Teachers share wisdom

From left: Fadiah Abbas, Joy Benjamin and Fatima Southgate at their retirement party held at the end of last year.
From left: Fadiah Abbas, Joy Benjamin and Fatima Southgate at their retirement party held at the end of last year.

Levana Primary School has bid a fond farewell to three of their teachers who, between them, have a combined 119 years of teaching experience.

Learners who were present at the farewell event held last year on Monday 14 December, agreed they would be missed.

Johanna “Joy” Benjamin, who retired as the school’s deputy principal; Fadiah Abbas, who also filled the role of deputy principal during her time at the school; and Fatima Southgate began their teaching journeys at the primary school in Lavender Hill some 40, 42 and 37 years ago, respectively.

Over the decades, they have witnessed many changes at the school and in the community. In some instances, they were the pioneers of these changes.

“When I started at Levana, it was only an Afrikaans school; but English is my first language and I was only English speaking. So I was one of the people who started the English-teaching stream, so now we’re a dual-medium school, teaching in English and Afrikaans,” Benjamin recalls.

Abbas formed a group which facilitated hikes and excursions for the learners; a plan not only to expose children to new environments and activities, but also to get them out of sometimes toxic home environments. “I did the excursions because of the socio-economic problems the kids face every day – teen pregnancy, drugs, gangsterism – so the excursions showed them that there’s more to life. And you can see it changed the mindsets of some of them,” says Abbas who resides in Ottery.

Southgate, a Zeekoevlei resident, engaged drama and dance groups, entering them into showcases such as the annual Metro South Arts Kaleidoscope showcase at the Artscape Theatre to expose their talents to audiences from far and wide. But perhaps it will be her unusual, yet effective start to the day that she will be remembered for most by learners.

“Each morning was a different morning in my class because most of the children come from families with social problems and as an educator, I thought, ‘How do I help the kids in my class when they are not focused?’ So every morning, during first period, I listened to the children because they come to school with stories of daddy hitting mommy or drugs – they come with so many problems on their shoulders. So I listened. And we played music,” explains Southgate.

Gangsterism, gun violence and socio-economic problems are some of the main challenges facing learners and staff at schools in Lavender Hill.

“After one of the June holidays, when I pulled up at school, a little boy ran up to me and hugged me and said, ‘Teacher, I thought I was never going to see you again.’ And that is one of the things that told me I need to stay all these years,” Benjamin says.

“Sometimes a teacher is the only stable part in children’s lives, when parents are working long hours.”

Covid-19 added another difficulty to the educational environment.

“Watching social media and watching the news – it was scary, and mentally it affects you going into the area, being with the kids. It was a challenging year,” says Abbas.

Southgate adds that learners had become used to her hands-on, compassionate approach to teaching. So, she says: “When Covid-19 came, I had to stay home for five months – it was the worst five months of my life. I was so heartsore because I promised my kids – 7A – that come 2020, we would have a red carpet event and that never happened because of restrictions.”

She says the widening digital divide contributed to educational inequality. “I had to make use of social media to teach – WhatsApp. It was really difficult for learners because I had to explain difficult ideas and I had to write every step on a page and send them photos. But some of them do not even have their own cellphone.”

On the return of teachers and select learners last year, Southgate says it broke her heart not to be able to hug her learners as she had so often done before the pandemic.

With their teaching years now behind them, the retired teachers agree that despite the challenges, each of their callings were to help the learners they took responsibility for.

“Today I can sit back and say I felt honoured and privileged to teach those kids because I achieved something in life by teaching them. I only think about the kids, and if we can make a difference in only one kid’s life, it’s something,” Abbas says.

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