22 December 2017 –
The curtain came down on an extraordinary teaching career at the end of the 2017 school year when Antoinette van Zyl stepped away from a journey that began at the Bloemfontein Teachers’ Training College in 1961.
It was there that she met her future husband, Hentie, who also became a long-serving member of the Saint Andrew’s School staff.
Antoinette van Zyl, a memorable teacher who made a huge difference in the lives of many
Thinking back to her Teachers’ Training College days, she said: "I met Hentie in my first year. He was my senior. He had quite an impact on me because we planted the rugby fields in front of the hostels there. Every morning, we youngsters with our short, little dresses, reaching knee-high, went out. Ten of us were divided into groups with two senior males.
"We would make these little furrows where we put the grass in and then covered up. And we were waiting for Hentie. He says to me 'Young lady, you're doing nothing'. I told him we were waiting for him to make the furrow. He said 'Well, you're doing nothing. Take the spade and dig!' That was it! 52 years later he is still digging."
That story encapsulates in some way the humour, and strong, principled character that has guided Antoinette throughout her life.
Hentie the hitch-hiker
She started teaching in Bothaville in 1963. Hentie, who was in Virginia, would hitch-hike to visit her every weekend. "He used to say the longest stretch of the road was the beginning of Welkom, State Way, because once you hit State Way nobody picks you up. You have to walk right through Welkom."
From Bothaville, Antoinette moved to Virginia after a year to teach at a new school, Saaiplaas, which later changed its name to Frank van der Merwe. In 1965, she and Hentie were married.
When her first child, a daughter, was due, she stopped teaching. A year later, though, she returned to teaching and spent close to a decade at Virginia Volkskool, teaching grade four children.
Antoinette then moved to Nobilis, also in Virginia, which had been a special school, and that was, she said, “an eye-opener”.
"There were kids who were hampered by language. I had Portuguese and Spanish and even Belgian children, whoever was working on the mines. And then, at the end of 1986, we went to Wepener. I took care of the kids in the hostel there." Hentie, meanwhile, served as Headmaster of the school.
Antoinette temped for a quarter at Wepener, but was then offered a job at the community school, Qibing. Recalling that time, she said: "I was there for nine years in the 'uhuru' days. They (the children) locked us up for a day because the Principal couldn't keep two of the teachers who came from Bloemfontein. They wanted to come back to Bloemfontein, so when they had posts in Bloemfontein it was the Principal's 'fault'. They held us hostage for a day, which was very, very interesting."
"No education before liberation"
The transition to a democratic South Africa and the popular mantra of that time, “no education before liberation”, led to some interesting episodes, she added: "We didn't have class rooms. You rotated. You had a little ward where you did your marking and it was where you went for break.
“You would hear these boys coming along and the sounds of toyi-toying. You would get this chill. The grade eights, who were the youngsters, would cover us. 'Ma'am, you must go to your ward'. They would accompany us and we would close the door, put the cupboards in front of the door and there we would stay."
In 1997, Antoinette and Hentie moved to Bloemfontein. As usual, though, Antoinette was not out of teaching for long before she was sought out. "I was at home for about six months and then I went to Kruitberg [Primary School]. I took a post there for three months when a lady fell pregnant. I stayed on for a year-and-a-half after that."
Hentie and Antoinette van Zyl: married for over 50 years and teachers for over 100 years
At that time, she and Hentie went on derby days with Saints and it was after one of those that Saint Andrew’s Headmaster, Roy Gordon, approached her to take over another teacher’s post for six months.
"I said fine. Twenty-five periods a week, that's not bad, and with double the salary!
"I came for six months and the six months then became 15-and-a-half years! I started in July 2002 and I have never looked back.
"It was such a privilege to end my teaching career of 50-years-plus at a place like Saints. You've got your rules and all your traditions. Everything is just wonderful here."
Antoinette had joined Hentie at Saints, and for a while there were three Van Zyls when their son, Wynand, also joined the staff. “It was nice to have him here, " Antoinette said.
"Working with Hentie has been fun. He is always two or three steps ahead of you, knowing what is going to come and what is needed. He is surprised by nothing. He is a very good leader/teacher for youngsters."
Reflecting on what teaching has meant to her, Antoinette said: "It's a passion, a lifestyle. I can't see us not doing it. We're 150 years old together, and out of those years we have been teaching for 105! He started teaching in 1963 and so did I, but I also had two kids. If you add it all together, I had been teaching for just over 50 years by the end of this year."
"You're a vampire!"
So what keeps one going for half-a-century, dealing with a very challenging occupation? "The children! You're a vampire! That's where you get your energy from. You get your fresh outlook on life. You don't stagnate. Heaven's, don't put me in an old age home! I think that would be terrible. Working with young people keeps you young.
"And there has been such a change in education. When we started you would play tennis on Wednesday afternoons, you would play badminton on Tuesdays and Thursdays, tennis on Saturdays. You don't have that now. Teaching has become a 24/7 job. If you've finished your work then there is something wrong. There is something that you haven't done correctly.
"You're either preparing or you're worrying about the little guy at the back who is not paying attention and who dodges when you look at him. I think teaching is the one profession that absolutely occupies everything, every bit of you."
Each child is unique
Each child, Antoinette explained, is unique and must never be compared to others, not even siblings: "I tell my kids 'Tell your parents not to say you're not like your brother'. You're not like your brother, you're not like your father, because God doesn't make photocopies. We've all got different genes. You must compete against yourself. Don't sit next to your neighbour and say 'He's got 100 percent again'. Look at your marks! If you've got 35 and now you've got 45, you've achieved."
Teaching was not only about the learners learning, however, Antoinette revealed: "Teaching was a wonderful learning experience. If you don't learn while you're teaching, you're not a teacher. You learn more from your learners than you can teach them because they teach you about life, and they have all got their different little outlooks on life, and you have to appreciate that. "
Teaching is not about parroting information, she added, one needs to understand what one is learning about: "What I like to teach my learners is there is not just one way of doing something. You can get to the Mall by going via Soutpan, but you will get there, eventually. As long as you know what you are doing, and if you made a mistake in maths you must tell me what your mistake was and how you are going to fix it.
"Maths is like life. You can't go through life without making mistakes. Then you're not human, you're a machine. What makes you human in a true way is how you fix your mistakes. What makes a man out of you, a good person?"
Changes in teaching
Teaching changed greatly during her time as a teacher and not always for the better, Antoinette explained: "I think we lost a big part of teaching and education with this Outcomes Based Education (OBE) system that was introduced. It took away structured language and rules. You can't teach a language without rules. You can't teach maths without rules. You can't do life without rules. I think we lost a few years there.
"In many ways, though, I think teaching is going back to reading, writing and arithmetic, where you must know your tables and you must know your rules. I feel you must have rules in any subject, because that's what structures life in the end. You have rules at home. You have rules at school. You have rules in life. You need them. Otherwise you are not going to have a structured society."
With retirement now a reality, Antoinette will have time to spend with her five grandchildren, a prospect she is very happy about. She will miss teaching, just not the Integrated Quality Management System (IQMS) filing.
"You're now on the sidelines"
"I will miss my colleagues because when you leave your teaching profession you are out of it. You're now on the sidelines. You have to stand back. That is difficult," she admitted.
Hentie, though, has another six months to serve at Saint Andrew’s and Antoinette has pledged to come and watch the boys in action.
Beyond that, she hasn’t made many long-term plans, preferring to enjoy each day as it comes.
Living each day fully
At her age, Antoinette said, one learns to appreciate the time that one has. "My father used to say we are so stressing about tomorrow that you forget to live today.
"I used to think he was talking nonsense, but the older I get the more I realise that worrying is like riding a rocking horse. You are busy all the time, but you are not getting anywhere. You must do what you do today and do it the best you can. And if you have to do nothing today, do it properly. If you don't finish it, go on tomorrow."