Instilling confidence in your pupils

Nicole Fritz is the director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, a not-for-profit organisation promoting human rights and the rule of law in Southern Africa. She also writes fairly regularly in South African media on issues of legal, political and cultural interest.

She trained as a lawyer after studying in South Africa, Belgium and the United States. She also entertained the idea of becoming a ­journalist and, to this day, still harbours ambitions of being a full-time writer.
She taught as a legal ­academic both locally and in the US. A ­voracious reader and a news junky, Fritz also has a “not-so-secret fascination for celebrity culture”.

How old are you?
I am 36 years old.

Where did you grow up?
Primarily in Johannesburg, but I also grew up in Sasolburg and lived for short durations in Durban and Cape Town—so I grew up in all four of the old South Africa’s provinces.

Where and in which year did you start your primary schooling?
I started primary school in 1981. I went to Rosebank Primary School in Johannesburg and also Sasolburg North Primary School in Sasolburg.

In which year did you start your secondary schooling?
I did my secondary schooling at Kingsmead College in Johannesburg, from 1988.

And tertiary?
I started my tertiary ­education in 1993 studying for a BA at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. I went on to study an LLB at the University of the Witwatersrand. I did a diploma in international criminal studies at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. I did my master of laws degree at New York University Law School in the US.

Did you have a favourite teacher at school?
I loved my first teacher, Mrs Vermeulen, or Mrs V, as we called her. She taught grade one at Rosebank Primary School and I was immensely fortunate to have a teacher who showed particular interest in my very first schooling experience. I also admired a philosophy professor, James Moulder, at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the then-University of Natal. He was very demanding of his students, but also incredibly generous with his time and attention in response.

Why were you so fond of them?
Mrs V instilled enormous confidence in me and allowed me to withstand experiences with teachers, in later years, who were far less interested in my progress or in me. From Professor Moulder, I learned the value of structuring thinking and argument with the same rigour and precision as you would a mathematical equation.

What influence did they have on you?
Both of them have, at different but similarly critical times in my development, given me what every great teacher should offer: confidence in my own intellectual ability and, importantly, the appreciation that development of my ability required constant work and discipline.

Do you still have contact with them? And if yes, how?
Sadly, I don’t. Individual teachers should know the debts we owe them.

What were your favourite subject(s) and why?
I loved all the subjects that are ­generally referred to as the arts and social sciences—English literature, ­history, politics, philosophy.

What are the qualities of a good teacher?
I would say generosity, patience, compassion, creativity, intelligence and, most importantly, skill. Not everyone can be a good teacher and very few individuals are instinctively good teachers—it can take years of experience.

In your view, what are the things a teacher should never do or say?
A physical education teacher once wrote in my report that I had no natural ability but that I tried hard. It was probably true—I can be singularly uncoordinated at times. But that type of comment is a self-fulfilling prophecy: far from inspiring self-confidence in the pupil, it leads to self-doubt and every subsequent experience is generally read by the pupil to confirm her lack of ability.

What message do you have for teachers in South Africa?
There are few careers as difficult or challenging, and yet I hope the satisfaction you feel on setting students off on their paths to realising their hopes and ambitions is immense.

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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