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We honour the teachers who saw the potential in us

Growing up in my village in the early 1990s there were not many role models, if any at all.

Even though I did not think much about what I wanted to do when I grew up, I dreamt of a life outside the tiny village surrounded by mountains where most people — at the time — worked on farms in the Western Cape. 

I knew that this was not the life I wanted. The feeling of wanting a better future was also fuelled by my standard three (grade 5) teacher who had taken a keen interest in me, not only as a person, but also in my studies. 

Miss Mdletye was tall, beautiful, rocked a bald haircut, dressed smartly and exuded confidence. 

We did not have textbooks at my school and she used to ask me, all the time, to write notes for her on the board. She never asked anyone else in the class, but me, and this had nothing to do with my handwriting, because it is atrocious. When she was in staff meetings — during school hours — she would also ask me to “stand-in” for her and help other learners with their schoolwork. 

This boosted my confidence and told me that there must be something I was doing right for Miss Mdletye to trust me with such huge tasks. 

That motivated me to work harder on my studies long after I had left her class and she had gone to work as a teacher in KwaZulu-Natal. She planted something in me. 

I recently connected with Miss Mdletye on Facebook and told her about the meaningful role she had played in shaping me to be the person I am today. 

Her response was: “You were a star, the potential was just in your face and I had to mould you because God entrusted me to you …” 

In my school years I had other teachers who inspired and motivated me to be the best I could be and encouraged me to dream beyond my wildest imagination. 

In high school one of those teachers was Sir Neku, who unfortunately died in my first year of university. Sir Neku was my accounting teacher and was also the athletics coach at Aurora Girls High School in Zola 1, Soweto. 

I sucked at running but he encouraged me to compete. When I wanted to take standard grade accounting he told me that I was good at accounting and that I was going to do higher grade accounting. 

He was not a man of many words but he never missed an opportunity to remind me that I was good in my books and should not downplay that. 

The only time he discouraged me was when I told him, in my matric year, that I wanted to study journalism. I remember when we were having that conversation. Ironically, he was carrying a copy of the Sowetan (which he read religiously). He told me that I should not study to become a journalist because journalists were poorer than teachers. 

Of course, I did not listen to him and I also went on to work at his favourite newspaper. I wonder what he would have thought when he saw my byline in the Sowetan

Many people have similar stories. Stories of being affirmed and nudged in the right way by their teachers. People have gone on to become successful in life because their teacher bought them school shoes when they had none and wanted to quit. Other teachers paid for learners’ application fee to study at university or helped them apply for scholarships at better schools. 

Monday, 5 October, is World Teachers Day. My wish is that we pause to think about the Miss Mdletyes and the Sir Nekus that played a meaningful and positive role in our lives and helped us to become the people that we are today. 

May we celebrate those teachers as our heroines and heroes. And may our stories encourage those still coming into the profession to respect it and serve with honour. 

And may the rogue teachers repent from their ways and serve this noble profession with distinction. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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