had to communicate my decision to the principal of the school. I knew his view about learners who presented themselves like Lee. I knew that if I had involved him before taking a decision we would have not agreed with my way of dealing with this. I went to his office and said, “Sir I know we are not going to agree on this one but I have done it anyway and I stand by my decision. Before I tell you what I have done, I’d like to ask you for a favour. There is a girl in grade 10B who is wearing trousers and other learners are complaining. Please go this class and just observe.”

He acceded to my request and went to the class. After a while, he came back with feedback. When he got to the class, he asked the class captain to tell him the total number of learners in Grade 10B. There were 44, with 28 girls and 16 boys. On that particular day they were all present. Now he asked all of them to come stand at front of the classroom and instructed all girls to sit down. When he counted, there were 27 instead of 28 . He changed his strategy and asked the boys to sit and the girls to stand up. When he counted the learners who were seated they were 17 instead of 16. He looked at all the learners who were seated and all he could see were boys. He then asked the class who the extra person sitting with boys was. They told him it was Lee. The principal left the class without saying anything.

He asked me if I was sure that Lee was a girl and I assured him that she was a girl. I told him what I had done earlier and that my reason was to protect this young girl. I told him if we forced her to wear a skirt, she would drop out of school and that it was our responsibility to ensure that she finished school. Thankfully he agreed and we filed the letter as evidence.

One weekend we were hosting sports teams from a visiting school. One of the sports played was ladies soccer. Obviously, Lee was going to play in this game and I was looking forward to watch her play. When the time arrived we gathered at the local stadium. Lee was a real good player and she gave our opponents a tough time. She scored goals for our team. The opponents could not contain her when she had the ball. She would dribble from the middle of the field to the goalposts of the opponents. On the side of the field where I was standing, some of the players from the visiting team were murmuring and complaining that our school made them play with a boy. I tried to assure them Lee was a girl but I could see from their body language that they did not believe me. I was not ready for what they were planning to do after the game.

As expected, we won our game because of our star player Lee. I was looking forward to congratulating our team as the deputy principal but I did not get the opportunity. There was chaos on the field. I was told the visiting team players were chasing Lee because they wanted to prove that she was a girl. The intention was to undress her and look at her private parts. Thank God Lee was also a sprinter so they could not catch her. Had they caught her she would have been undressed in public. This would have been the worst form of SRGBV. What was worse was that as educators we did not do anything to protect Lee from this humiliation. None of us bothered to stop this madness. Instead we laughed at the situation.

The incident reminded me of a similar situation in a neighbouring school. One Saturday I was at the soccer field watching a match. A girl, around 14 or 15 years old, came to stand next to me. She was a learner at another school, and I had seen her around but had never talked to her before. We ended up talking about soccer and the teacher in me started asking about her schoolwork. Her name was Brenda. She told me how she would give educators a run around because she was naughty. I told her that it’s not good to misbehave. Brenda liked running around with the boys and being chased by educators. She told me that one day the principal and deputy principal called her to the office. She thought that she would be reprimanded for her misbehaviour. Little did she expect that they would undress her because they wanted to see if she was a girl or a boy. I was shocked to hear this story. How can adults subject a child to such a humiliation? It was worse that the people doing this were mothers.

As time went by, I realised Lee’s performance was dropping in many subjects. She became more reserved and was not the vibrant girl I knew. When she was in grade 10 Lee started bunking classes and not coming to school on some days. This was very strange because previously she was always present at school. I tried to talk to her about the changes in her behaviour. She did not give me a convincing answer but she promised that she would change. However her behaviour did not change, instead it became worse. When Lee did not come to school for a whole week, I asked her friend what was happening and where Lee was. The friend just told me Lee was at home and had told her that she was not coming back to school. She asked me to talk to Lee and I could see in her eyes that there was something she was not telling me.

I took it upon myself to visit Lee’s home to establish what the real issue was. I found her at home with her mother. I told her mother the reason for my visit and her mother told me that she had been talking to Lee to go back to school, but that Lee was refusing. She said that Lee had also changed at home and had become moody. Lee locked herself in the bedroom most of the time and did not go out to play anymore. I asked Lee to accompany me to the car. I wanted to create a safe space for her and hoped that she would able to open up and talk freely. With tears in her eyes, she asked why she had to suffer like this. Why must she be subjected to such hatred? I looked at her helplessly, with no words to console her. She was now crying uncontrollably and told me that her friends raped her. They did this to show her that she is not a boy.

The rape had really affected her self-esteem. She felt everyone at school was going to laugh at her. She told me that she did not see any reason to be alive if this was what she had to be subjected to. The pain in her eyes was so unbearable to watch. I assured Lee of my support and protection. I realised that we had failed to protect this poor soul. I tried my best to encourage her not to give up on her education. I could not bear the thought of such a brilliant mind going to waste because of people’s prejudices. I was grateful that she could open up to me and I was determined to save her. But I knew that the task would not be an easy one. I needed my colleagues to put their stereotyping minds aside, and see this poor little girl as just a child who needs guidance and nurturing. Sometimes we bring our fears and prejudices to schools and in the process destroy potential in our learners.

In September 2009, I was elected to the National Office of the Union and my presence at school became minimal. This meant I had less contact with Lee. In 2010, when I visited the school, I was told Lee was repeating a grade and that she was doing well in her studies. She did not come to school regularly though and there was a suspicion that she was taking drugs. Later, her drug addiction led her to drop out of school. The pain I felt on hearing this news was unbearable. Our lack of support led to Lee being a statistic. Who knows what she would have become if school was a safe space for her. Maybe she could have gone on to play for the national team. Maybe she would have become an important person.

My work on SRGBV and gender issues in general made me realise that we have been prejudiced to many learners and that many of them drop out of school because of this. The bullying they are subjected to is so intense that some cannot take it. Words stay in a person’s mind and they can break or build a person.

There is a great need to sensitise educators and society about issues of sexuality and gender. Some of our actions are out of ignorance. Culture and religion cannot be used to discriminate and exclude others. Human beings are human beings, regardless of their race, gender, nationality or sexuality. We need to learn to coexist. Schools are institutions of learning and therefore they must be used to inform, educate and nurture talent. Religion teaches love and it cannot be used to hate.

I am glad that my union has signed a collective agreement that will protect children during hearings on sexual abuse. Previously learners were expected to testify or be witnesses on three different occasions. As a result, victims were subjected to secondary trauma and often ended up not attending the hearing. This would result in perpetrators winning cases because their guilt could not be proven without witnesses.

Learners like Lee should never have to drop out of school because of hate and discrimination. Teaching is a work of love and that love must be given to all children. Educators must treat all learners as if they are their own children.

To know more about the initiative: https://genderatwork.org/education-unions-take-action-to-end-srgbv/.


The views, opinions and words written in the article are solely those of the author. The article reflects the author’s journey, view point and progress in their own words.

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