She is a social worker, psychologist, provider, spirited leader and, perhaps most importantly, a teacher.
These are just some of the roles played by Kgabo Mopeli, the principal of Mehopung Primary School in the Free State.
For this educator, teaching was a childhood dream. As a wide-eyed, innocent young girl growing up in the town on Polokwane in Limpopo, Kgabo got her first taste of the profession from her parents. Both were teachers, spending their days not only teaching but also guiding and inspiring every learner who was privileged enough to walk into their classrooms.
Kgabo was one such learner, first taught by her mother in Grade 1 and Grade 2, then later by her father in Grade 7. This couple lived and breathed teaching, carrying their infectious enthusiasm home with them daily.
This ignited a fire inside Kgabo to one day follow in their great footsteps - which she did.
“I love teaching, I always have, just from watching my parents in action,” Kgabo reminisced.
“Teaching is a profession which allows one to truly change a child's life for the better. With teaching, you are also guaranteed a standard life, meaning you can also be a provider or breadwinner for your family.”
Thirsty for knowledge, this educator dove headfirst into her studies, only surfacing for breath after her matric year. It was not long after that she met a strapping young man and fell in love, marrying him in Qwaqwa in the Free State.
For many women in her community, marriage and children usually heralded an end to education, with some opting to become stay-at-home mothers instead. Not for Kgabo.
With her dream still firmly in hand, she ploughed on, studying towards her Primary Teacher's Diploma at Bonamelo College. A further Diploma in Education followed, with the now fully qualified teacher adding a Bachelor of Education Honours in Psychology to her many academic accolades.
Why psychology? Well, growing up, Kgabo had a penchant for acting as a social worker to all who needed help within her community. The switch to psychology seemed a natural next step. Little did she know just how handy it would come years later.
“At my school we have so many learners with learning barriers, and even more who are experiencing social problems at home. I wanted to help them as best I can and the knowledge I have acquired has helped immensely,” she said.
During her 18-year teaching stint Kgabo met a variety of children from all walks of life. Much like a roller coaster, her career took her first to Lerato Primary School where she stayed for 10 years, Makgalaneng Primary School for a year and later Letotolo Primary School for four years.
Her natural leadership qualities shone through and she skipped a head of department role, rather shooting straight to principal, a role she has played from 2009 to date.
She may make her job look easy to all who view her from afar, but Kgabo said she faced a range of challenges daily.
Uneducated, unemployed and impoverished, many parents from the community place very little value in their children's education. This is understandable, particularly if education did nothing to improve their quality of life. Add violence and gangsterism to the mix - which all impact the school negatively – to see just how full this principal’s plate really is.
She explained: “Firstly, we are next door to the Lesotho border, just 10 km away actually, so many from the community who are involved in crime run to Lesotho and you cannot trace them, they disappear there. This makes crime even more rife because they know they can get away with it.
“Secondly, parental involvement was rather poor. When parents are uneducated and unemployed then they don't see the importance of supporting their children's school, so they didn't support us. This was really difficult for us because we are a full-service school which accommodates all kinds of learners.”
A large number of the learners have learning difficulties which include reading and writing, while others have physical disabilities, with some in wheelchairs.
“There are many reasons for the learning barriers these learners were experiencing, but I think many of them were as a result of malnutrition. Children cannot concentrate on school work when they are hungry. But since they started getting breakfast and lunch at school, their academic performance has improved dramatically,” Kgabo said.
In comes the Tiger Brands In-School Breakfast Programme, which has helped this teacher improve the school's high absenteeism rate, dismal results, low enrolment numbers and tardiness.
With the promise of a hot breakfast when they arrive at school, Kgabo said learners arrive as early as 6.45 am so as to not miss the meal which is served at 7.15 am daily.
Learner performance has shot through the roof. A total of 70% of the learners now achieve above 50% in their various subjects.
Absenteeism is at an all-time low with enrolment steadily increasing. Where there used to be 800 learners ten years ago, the number now proudly stands at 1 239.
“This programme has also helped to improve relations with parents as they are more supportive of the school because we are assisting the situation at home in a way,” Kgabo said, as parents are now only tasked with providing one meal at the end of the day, alleviating their economic pressure immensely.
“They now attend parent's meetings when they are called. It has even helped with enrolment because every parent wants to send their children to the school where breakfast is served.”
Learners at this school are not only treated to the lunch provided by the Department of Basic Education, they are also privy to beans and maize meal in the afternoon, all thanks to regular donations by a local farmer.
Falling in line with her vision for the school, which is, namely, to teach, lead, counsel and inspire; Kgabo said this programme would go a long way in assisting and equipping her learners to be all they could be when they ventured out into the world one day.
“I want to see these learners becoming responsible. I want them to be able to think ahead, to think out of the box. Other families are child-headed and if that is the case then these kids have no-one to give them advice. But if I can produce learners who can think and have a vision, then they can go far in life. That is why we are grateful for the Tiger Brands Foundation’s programme and I have seen the power that lies in something as small as breakfast,” Kgabo concluded.