Dr Thabisa Maqoqa has proved that no matter your circumstances, hard work and resolve can make anything possible. Known as Dr Thabisa M by her colleagues, the grade 7 and 9 maths teacher at Gxulu Junior Secondary School in Libode in the Eastern Cape recently completed her doctorate in mathematics education at Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha. After being awarded her bachelor of education degree, Maqoqa’s overriding dream was to wear the red robe reserved for those graduating with a doctorate. Next month, her dream will come to fruition when she graduates from the university’s Zamukulungisa campus. Maqoqa (40), a single mother of two boys – Alutho (17) and Mpho (13) – was born to illiterate parents. Her father was a farm worker in the Western Cape, while her mother took care of her and her two elder siblings in Ndabakazi village, near Butterworth. “My dream as a young girl was always to study as much as I could to make my parents proud,” she said.“I was born to a poor family and my father had to sell the little livestock he had to pay for my tuition. “What I realised over the years is that both my parents, especially my mother, knew the value of education, although they were not educated themselves. “That encouraged me to work hard.”Maqoqa has been a maths teacher for the past 16 years.“I have always loved mathematics – even as a child. I think it is a gift from God,” she said. Maqoqa completed her honours degree in 2006 and her master’s in 2011, after which “hardships and personal challenges” forced her to stop studying.“I lost both my parents in quick succession and it took its toll. It wasn’t until 2015 that I decided to study again. I promised myself that I would wear that red academic robe,” she said. Maqoqa completed her PhD in April.“I also wanted to ... prove that I could do well in mathematics as a woman in a field dominated by men,” she said. “I wanted to prove that women can also achieve great things, regardless of circumstances such as poverty and a lack of opportunities.”Improving gradesMaqoqa attributes her success to her supervisor, Dr Maisha Joseph Molepo, who motivated her “even when things were tough and I wanted to give up”.Maqoqa said the key to teaching maths lay in instilling a love for the subject in her pupils.“If pupils do not love mathematics, they will also have a negative attitude towards the maths teacher, and eventually lose interest in the subject and fail,” she said.“Since I arrived at the school at the end of last year, I have seen pupils begin to respond to my approach, and their maths marks have improved.”Despite her modest teacher’s salary, Maqoqa is passionate about teaching maths at the rural school, which she travels to from Mthatha every day.When City Press visited the school on Thursday, Maqoqa was standing in front of an overcrowded class of 81 pupils. Her only teaching aid was an old-fashioned chalk board. A pupil, Nangamso Mrhawushe (15), said they still called their teacher Miss Maqoqa, but would remember to change it to “Dr” next month. Nangamso said Maqoqa made maths easy. “We have improved hugely since she came to the school last year,” said the teenager. “Some of us could only achieve between 20% and 40%, but now we are getting more than 60% and even 80%.“She makes it look so easy, but, more than anything, she has become a parent and friend to us all. She makes sure no one is left behind when she teaches.” School principal Thabile Kunene said Maqoqa was a blessing. “There has been a great improvement in maths since her arrival. "But her high qualifications, although a blessing and an advantage for us, are also a worry because we know many people would want to have her as part of their team. “She is humble and loves her work,” he added. Maqoqa intends to continue studying. She now dreams of becoming a university lecturer and is considering studying accounting.