Born at a time when education seemed wasted on a girl-child, Yolisa Mvunyiswa’s father, a Reverend in the Methodist Church, had to answer as to why he was bothering to send his daughters to school.
“He said he wanted his daughters to be independent and education gives you that,” reminisced Mvunyiswa, principal of Ekukhanyisweni Primary in Alexandra Township, Johannesburg.
Born to a mother who was a teacher and one of six children (five of whom are girls), Mvunyiswa observed her mother’s career and fell in love with the power of being an educator.
“I think that’s the reason I became a teacher. I watched her. I would help her when she was marking papers and to do the register, term schedules and other work-related tasks with her. She ignited the flame in me to educate the nation. Also, looking at her I saw that she was around and had enough time to spend with the family, and I knew I wanted the same for myself one day,” she said.
Mvunyiswa, who was born in Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape moved around the country with her family a lot due to her father’s post in the church, until they settled in Johannesburg. After passing matric, she enrolled at Soweto College, where in 1991 she completed her teaching diploma and started working the following year.
Her first job was as a substitute teacher at Ekukhanyisweni, the contract was for a year. In 1993 she got a job as a mathematics educator at Minerva High School in the same township, but only lasted two hours in that post.
“When I got there, there was no chalk for the board, I had to go get it from the principal’s office. When I got back to the classroom one of the boys, huge in structure, I think he was a boxer, was blocking the door. He said I couldn’t get into the class unless I agreed to be his girlfriend.
“I told the principal to call my dad as I was leaving. I was unemployed for the rest of January. In February I was called back to Ekukhanyisweni and I’ve been there ever since,” she said.
On her return, her new role was as a Grade 2 teacher, the school at the time ended at Grade 4.
She proceeded to add to her qualifications by doing Remedial Education in 1994 through the then Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) now University of Johannesburg (UJ). The course aided educators to support struggling learners in their schools.
Settled into her career, three years later, Mvunyiswa started a family of her own. In 1996 she had her first child, a boy, and two years later she married the father of her child, also a teacher from Alexandra High School.
In 2000 she registered to do her honours in Education Management. In 2001, three years after they got married, they were blessed with a second boy, born on the same date as the first. The following year she completed her honours.
“I worked with no interest in getting a promotion. It was not until a colleague of mine (Mrs Semenya) who saw potential in me to be a Head of Department (HoD) filled in the application form for me when the post became vacant that I applied for my first promotion. She asked me to bring my qualification certificates and encouraged me to take the chance for my own development even if the financial benefits would be low. In 2007 I was promoted to HoD.”
Mvunyiswa says this was a bitter-sweet time as the promotion came at a time when she was separating from her husband.
The same colleague encouraged her to apply for the deputy principal position in 2010 and “I got it”. The following year her divorce was finalised.
“I’ve had to raise these boys as a single parent, with the help of my parents and siblings. But God is good,” she said recalling how her sons received 50% rugby scholarships that took the pressure off her.
In 2015, following the retirement of the school principal, Mvunyiswa applied for the post and became principal of Ekukhanyisweni the following year.
She was still deputy principal when the school introduced the Tiger Brands Foundation’s in-school breakfast programme to the learners.
“It was very exciting when we heard about it, considering the community we work in is filled with poverty and unemployment. The Foundation has made a major difference. Attendance, results, and confidence are but some of the returns from this programme.
“When you are hungry and have nothing, you seclude yourself. But now all the learners are socialising and participating in extra mural activities like chess and other sports. We even introduced tennis,” she said.
Some of Mvunyiswa’s career highlights include being chairperson of the Alexandra Education Committee that exists to identify learners with potential from needy families and providing these learners with extra classes so they can qualify for bursaries.
“The joy from these recipients is the highlight for me”. She also participates in drives to provide uniform to needy learners.
Being the daughter of a Reverend, Mvunyiswa said this allowed her to spot the needy and push to help wherever she could. It allowed her the skills to relate both to the poor and the rich. Helping out people in need became “a voluntary response”.
As an educator, she has come across numerous challenges -- parents showing no interest in their children, child-headed households which turn children into instant parents, teachers abusing learners, teachers losing their passion for their vocation, parents not disciplining their children, children disrupting classes and presenting challenges to curriculum delivery. “These things give me sleepless nights.”
Mvunyiswa believes if parents were more involved in the development of their children at every stage, if the dwelling places for the learners could be improved, and if the community would take ownership of the school and protect it from crime, many of the challenges would be resolved.
As a board member of the Phenduka Literacy Project that provides English and pure maths support to Grade 7s, she says the project has proven extremely useful as a majority of their teachers do not have remedial skills to assist learners to bridge to high school. This project helps with that.
“Ekukhanyisweni has been called ‘an oasis in the desert’. It is known for cleanliness, so much so that it is easy to forget where it’s located once you are inside.
“Clean environments are encouraging. I think this will be part of my legacy. I have also provided pastoral care to learners and staff without any discrimination, this too will be something I am remembered for.”
Currently working on her Master’s proposal on inclusive education, Mvunyiswa said: “I believe without education your chances of improving yourself and your situation are minimal. Inclusive education speaks to learners with special needs who require support to survive normal or mainstream education until the end. It also looks at learners who have been progressed to the next grade, how to assist them to integrate with those older than them and continue to thrive.
“For me, education has given me the opportunity to have an impact in improving the lives of African children.”
Mvunyiswa said that though the reward may not be monetary, playing a part in developing young minds for the future brought her happiness and fulfilment.
“Someone needs to do this work.”