Susan Potgieter found her passion for teaching after reading a book, as a child, about a a female teacher who worked in rural areas.
“I immediately knew after finishing the book that this was the career path I wanted to pursue,” says Ms Potgieter, 65, who ran the Tygerberg Hospital School for eight years, before retiring late last year.
Her career spans 43 years, most of which she spent teaching in Johannesburg.
“I grew up in Pretoria and obtained a three-year teaching diploma at a local teachers’ training college. Following that, I obtained a diploma in remedial education from Unisa, and many years later, I pursued a post-graduate diploma in school management from UCT.”
Two years after she started teaching, she realised she had a passion for teaching children who had “barriers to learning”.
In Johannesburg, she taught at Forest Town School for children with cerebral palsy and Unity College for children with special needs.
“Children with special needs have a very special place in my heart. When I interact, with them, I don’t see the learning disability I see the child. It’s important that we give them an opportunity and build an environment conducive to learning.
“For me, it’s not about their academic achievements only; I am happy when I am able to relay content to them and they are fully able to comprehend it. I especially enjoyed teaching these children to read.
“Reading is one of my favourite pastimes, and I get so much satisfaction out of it. For me, to be able, to give a child the gift of reading is amazing.”
The school, where she spent the last eight years of her teaching career, is on Tygerberg Hospital’s lower ground level. It started with one teacher and a trolley of books and it now offers multi-grade teaching at primary and high school level to sick children.
“Some children are too sick to get out of bed and we go and teach them in their wards.”
But the school also gives the children much more than just reading, writing and arithmetic. It gives them hope.
“It helps them emotionally because they are treated like schoolchildren as many of them have to stay at the hospital for up to six months,” says Ms Potgieter.
Teaching, at the best of times, is a demanding job, but the hospital-school staff must also negotiate the emotional trials that come with getting to know children who are often very sick.
She feels working at the hospital has helped her to grow as both a human being and a teacher.
“While at the school, I saw the grace of God in action. The staff would gather and have a debriefing session every morning to help them cope from day to day.”
Because of the small classes at the hospital school, the pupils get individual attention and Ms Potgieter says that helped her to spot the gaps in their education, especially in maths and literacy, and learn of the poverty and social ills many of them had faced.
“A highlight of working at the school was when the Hope Cape Town Association and Trust gave us funds to employ a Xhosa-speaking teacher. When a child has a poor understanding of a language, it hampers their learning process. When the teacher first came to us, it was wonderful to see the Xhosa-speaking children’s faces lighten up because they are being spoken to in their mother tongue.”
She says she will miss working with people from “different walks of life” and “making a difference in the lives of children”.
Now finding her “retirement rhythm” — quilting, attending art classes and spending quality time with her husband – she advises school leavers to study something they enjoy.
“I followed a career path that I loved and I have been very happy doing it all these years.”