Most teachers in their fifties are feeling weary and starting to think about retirement.
Not Thami Sokhela.
After 27 years at Shea O’Connor School in Nottingham Road (18 years as principal), he chose to move to crowded Bruntville Primary, in the heart of the township. “Many of the farming families were moved to the township, but still sent their kids to our school, paying a lot for transport. It made sense to have a school close to where they lived with as good an education as they would get at Shea O’Connor. I thought to myself – I have 13 years left to achieve this.” That is exactly what he set out to do, and within just a few years, the changes are remarkable.
“I knew I couldn’t do anything on my own, I had to make the rest of the staff see my vision.
I was grateful to have the full support of a couple of teachers, although others were unhappy. Some have left and now we are a good solid team.” Clearly, these have been stressful years, with his hands full, but now Thami is relaxed. The parents are happy and the learners clearly adore their ‘Tisha Mkhulu’.
Thami grew up in Lake View, just over the hill from Bruntville Primary.
A happy rural existence, playing in the Mooi River and walking through the grassland to attend school – Bruntville Primary was just one building back then. He dreamt of being a farmer when he left school, but when that was not to be, he worked as a security guard to earn enough money to enroll at Indumiso College for his teaching qualification.
Once qualified, he joined the staff at Shea O’Connor (then known as Nottingham Road Combined),
meeting local farmer Shea O’Connor (after whom the school is now named). In those days Black children were only taught until Standard 5 (Grade 7). Mr O’Connor fought this, and each year introduced one more grade after petitioning the then Minister of Education, Sam de Beer. Mr O’Connor paying half the money required to run the school, with the Government contributing the rest. “We built the classrooms ourselves. The learners dug the trenches and mixed the mortar and we would hand Mr O’Connor the bricks to lay,” remembers Thami.
Clearly a man of great principle and passionate about helping others, Mr O’Connor used all his connections to secure donations to help improve the school. “He instilled in me this idea of asking for help. He always said ‘nothing stands still – you either go forward or you go back’. I was determined that this rural school would not be looked down upon as many others were.” In recent years, Shea O’Connor School has achieved 100% pass rate for Matric and learners travel from far and wide to attend this excellent school.
On arrival at Bruntville Primary, Thami was unhappy with the state of affairs.
Immediately, he applied for the school to be exempt from fees. “So much stress and unhappiness is caused by worrying parents who could not pay, so it is better to be a no-fee school and find other ways of raising money,” he insisted. The children could not speak English and he insisted that they should. There was resistance from the teachers, but Thami pointed out that their children all attended multi-language schools, so shouldn’t the Bruntville learners to be proficient in English too?
None of the teachers were computer literate, many felt it was ‘beyond them’. They couldn’t type, so exam papers were handwritten and photocopied. Immediately, he approached donors for 40 computers and help to renovate and secure the room, install a smart board and data projectors. Now he just had to convince the teachers! After various attempts to upskill them, Thami settled on the course offered by Midlands Community College, funded by N3TC, which is working well. Now students spend break times researching projects, the grade one class lines up enthusiastically for their computer class and some of the teachers are ‘glued to their screens’.
Thami is concerned about the Eno Effect – the fizz and excitement when something starts, that subsides over time.
“I have to keep pushing, at the same time being careful not to tread on toes,” he says thoughtfully. While he has improved the feeding scheme, he wants to upgrade the school garden to provide not only fresh food, but inspiration for all the learners to start small gardens at their homes. “Growing food is important and close to my heart. Currently, in partnership with local farmers, we have managed to enroll 6 learners at Weston Agricultural College. We must produce people who can stand on their own.”
For his last few years as a principal, he is planning to move back to his family home. Then his daily commute to school will once again be a walk over the hills, giving high fives to bright eyed youngsters and greeting satisfied parents.