This year has been a big one for Esme Mack: she graduated with her doctorate in education, turned 60, retired from teaching – and took a trip to Croatia to present her research findings
WHEN Esme Mack was just six months old, her father, a teacher, passed away – and her mother was left to raise five children on a factory worker’s salary.
Mack remembers never having money to catch the bus, and instead walking the long distance from her home in East London’s Charles Lloyd township to school and back every day, her heavy suitcase weighing her down.
Her home was poor but happy – her Calvinistic mother strict and protective of her children, wanting the best for each of them. After matriculating, Mack became a teacher – and a lifelong student, in the process – travelling a path that small child with the heavy school bag would never have dreamed possible.
It all culminated this year, when she graduated with her doctorate in education, travelled to Croatia to present her research findings, turned 60, and retired from teaching after 37 years. She is now working towards her next project, which is putting together a programme to assist pupils who struggle with alcohol and drug abuse.
Inspired by her own upbringing, Mack’s master’s studies focused on children from deprived environments. Her study looked specifically at how some pupils still manage to reach their full potential despite the psycho-social barriers to learning they face, from vandalised schools to teenage pregnancy, to substance abuse and even dropping out of high school.
“I could identify with those barriers, as I come from that same environment.” Encouraged by her supervisor, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Emeritus Professor Tilla Olivier to continue her studies, Mack’s doctorate then focused on teachers in Gqebera (Walmer township), who teach children from poor socio-economic backgrounds – focusing specifically on the emotional intelligence (EI or EQ) of teachers in a deprived environment.
She found these teachers had empathy, tolerance and patience, along with a good sense of self-awareness and self-management. They could also identify with their pupils, as all the teachers in her study had grown up in deprived environments themselves.
“They could adapt to the school situation as such . . . they knew the struggles the pupils faced.” Olivier promised she would take Mack with her to an international conference on interdisciplinary social sciences in Croatia to report on her research, should she complete the study successfully – and she made sure she did.
For the entire duration of her career, Mack taught at David Livingstone High School in Schauderville in the northern areas, first teaching home economics and then arts and culture and Afrikaans first additional language.
She was handpicked for the post by the then principal John Groener, while completing her practice teaching at the school. Even though she applied for a few other posts during the course of her career, she was never successful. “I think I was meant to stay there.”
At David Livingstone, she played a key role in running parenting courses – where parents of pupils attended Saturday classes to learn more about building secure children, effective discipline, as well as how the school system functioned. In her own classroom, she was well-aware of the substance abuse and other social problems among some of the pupils.
“Now that I’m retired, I would love to play a much greater role in assisting these pupils. “I want to get more involved.” As a trained LifeLine counsellor, her heart is to help and empower pupils and their parents. Looking back, Esme said her life has been enriched by three strong women: the first was her mother, Johanna Mack, who instilled in her the importance of education.
The second was her Cape Town-based Hewit Teaching College home economics lecturer, Frederika Goliath, who taught her to be independent, to take responsibility for her actions, and instilled in her a love for travel, which has taken her around the world. “She is now a minister and I still have contact with her, along with the other women who were in my class.”
The third was her supervisor, Prof Olivier, who pushed her to achieve much more than she had ever dreamed possible. Mack completed two years of her teacher training at Dower Training College in PE, and her third year at Hewit Teaching College.
She later obtained her BA degree through Unisa, and enrolled at the former University of Port Elizabeth (now NMMU) with the aim of achieving her BEd (Honours) degree.
However, Olivier nudged her to also complete her master’s and then her doctoral studies, all the time managing a full teaching load – often working right through the night.
“I had a purpose and I needed to fulfill that purpose – I wanted to get across the stories of teachers in a deprived environment, which really showed how much they care about their pupils.”
She said co-presenting her research in Split, Croatia, with Olivier was one of the highlights of her life. “I am so very proud of her!” Olivier said.