/ 8 August 2013

Rural E Cape school learns tough lessons in leadership

The head of the Farlam commission
The head of the Farlam commission

Principal Edward Gabada has been fighting for his vision for Mpondombini Secondary School in Eastern Cape since his arrival in 2001. He is tough on his pupils, engages with their parents and holds teachers accountable.

"[When] I came here, the school was hopeless," he said. 

"That year we got 23% in matric. Not promising at all." 

There is a glint in his eyes of something — pride in how he has shifted things and surprise given how dysfunctional the school was before he arrived. In the past 12 years, Gabada has turned the school around to the point where it got a 100% pass in the 2012 matric exams.

Gabada's comments echo one key to the school success: vigorous leadership. He didn't arrive and immediately fire teachers. He first examined the situation — and not one teacher has left since he arrived. 

"I realised it's not the teachers who were not working; it's the management that was not making them work." 

Gabada supports his teachers. He is completely transparent about all school issues. He believes that if people don't know the direction in which the school is going, they may withdraw from their responsibilities in the classroom. 

Gabada is a teacher himself and therefore a role model for his staff. He teaches life science, not only because he loves teaching, but also to set an example. 

Over the past few years, his pupils have achieved very high marks. He hopes that his success will show teachers that they can succeed too — that, in his own words: "This is possible."

Mpondombini is in Lubunde township, about 20km from Bizana on a dirt road. On the day we visited, there were about 10 dogs in and around the school courtyard and several cows roaming across the road. 

The school started in 1986 after the community had spent several years advocating for a school in the area. 

The growing success of the school since Gabada's arrival has given this quiet community a new sense of hope. 

The community is very poor. There is no water and electricity and a high unemployment rate.

But they do have something that helps them to envision the future.

We have this, at least
"The one thing we do have is a good school," said grade 12 pupil Akhona Mate. "So we young people try to get a good education so that we can improve the living conditions in the area."

Gabada works hard to engage parents. I have seen many parents going into principals' offices for meetings at other schools but I was never allowed inside. Gabada opened his door to me and my camera.

On the second day of school after the holidays, there was a small line of parents and children waiting outside the office that Gabada shares with several teachers. 

A pupil who had been absent the previous day arrived with her mother to explain why she had missed the first day of school. Gabada was rough, intense and his authority was unquestioned. 

"Were we supposed to wait for you and only start teaching when you got back?" he asked. 

The girl meekly replied: "No, sir." 

Then he had her go through a folder to find her report from the previous term. As she slowly sifted through the stack of papers, Gabada asked: "What, don't you know your own name? It shouldn't take so long if you know your name." 

Parents know he is strict for the benefit of their children. He showed the mother her daughter's report from last term so that she could see that her child was not doing well. 

Parents are required to pick up the reports at the end of each term — if the school gives them to the pupils, who knows whether the reports will get into the hands of the parents? He left the mother with encouragement but with strong words: "Make sure your child does better." 

"There's one thing I believe in," he said passionately. "A parent sending a pupil to the school — there is something in that parent. That parent wants that pupil to be educated, although the parent is not educated. So [my job] is to satisfy the parent."

Tough love
Gabada is tough on pupils and teachers. Tardiness and absence are not options and pupils must always have their books. 

Parents welcome the opportunity to come to school even if he is also sometimes tough on them. It is seen as a sign of respect for them to be welcomed into his office, the office of a leader in the community, and this engagement sometimes rubs off on how children perceive their parents. 

"Some parents come here and tell me: 'You know, principal, this pupil does not respect me, but now that you have called me here this pupil has changed because he has seen that I am somebody who is respected by the school as well.'"


Mpondombini Secondary School principal Edward Gabada (left) is a role model for his pupils, many of whom face overwhelming challenges. (Molly Blank)

Many pupils live in child-headed households and some may have parents with different priorities to the school's. Gabada is always concerned when pupils are absent the first few days after a holiday because he often thinks that they aren't coming back. 

It has happened before. Some pupils have to choose between school and work to help their families. They don't have many options for work. 

For those who stay in school, a pass is something to celebrate, but because of a lack of money it does not always lead to higher education. Everyone knows that education is the factor that will change them and this community. Higher education is even more powerful. 

In this place of rolling hills, maths teacher Mlindwa Masuku pushes his pupils to excel so that "they may have greener pastures in the future". 

Above teaching
He intends to mould pupils who will offer services that the community lacks. His goal is to produce doctors and engineers. He loves being a teacher and is proud of his profession but, like some other teachers I have met, he wants his pupils to achieve more than he has. He sees these other professions as being above teaching.

The Eastern Cape is known as having one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country. Gabada referred to the textbook crisis in Limpopo last year and lamented the fact that Mpondombini has not received textbooks either. 

He mentioned one of his biggest challenges — when there is inaction from those who are supposed to support his school, to be his partners in teaching and mentoring pupils and helping them towards their future. 

"I'm losing hope because I'm not the only [person who is supposed] to assist these pupils," he said with clear frustration. 

"What else can I do? I do my part, but somebody is not doing her part or his part. I feel very bad for our pupils. They are losing a lot. But at the end of the year, the coming years, people will be expecting Mpondombini to perform." 

But Gabada does not let that get him down and clearly he is moving towards his vision despite feeling alone in his commitment and efforts. 

"In most cases they come back," he said of his pupils. 

"They tell us: 'What you did for us was very good' because 'where we are now, we are seen as perfect people, because we started from here.'"

Molly Blank is a documentary filmmaker. This is the penultimate of her Mail & Guardian articles about the video series Schools That Work, which she is directing, on disadvantaged schools that achieve exceptional results. The series was conceived by University of the Free State rector Jonathan Jansen. For more information go to vimeo.com/schoolsthatwork or email [email protected]