Education works best when educators are passionate and the community is involved

Rebecca Mmabatho Mahapa cannot imagine having gone into any other career. Her mother was a teacher, her aunt a principal who became a circuit manager, her three sisters also went into teaching -- one of them eventually becoming a deputy principal and two becoming Head of Departments at various schools.
 
“Teaching was passed on to us by the women in our family. Even my grandmother was a teacher,” she said.
 
Mahapa, principal of Hector Peterson Primary in Limpopo, grew up in a village in Polokwane where she completed her primary and high school education. She moved to a township in Modimolle when she was doing her three-year Junior Primary course in Pretoria, which she completed in 1994.
 
She started working the same year as a Grade 2 teacher in Lerna Farm School in Modimolle.
Unfortunately, this was when the national Education Department was trying to ensure the learner: teacher ratio was balanced as in most instances there were more pupils than teachers.
“They used the last in, first out approach. I was then moved to Dagbreek Primary School in the townships, still teaching Grade 2. Not long after that I had to move again. They took me back to the farms to Morolong Intermediate School where I taught Grade 1 to 3,” she recalled.
The principal at that school retired in 2002 and Mahapa was placed as the temporary principal until her official appointment to the role in 2005.
 
“There was only one temporary teacher at that school. I had to appoint two other teachers.”
Two years later, due to low learner enrolments, the school was closed and the staff and learners were merged with those of Mabaleng Intermediate School also located in the farms around Modimolle. Here, Mahapa also became principal.
 
“In 2008 the school was closed and we were moved into the township. I moved to Lekkerbreek Primary where I was deputy principal,” she said.
 
Seven years later she became the principal at Hector Peterson Primary, located in the townships.
She said the difference between village and township life were glaring to her when she first moved. Being an educator in a township community posed many challenges for her, add to which she was among the youngest educators at the time.
 
Mahapa said she has focused on changing perceptions on education in the township, also among her peers. She has used her career progression to motivate others to pursue education as a career and a few have heeded her encouragement.
 
“With education, we want to see improvement in the communities we are in. It has the power to improve living standards. There is high illiteracy and high poverty rates in the community I work in. Most parents work on the surrounding farms and the school is mainly made up of students from the surrounding farms whose schools were closed. This makes parent engagement very difficult. We do outreaches whenever we can, but due to these environmental circumstances, parents cannot help with homework and other necessary support to assist their child to thrive at school.”
 
She said the mixture of farm and township learners was a very vulnerable group of students and it took time to inspire confidence and correct some of the glitches that prevented the school from progressing.
 
Mahapa said that the introduction of the Tiger Brands in-school breakfast programme at Hector Peterson Primary has helped a lot.
 
“This year we’ve enrolled over 1 000 learners. In previous years we had a lot of drop outs, but since the Foundation’s breakfast programme, we don’t experience that any longer. They’ve been reports though that when learners get to high school they do drop out because there is no breakfast there.
 
“Absenteeism and late coming have also improved. Parents are also making an effort to bring their kids to school because of this,” she said.
 
The breakfast has also allowed for teachers to clearly observe the needs of the learners over and above food insecurity, and meet them.
 
Mahapa said introducing the programme was not easy. The school is surrounded by street vendors, selling junk food first thing in the morning. However, a conscious drive to educate both the learners and vendors on the importance of the breakfast saw them cooperating.
 
Regarding infrastructure, she said Lekkerbreek Primary was a state-of-the-art school compared to Hector Peterson Primary. She was aware of this when she took a chance and applied for the principal role.
 
“The school building was very small, the school was understaffed, there were only four dilapidated toilets for over 1 000 learners, and the surrounding community provided a challenge. These were some of the obstacles going in, but I believed God could create miracles in this place,” Mahapa said.
 
So, she set off to work on what would become her legacy. Starting with infrastructure she liaised with the Department of Basic Education until 29 toilets were built and the original four demolished. Having accomplished this, she then began asking for classrooms. On her arrival there were only two blocks of four classrooms. Today there are four blocks of four classrooms. Construction is underway for an administration block and a kitchen.
 
“That’s what motivates me. The relationship with relevant stakeholders is also improving. This gives me hope and the energy to continue.”
 
The mother of three has dreams of career advancement beyond the classroom.
“I think I’ve worked enough on school level. I’m passionate about field work, especially regarding curriculum issues.”
 
Her passion will always be in the education field, she laments the fact that none of her children are interested in entering this career stream, “an end to a family line,” she mused.

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