Retired teacher proves it’s never too late to get a PhD

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Lorna Jonathan graduated with her PhD in education at the age of 65. Her research was inspired by her experience as an orphan. Photo: Supplied
Lorna Jonathan graduated with her PhD in education at the age of 65. Her research was inspired by her experience as an orphan. Photo: Supplied

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After fighting for many years, she finally became a permanent teacher at the age of 50. Now, Lorna Jonathan beams with pride when she talks about receiving her PhD in education at the age of 65.

She graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal after completing her research, which analysed the concept of the Zulu kinship system and its influence on orphaned children’s education.

Jonathan lost her mother on her 10th birthday. While keeping her mother’s lessons and memory alive, she took care of her six siblings while still striving to reach her goal to become a teacher.

She kick-started her dream by working as an administrative clerk at Stanger Primary School in KwaDukuza, a position she held for 26 years.

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At the age of 40, she completed her diploma in teaching and then graduated with her honour’s degree in education.

Jonathan then wrote to the former KwaZulu-Natal finance and education MEC, Ina Cronje, highlighting her achievements and aspirations of becoming a teacher, since a former principal at the school refused her permanent placement, even though she had all the necessary qualifications.

A decade later, at the age of 50, she was appointed as a permanent teacher after years of battling her way into the system.

Although the waiting period for a response was long, it was positive.

She responded to me and I was seconded to a local primary school to start my teaching career. Despite having no remuneration, I was spurred on by career growth opportunities

“I was finally able to make a difference and add value to the lives of pupils as a teacher. I treasured every moment with my young souls, knowing that I was given this platform to inspire, instil and awake imaginations to success.”

She said her PhD research was motivated by her life as an orphan and having to take care of her younger siblings.

Her PhD explored the lives of children in KwaZulu-Natal who have been orphaned or are otherwise vulnerable in relation to the Zulu kinship care system, which is the placement of children with their relatives.

“Orphanhood has become widespread because of the HIV/Aids pandemic, though there are other contributing factors. The kinship care system is the preferred option should it become necessary for a child to be removed from their home and placed within a safe environment.” Jonathan explained:

It is the least restrictive and most family-like out-of-home placement.

For her research, orphaned children were selected from three high schools in the KwaDukuza area, nine children were selected from a childcare facility in Durban and a social worker was selected from the same facility.

Her findings revealed that the families were poor, humbled and open to accepting yet another child to care for despite their already difficult circumstances.

“The Zulu kinship system continues to operate, but is under severe stress and, at times, is not serving to protect children to the extent needed. The pattern of families intervening to protect and care for children in difficulties continues, as indicated in the township settings. The caregivers report on their care as a labour of love that entails sacrifice.”

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The mother of two boys said that while this was true for some, child placements could result in the orphan being subjected to abuse and exploitation and that, in many cases, the care was inadequate due to poverty.

In some families, the Zulu kinship system has failed to such an extent that the only option for vulnerable and orphaned children is institutional care. She said:

Children in care report fully on the abuse and neglect that led to their placement, while most of those who had been placed with the extended family had enjoyed family life before the loss of parents.

Given the extent of abuse revealed in her study, Jonathan recommends frequent visits by a social worker.

Reflecting on her PhD and life’s journey, the retired teacher said one’s hardships do not always mean the end of everything.

“I am here today, living my dream and being my authentic self. There were nights when I had the candle burning at both ends and my loving husband was right there by my side.”


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