Start main page content

The lessons I learned

- Wits University

Professor Chika Sehoole shares his insights with graduates.

Graduation address by Professor Chika Sehoole

Thank you for the invitation to address this graduation gathering. A graduation day is a day of joy as graduates and their families, lecturers and mentors celebrate the achievements of their children and students.

Some of you sitting here are first generation university entrants and it is a day of celebration that will change the course of history in your personal lives and families. I know this because I have been through that experience. When I graduated with my first degree at the University of the North, I knew I had laid a firm foundation to have a secure job and prepare a future for my family and myself.

Fortunately, for me, and on the advice of my mother, upon completion of my first degree, I continued with my studies here at the University of the Witwatersrand when I registered for a B Ed Honours degree exactly 30 years ago.

The challenges of a rural boy, from a bush university in adjusting to the then white urban-based university were unfathomable. I spent the first month commuting between Soweto and the University. I did not know Johannesburg at all. When the taxis dropped me off at Bree Street or Noord Street, I would start looking for Jorissen Street.

There was a day I wanted to give up, when after disembarking a taxi at Bree Street, I got trapped in a road that passed over the now Nelson Mandela Bridge. I thought I was going in the wrong direction and to my surprise at the end of that road I found myself in Kotze Street -Braamfontein, and the next street was Jorissen Street.

I spent the first two weeks of lectures not following what was going on in the lecture hall because of the culture shock with which many of us here can identify. Through hard work and dedication I was able to overcome all those obstacles and graduated with two degrees (an honours and masters degree) after 3 years of studying here.

It is against this background that I really want to pay tribute to our graduates especially those who are first generation university entrants from rural areas, for ensuring that in gaining access to this institution, they also ensured that they have been successful and now leave this institution with a qualification.

This is especially significant for this cohort that studied at the height of the Fees Must Fall protests.  Similar conditions to those we studied under in the 1980s. When I came to study here in 1988, it was after I had spent the previous 18 months of my under graduate degree with our campus occupied by the apartheid army following the declaration of a state of emergency on the 12th June 1986. Time will not allow me to share experiences of those last 18 months. Suffice it to say that it required resilience and dedication on the part of that cohort to complete their studies during that period. 

Tradition has it that a graduation speech typically contains life advice, words of wisdom, lessons learned, and what really matters in life.

I have chosen to focus my speech on lessons learned, and since this is a graduation ceremony which will confer degrees on future teachers, I will focus on life lessons that constitute quality teaching and learning and why teachers matter. I will speak on this subject using my grade 1 teacher, Mrs Motlatjie Moche from a rural village of Marapyane in Mpumalanga, as my point of reference.  You may wonder why this is important and I will provide the context.

About ten days ago the University of Cape Town announced its Vice-Chancellor elect in the person of Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, who is an alumna and a former Chairperson of Convocation of this institution. Now she and I have crossed pathways in many respects: Not only do we hail from the same village of Marapyane, but we started school in the same year, were in the same grade 1 class and taught by the same teacher, Mrs Motlatji Moche whom I will later refer to as Mma Moche. Mma Moche laid a solid foundation for our future learning. She was a remarkable teacher who has managed to produce the Vice Chancellor of UCT and a Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. There are many other professionals who passed through her class – too many to name here. As she turns 90 years later this year I would like to dedicate this address to her.

How did she manage to achieve this fit? Research has shown that when parents choose the kind of school to send their children to, the academic performance of learners; including learner discipline become important considerations that inform that choice.

Who ensures good academic performance of learners and discipline, if not a teacher? Why do teachers have to worry themselves with ensuring that learners are disciplined and they perform, if not because they care? Great teachers care about their students. They want them to succeed and are also committed to help them achieve their goals. Moreover, teachers care about their students’ happiness, well-being and life beyond the classroom.

These attributes are those, one experienced in Mma Moche. Her dedication to her work, the way she went about carrying out her work in a resource constrained environment, is what qualifies her to be one of the unsung heroes of this nation.

Allow me to take you down memory lane to what her classroom looked like in 1972. She taught 100 children in a classroom under tree. In order to cope with the numbers, a platoon system was used where 50 of us came to school from 7:30 a.m. until 11:00 the next group joined at 10:30 and finished at 2 p.m. There were no teaching aids and we used small stones to learn how to read and count. She used the firmament to teach us how to write the alphabets and used her students as teaching aids to learn the names of the sons of Jacob in the Bible. Until today I remember who Ruben, Levi, Juda and all the others up to Benjamin were, and I was counted among those 12. She epitomised what a good teacher is, who left a mark in the lives of her learners which can never be erased. 

If she was still teaching, she would qualify for the Global Teacher Prize, which celebrates and honours amazing stories of teachers who help children to overcome overwhelming odds and difficult social conditions. The Global Teachers award recognizes teachers who in the course of their teaching, display the following qualities which I would urge our newly qualified teachers to keep in mind as they prepare to go into schools:

  • They help under achievers to fly
  • They help us reveal our skills

Every teacher knows that there are some children who put their hand up for every question, who long to be noticed and crave attention. And there are others who only want to stay quietly at the back of the class and strive to be invisible. It takes the special skill of teachers to encourage the quiet ones to speak out and have confidence in their ability. They also keep talented children grounded and respectful of others. I was on the quite side of Mma Moche’s class. But one day she took me by surprise during the school concert when her class was invited to perform some songs and poetry at a function. At that concert, after rendering the first song, she without giving us prior warning, pulled me from second row of the choir, together with one other learner, and asked the two of us to recite an Afrikaans poem titled “My Katjie.” And there we were with my friend screaming at the top of our voices for everyone in the hall to hear:

“My Katjie

Ek het a mooi mooi katjie

Mooi mooi katjie

Met ronde ronde oë

Met ronde ronder oë,

Met lang lang stert

Met lang lang stert.”

That was my first public performance ever and I owe my standing here in front of you today to that teacher who encouraged the quiet and shy Chika to perform on stage.

Every child has their strengths and their own unique talents. For some learners however, it takes time to reveal them and dedication to nurture them. Careful, patient teaching brings out the best in all of us and helps us to fulfill our potential. Even without teaching aids, Mma Moche was patient enough to use everything at her disposal to facilitate learning. She used to spread us on the school grounds to teach us the alphabet and would use the sand on the ground to teach us how to write. She would patiently move from one learner to the other on the dusty grounds to ensure that the right things were done.

  • They educate us
  • They inspire us

If you can read, write or solve an equation, you know whom to thank. So much of what we know about the world comes from our teachers who equip us with the knowledge, skills and wisdom we need in our lives. As Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.”

Some of the world’s most famous people point to a special teacher as the inspiration behind their success. For Oprah Winfrey it was her fourth grade teacher, Mrs Duncan, who she describes as her ‘first liberator’. Microsoft founder and philanthropist, Bill Gates, remembers his Maths and English teachers with special reverence. ‘There’s no way there’d be a Microsoft without them doing what they did’, he says. To Chika Sehoole, it is thanks to my Grade 1 teacher who believed in me, who provided  opportunities for me to display my courage to recite a poem as explained, that I owe all the public appearances  I have made in different parts of the globe.

She answered the call of the liberation movement at the time when the apartheid government underfunded the education of black people, and vowed to use everything at her disposal to ensure that the black child acquires literacy and numeracy skills in the first year of school; that a black child could recite an Afrikaans poem with understanding in the first year of school.  The question I would like to pose to our graduands today is, how would you like to be remembered by your learners, 40 years from now?

Our Education system is faced with challenges and the PIRLS report has found that Grade 3 learners in some of our school cannot read with understanding. This is a national crisis, and the majority of those learners are in predominantly black schools with inadequate resources. Are we going to blame lack of resources, or the quality of teachers for that? These days we have better qualified teachers than the generation of Mma Moche, many of whom did not have a matric certificate, however, they were able to deliver literate learners. The generation of Mma Moche would be the first ones to raise their hands these days when President Ramaphosa makes a call to say, “whom shall I send to assist us in solving the literacy problem in our country?” they would heed the call and answer “Thuma Mina!!!”

As you graduate today, there is a lot that the country and society is expecting of you. The university has certificated you, you need to go out and sharpen your skills to become effective teachers who will contribute to raising the literacy levels of the nation. 

Mr Vice Chancellor, allow me to make a plea to our graduates today to consider studying further. This is both for self-development purposes as well as for responding to the national development needs of the country. A 2011 study by HESA (now Universities South Africa) shows that about one fifth of academics in South African universities are due to retire in less than a decade, including nearly half of the professoriate. A major concern is that there are insufficient numbers and poor advancement and succession planning in the existing academic and postgraduate pipelines to replace them (HESA, 2011: 1). For these reasons, those who can afford to stay longer at university, please consider pursuing your post graduate studies while still young and also consider academia as a career option. As Bishop Oyedepo reminds us “if you are not a learner you will never become a leader as those that take the lead are committed learners. If you can’t see beyond what others have seen or better and further than those you are leading, nobody will follow you.

Let me finish by making the call for integrity and morality that is required of you as you join the teaching profession. As you go back into the community with a Wits qualification,  you will be looked up to as role models, doors of opportunities will be open for you, you will be expected, to provide answers to societal problems, which when you succeed will rocket you to the top. Now hear a word of advice: the correct application of your knowledge and skills will take you to the top, but leading lives of integrity will keep there, at the top.

  • The profession needs teachers with integrity. What is integrity?
  • Integrity is doing the right thing at all times and in all circumstance.
  • Make sure that you surround yourself with people of integrity
  • Do what is right, let the consequences follow
  • Success will come and go, but integrity is forever

As we leave here, let us remember the qualities of good teachers and go and help under achievers to fly, let’s go and educate our learners, and help them reveal their skills and lastly, let’s go inspire them.

With these words I would like to congratulate you again and wish you the best in your future endeavours. 

About Chika Sehoole 

Professor Chika Trevor Sehoole is the Dean of the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria. 

He obtained his Bachelor of Education degree in Pedagogics from the University of the North and his Honours, Masters and Postgraduate Diploma in Education from Wits University. 

Sehoole’s academic career began at the Moretele College of Education in January 1991 where after he proceeded to study at the University of Essex in the UK. On his return to South Africa, he joined the Education Policy Unit at the University of Western Cape and then the Joint Education Trust before joining the South African Institute for Distance Education in 1999. In 2000, he returned to Wits as a full-time student to complete his doctoral studies, which he completed in 2002. 

Sehoole then started working as a Lecturer at the University of Pretoria and was made Full Professor in 2016. He was promoted and appointed as Head of the Department of Education Management and Policy Studies in 2011 and as Dean of the Faculty of Education in 2016. 

He has served as a visiting Rockefeller postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Illinois and was also awarded the New Century Fulbright Fellowship where he conducted research on higher education and globalisation. He has been a C2-rated National Research Foundation Researcher since 2007. 

Sehoole worked as the Chief Director responsible for Planning in 2007 and for Higher Education Policy in the Department of Education from 2008-2010. He has served on numerous committees and boards associate with the South African Qualifications Authority and the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council on Higher Education. 

Sehoole’s research focuses on higher education in Africa and the globalisation and internationalisation of higher education. He has served as the chairperson of the African Network for International Education for several years. 

He has published numerous journal articles, books and book chapters. The highlights of his publications are two books titled Democratising higher education, constraints of reforms in post-apartheid South Africa and the Internationalisation of African Higher Education, Towards Achieving the MDGs.  

He has won various awards for his work over the years.