After 36 years, teacher Sandy Eland has finally put down her chalk and moved away from the blackboard at Oakhurst Girls’ Primary School, in Rondebosch.
“It has been a great privilege to live in the present with my seven and eight-year olds,” she said.
Learning love and respect for themselves and others; excitement when a tooth falls out; watching the delight on little faces when reading or telling stories; the joy of discovery as young minds grasp a maths or science concept; the constant questions about their environment; and the uninhibited responses, singing and dancing – these are just some of the many things that have fuelled Ms Eland’s passion for teaching.
Ms Eland comes from a teaching background. Her mother was both a primary and high school music teacher in Northern Rhodesia and was involved with choir eisteddfods and radio broadcasts with her percussion bands, as well as her class and individual pupils.
She stopped teaching after giving birth to Ms Eland and her older sister, but soon went on a three-week stint of relief teaching at the Infant School in Ndola, Northern Rhodesia, when Ms Eland was only three.
“My mother was my Grade 2 teacher and my hero,” said Ms Eland. “Both my parents’ influence in my life has been pivotal. My father was transferred to Durban in 1964, and I had to start learning Afrikaans for the first time as I entered high school.
“My sister and I followed in our mother’s footsteps and trained to become junior primary teachers, as they were then called,” she said.
Ms Eland studied for three years at the Natal Teachers’ Training College in Pietermaritzburg, staying in the same room in the first-year students’ residence that her mother had occupied many years before.
Ms Eland was the Medallist Student in 1972 and was invited to do a fourth year specialising in foundation-phase education.
Her father was an avid sportsman, representing Northern and Southern Rhodesia in water polo and badminton.
“He always joked that he would be the principal and organise the sports at our family school. He was a businessman, however, and I was often amazed at his patience and interest in the ‘teaching shop talk’ that went on among our family members, teaching relatives and friends,” Ms Eland said.
She landed her first teaching post at the Illovo Beach Junior Primary – a little school on the South Coast.
“It was a wonderful start to my teaching career. I had excellent mentors and gained vast experience teaching different grades and mixed grades each year.
“My social life in this sugar-farming area was full and varied. I made the decision from the time I started working to save as much as I could to travel at the end of four years. I felt having gone straight from school at the age of 17 to training college and back into a school environment at 21, I needed some life experience. It took me three full years to save the princely sum of R2 000 – the amount we were allowed to take out of the country in 1978,” she said.
After four years, Ms Eland resigned and went backpacking on a shoestring, spending almost two years travelling around Europe, America and Britain and working on two vastly different kibbutzim in Israel for five months.
After returning to Durban, Ms Eland joined The Black Sash as she fervently believed in the changes that needed to happen in the country. She applied for one post in Cape Town, choosing Oakhurst simply because she liked the name of the school.
She was interviewed over the phone and, much to her delight, was accepted.
In January 1981, at the age of 28, Ms Eland started her career at Oakhurst, teaching Sub B, as it was then called. She was appointed head of department of the foundation phase at the age of 32 and now she is enjoying every moment of her last term.
“Young people today may wonder how it is possible to remain at the same school and teach the same age group for so many years. Having taught at co-ed schools, I certainly missed the boys. However, teaching in a girls’ school environment has been exciting and intensely challenging, and I have grown to love it more and more with each passing year,” Ms Eland said.
“With each passing year, I have become more and more aware of how true it is that teaching is a vocation – a calling and not a job.
“We need good teachers who are passionate about children, teaching and learning and who desire to make a difference in their lives”.
Some moments Ms Eland will never forget include: the cards made with love by pupils; letters of thanks from parents, colleagues, principals and governing body members; receiving a national teaching award in 2011; and receiving a birthday card/letter from an ex-pupil without fail for the past 30 years.
She also enjoyed Oakhurst’s 90th birthday celebrations, in 1996, when the entire school dressed up and “went back to the past”. The opening of the school’s music rooms and The Oak Room were other highlights.
She was the school’s acting principal for about six months at one point in her career, but she has always felt that her place was in the classroom teaching.
“It has been such a pleasure working with a happy staff of committed, dedicated teachers and supportive, caring parents; under leaders who believe in inclusivity, putting the child first, who celebrate differences and who encourage us to find the strengths in each pupil we teach. This is why I have been at Oakhurst for so long. It is a state school with a strong academic record but it is so much more than academics,” she said.
When Ms Eland is not running the classroom, she enjoys the theatre, reading, music, walking and line dancing.
After retiring, she plans to get loads of “me time” and join the University of the Third Age.
She also wants to learn to play a new musical instrument.
“I also hope to spend more time with family and friends and do some travelling in my own country. Later, I would like to give back to education by helping children learn to read. There are so many opportunities, and my message to pupils, both past and present, is first and foremost, thank you for the joy and learning about life that I have received from teaching each and every one of you. The rewards have been immeasurable.”
She will say her final goodbyes to pupils, past and present, and their families at a picnic at Oakhurst Primary School on Wednesday November 30, from 5.30pm to 7.30pm.