They say behind every successful man there is a successful woman; it seems this adage is true for Namibia’s best performing secondary school, St Boniface College. New Era’s Chief Reporter Mathias Haufiku recently took time to talk to the school principal Mary Phillis Yesudasan, on the state of the education system and specifically the school’s formula for success, which many would like to replicate.
NE: When did you become the principal of the school and how did you end up in Namibia?
MPY: I joined the school as a teacher in 2001. I became the principal in 2003 when my predecessor was recalled by the Catholic mission.
NE: Your husband passed away earlier this year, many thought you would go back home to India, but you remained in Namibia. What made you decide to stay here?
MPY: Initially going back home was the right thing to do. But my husband and myself had a lot of plans for the school, we wanted to be number one in the country and we were also trying to get missionaries like fathers and sisters to continue the work we have been doing, because we did not want the school to go down. Unfortunately, something beyond our control happened and my husband passed away. I gave it a second thought, thinking that if I remain at home I would be happy and my kids and relatives would be taking care of me. But I was worried that the school would be in turmoil, because we have been teaching four different subjects, including Physical Science and Mathematics. I had to tell the people in India that I am needed in Namibia and if I do not come back the school would go down. I love the school so much. I did not want my learners to suffer because my husband passed away. I also did not want to put them at a disadvantage hence I came back.
NE: What are the most pressing challenges when it comes to running a school in a rural area?
MPY: Regarding the challenges, finding suitable teachers is the biggest challenge. In most cases, if a teacher leaves the school it is tough to get a replacement. Learners also do not like coming back here when they are attending state schools, because they know that once you go to St Boniface you have to work hard, simply because we are result-oriented. Since this is a private school partially subsidized by the Ministry of Education, we have to plan very hard to take care of our expenses.
NE: What does the exceptional performance of your school boil down to, committed learners, good teachers or merely a conducive study environment?
MPY: I should say number one is the administration, because I plan everything together with teachers. This is not a one-person show. Although the final word lies with me, I always discuss everything with the teachers. Teachers are fully involved in the running of the school. We inculcate in the teachers the necessity to learn, because we value quality education and I constantly supervise how they teach, behave and conduct exams. Everybody is working hand in hand. If somebody is falling behind I call them in just to counsel them. We have bi-weekly tests, if the learners do not perform well for two weeks, then we call in their parents to see what the problem is.
NE: Many teachers do not want to teach in rural areas, but you seem to have a good team of teachers here. How do you attract them to your school?
MPY: When there is a vacancy we advertise the post, but we always look for somebody who is highly qualified and experienced. Applicants do not know the system here so we interview them and give them a model class before we appoint them. During the first year, we observe them and when we are convinced we appoint them. From the second year onward they receive an allowance of N$1000 as motivation on top of their salary.
NE: There are claims that your school selects learners based on their intelligence levels and therefore giving your school an unfair advantage over other schools. How do you respond to that?
MPY: I know it is coming from jealous people who see how well we are doing. We get learners from all over Namibia, because we have a selection process where we test learners just like any other school. We test them in subjects such as Mathematics, English and General Science. They write a three-hour test and based on their performance we do the selection. There is no other way to test applicants. They test is written by all, I cannot understand where this allegation is coming from. I do not know any child coming from Windhoek, Gobabis, Walvis Bay or even Katima Mulilo, how can I then give them preference. We give preference to mission stations such as Bunya, Tondoro, Nyangana and Andara.
NE: Are you the type of principal whom learners will fear or like as soon as they see you on the school premises?
MPY: They are afraid of me when they know they are doing something wrong, but they know I am friendly when they do what they must do. Learners run when they make a mistake, but if they are done there will not be any problem. If they do not do their tasks at a given time then they are in trouble. If they are disciplined there is no problem.
NE: What is the level of parental involvement at your school?
MPY: It is a triangular thing, administration, learner and parent. When something happens I invite the parents over to discuss the situation. Parents understand the importance of discipline. There are very few cases when we had to suspend learners just to make them strong.
NE: What is your approach to classroom management and student discipline?
MPY: In the classroom I am teacher and not a principal, I teach them and I am friendly. But regarding learning and teaching I am strict. If they fail to do their homework they will not enter my class, unless if they were not feeling well.
NE: What does St Boniface College do differently to attain excellent grades that other schools fail to do?
MPY: We do not have any special or extraordinary thing to get good grades, we simply do the ordinary things we expect from a normal teacher, learner and school in an extraordinary way. I am watching and observing teachers, if they fail to do their work I call them in and motivate them. They can do the things they like, provided that it is within the school rules. I also ensure that learners and teachers are always on time for lessons so that the entire 40 minutes of a lesson is used for teaching. We also sit back as a school and evaluate our performance after each term in order to improve our standards. We find ways and means to improve step by step to either maintain our performance or improve.
NE: You were approached by the regional education directorate of Kavango Region to head the recently opened Rukonga Vision School, but you declined. Why did you decide to stay on here?
MPY: I came here with my husband through the church so we thought we should continue working for the church, that is why I declined. But any support they need we are ready to assist. The church expects a lot from us, so we do not want to disappoint them. We were working in Tanzania for 24 years with my husband in one of the seminaries. One of the sisters invited us when there was a need for higher level teachers at St Boniface. We were number one in our subjects in Tanzania and she wanted the same thing to happen in Namibia.
NE: The directorate eventually appointed Moses Gorengecho, one of your former colleagues. Do you see him, delivering the much-desired results?
MPY: I did not know about his appointment until the time he was about to leave. The ministry felt that since I declined, they needed somebody trained by me. I hear he is struggling, because the system there is different to what we have here. Here I have full authority to hire and fire, but there everything is under the ministry.
NE: What extra-mural activities do you offer learners here. We never hear of St Boniface learners taking part in national sport activities. Is the environment here strictly for studying?
MPY: On Wednesday afternoons we devote two hours to sport. Learners take part in sports codes such as soccer, volleyball and long jump and many others. But our learners do take part in sports.
NE: Some sections of the community are calling for the re-introduction of religious studies in schools. What is your view?
MPY: It is a must, because right now we have a multitude of social problems, including gender-based violence that is on the increase. I just feel that if learners have a strong religious foundation they will be aware of God irrespective of their religious affiliation. In Tanzania all schools devoted a period to religious education. Here we also have one period so that awareness can be created, government should proceed with that plan.
NE: Poor education delivery lies at the root of most of Namibia’s problems, including unemployment, poverty and inequality. How can we address this?
MPY: The problem is that some teachers are not committed. When you tell them to do this they want to fight you. Principals have limitations also, I can go for inspection but I cannot be in all classrooms at all times. Teachers should have commitment. Absenteeism amongst teachers is also a problem. At our school when teachers fall sick they get medication and go back to class and make up for the missed classes on their own once they have recovered. I just feel that principals should take control of the school and talk constantly to teachers. A lot of planning should be done if the situation is to change.
NE: Government continues to pump billions of dollars into the education sector yearly, but the results are not forthcoming. Is it about money or something else?
MPY: The problem is that money is being pumped into the sector, but you should know where you need the money. Sometimes I cry when I see images of learners sitting on logs in open air at schools in newspapers. They have to be taught in an uncomfortable environment while the money is used somewhere else. The lack of textbooks is also a problem, we talk of the 1:1 ratio, but the problem is that the books we are getting are not enough and also not of standard. I told the ministry that they should approach experienced teachers in different fields and order good books for each subject. Sometimes we get below standard books, which we end up not using. The ministry is spending a lot of money, but they must reduce the number of workshops that are being held at high costs. Meetings should instead be held by subject teachers to enquire about their needs. How do you expect us to teach without chalk, how do you want us to write on the board? A lot of planning should be done at ground level. They increase the syllabi, but there are no books in the bookshops. The appropriate books should be available.
NE: One of the main factors that will determine the success or failure of our education sector is the quality of teachers and principals. Will you agree with me if I say our education system is failing to deliver, because we have poor quality teachers and principals?
MPY: Not all, but some. I have seen some principals roaming around town doing their own private business, I am not against it, but during their duty time they should find time to be at school and plan properly. Regarding the quality, maybe we are not getting the proper teacher for the proper subject. Sometimes the teacher for a specific subject is not there, and those present are forced to teach subjects they are not qualified for. Some principals do not worry about the school, they just go there and wait to knock off. Principals should be friends to all and ensure that things are running well.
NE: Do you see St Boniface College holding on to the No 1 spot when the Grade 10 and 12 national examination results are released next year?
MPY: We will never deviate from our firmly held believe in hard work, we had meetings and told learners and teachers what we need to achieve. Whatever comes we will accept, as long as we know we have done our best. Last year we did not expect the results to be as good, because our learners were not extraordinary but they performed beyond our expectations. There can be another school working harder than us, but we will not be disappointed if we lose our position, as long as we know that we tried our level best.
By Mathias Haufiku