As a child, Mokhudu Machaba had to cross a flooded river on her way to school in rural Limpopo. She fell pregnant at 15 but returned to complete her matric and found employment as a domestic worker to pay for her tertiary education. The dedicated educator, who has been shortlisted for the Global Teacher Prize talks to Lucas Ledwaba
What grades and subjects do you teach at your school, the Ngwanamago Primary School in Ga-Mothiba, Limpopo?
I have taught from grade R to 12. After the challenges I experienced, I decided to go to the foundation phase [to continue teaching] because that’s what I qualified for. Learners are coming to the senior phases and intermediate phases with challenges that were supposed to have been addressed in the foundation phase.
So I decided, let me be part of the foundation phase so I can make sure to fix the challenges.
What attracted you to teaching?
I think I was avoiding poverty. I never wanted to be a teacher. Looking at how teaching was during my time I felt as if teachers were overloaded with work. There were big boys and girls in the classroom who would sometimes disrespect the teachers. And where I grew up, in every other household there was a teacher, so I didn’t want to be one. I didn’t want to add to the statistics but unfortunately, that was the profession I could afford.
Your upbringing wasn’t very easy from what I’ve gathered?
Well, my upbringing was not so bad. We were not a well-to-do family, we couldn’t meet the needs of a good household. My stepfather was the only person who was working. He loved us very much and I still cherish him for that because he has put so much confidence in my life and his family as well. I never knew he wasn’t my father until I was 18 years old. My mother was my role model. Unfortunately, another setback was falling pregnant at the age of 15, mainly due to peer pressure. I wouldn’t be blaming anyone else for that. It was tough because my mom was strict with me after having the baby. She made sure I took care of my responsibilities of being a mother and at some point, I would look at her and think she’s not even my mom because she was light and I was dark. I would look at her and I would wonder why is she treating me like this? But I’m grateful now.
How did you overcome being a teenage mother and get to a point where you were able to continue with your studies?
I never had any time to play since I had the baby. For instance, Saturday was washing day and, as the firstborn, I would have to do the washing for the whole family. My little daughter was the same age as my little sister so I had to do the washing of all the babies’ nappies. Maybe those who are looking from afar thought my mom was abusing me in a way but I’m grateful because she taught me a whole lot of responsibility.
You are teaching now in a rural area. Tell us about that experience.
It reminds me of how I grew up, the struggles I went through as a learner, and whenever I see them [learners] they remind me of myself and how tough it was to get an education.
I look at them and I think, what if some of them don’t have the resilience that I had? It means I need to mother them. I need to be there for them. I need to cherish them. I need to give them confidence.
What were some of the challenges you faced when you were going to school in a rural area?
Our higher primary was very, very far. [Getting there] included crossing a river and sometimes we didn’t even have shoes or school bags. You will know that in the past they would sew together mealie-meal sacks or rice sacks [for school bags] and cover our books with those cement packets. To cross it [the river] while it was raining, we were very short; we would depend on the taller ones to carry us on their backs. Going to school during those times wasn’t easy.
What makes a good teacher?
A good teacher must love the kids. They must have the passion to work with the lives of the kids because Dr [Aaron] Motsoaledi [who is now the minister of home affairs, but was minister of health and an MEC for education in Limpopo previously] used to say: ‘The mistake of a doctor is in the grave, but the mistake of the teacher is in the street.’ Working with these wonderful souls means a lot to me as a teacher because I need to touch their lives.
You use technology in your teaching. Tell us how that came about and how do you manage that in a rural setting like this one?
Attending conferences opened my eyes. I could see and I could relate and interact with my peers globally. [It] showed me that if we continue to teach students the way we were taught we would rob them of their futures.
That realisation forced me to compromise some of my resources, for example having to buy data. I did it from my own pocket. To ensure that the students could research in the classroom we would connect one laptop to the internet with this single cellphone of mine. Remember, we are teaching 21st-century learners — they’re not like us, they don’t enjoy traditional teaching and lecturing and 10 minutes of your time in the classroom is enough for them. From there, they’re no longer with you, which is why I use apps and technology methods and, [with] all the strategies they feel they are part of the learning and they love it.
How did you get interested in these teaching methods?
I’ve been attending conferences and in 2009 there was an NGO for coding called Kaizen Coding that came to teach teachers. Luckily, I was a nominee and attended the coding workshop in 2009. We visited Parktown Boys’ High School [in Johannesburg] and I was amazed that a grade 9 learner was able to make a house plan using Excel.
In 2011 I visited St John’s [also in Jo’burg]. It blew my mind how big that school was and how every class has technological apps and gadgets. I was asking myself, is this the same country, the same policies? And then I came back and I studied my policies. I got informed. If I wait for someone to come, or keep complaining about the situation that I’m in, I may not end up with a solution.
Do the many accolades you’ve won keep you motivated to wake up every morning and come to teach?
I take those as events that only happen on that day and I must come back to the real situation. The real situation is in my classroom with the learners because whenever I got those awards it was because I was showcasing the work the learners did in the classroom. It was not all about me — it was all about what learners are capable of doing. Being a teacher to me means lifelong learning and I learn a lot from the children. — Mukurukuru Media