I grew up believing I could be anything I wanted to be in the world. I was able to use my imagination because I was exposed to various ideas throughout my learning at school.
Did you think you would become a teacher when you were in grade one?
My grade one teacher convinced me that I was a writer. I have been glued to books ever since because of the experience of reading and writing in her classroom.
As a child my interests varied from astronomy, archaeology, history and jewellery-making to smatterings of science.
When did it strike you that you would become a teacher?
In high school, I began to think about careers and a poem by John Schlatter convinced me that I wanted to be a teacher. The following words resonated within me: “I am a teacher. I was born the first moment that a question leaped from the mouth of a child.”
The poem made me realise the joy of being part of the process of shaping the lives of other individuals and that a good teacher could only add value to the world. I decided I wanted to add value to the world.
Why do you think teaching is a cool profession?
With a great school experience, I knew first-hand the value my teachers had added to my life.
There were the obvious tensions of integration and assimilation, language politics and hair politics in a school that was previously segregated. But, in spite of the bittersweet experiences of being in a school within a society in transition, I became convinced that teaching was a “cool” profession.
My teachers always had time for me. They knew my interests and gave me opportunities that allowed my talents to blossom. And I wanted to do the same for the next generation.
Who was your first teacher?
My first teacher was my mother. She taught me how to be and how not to be in the world through stories. A few years ago, I sat in a lecture by former president Thabo Mbeki and listened to him hail his science teacher, “Mash”, as one of his favourite teachers.
As he described that teacher I realised he was talking about my grandfather, Mr Mashologu. These narratives convinced me that teaching was worth a consideration even though my friends, who were studying for BCom degrees, convinced me I would be poor and stressed all the time.
How did you know you wanted to become a teacher?
As a student, I became a volunteer and began to work in schools. The reality of the inequalities in South African schools punched me in the face. I worked with learners in grade 10 who could not read and write.
I sat in schools where teaching was disrupted because of the lack of functional infrastructure, as broken toilets caused a ghastly smell across the school.
As the years progressed, I have realised that the teacher shortage is catastrophic. The implications of this situation become clearer every time I read about the education system in provinces such as the Eastern Cape.
You are working on your mater’s degree research. What is its focus?
My research is looking at the teaching of reading in grade one classes, which has confirmed that, without good teachers, the future of South Africa is precarious. If the opportunity to learn is being eroded in grade one, the hope of engineers and doctors in the country is very dim. And I do not want to be part of a country where I will wonder: “Why didn’t we see it coming?”
What does the future hold for you?
I wanted to be a teacher because, beyond the limitations of the classroom and the challenges we face every day, teaching is about being part of the growth of other individuals. I want to be a teacher because it is the one profession I have realised requires me to live with my heart on my sleeve, unapologetically.
Athambile Masola is a teacher at Claremont High School in Cape Town. Masola is a Mandela-Rhodes Scholar and is completing a master’s degree in education at Rhodes University.