20 May 2019 – After the departure of Pierre Grobler, who had served the Saint Andrew’s junior school with distinction for four decades, the school has a new Head. Arno Boonzaier, the son of the highly-regarded Newton Primary Headmaster Boon Boonzaier, took over the position at the beginning of the second term.

One of two boys, Arno has a younger brother who is a medical physicist in Umhlanga. Like his brother, Arno is very passionate about sports and thought he would become a physiotherapist or something similar in the sporting world. But those thoughts changed in his grade 12 year at school and began to move in the direction of teaching.

Saint Andrew’s junior school Head Arno Boonzaier and his wife Alene

“I started to coach under-nine sport a bit and then the bug just bit,” he said in a recent chat. He continued to coach and that led to him getting into teaching. There, he developed a love for maths. Following in his father’s footsteps, he became a teacher at Newton Primary, which was where he had done his primary schooling.

“I had to work twice as hard to earn respect”

Having a father who was a Headmaster helped in some ways, but it also presented other challenges, he shared: “There was no place to hide as the son of the Headmaster. I had to work twice as hard to earn respect and to show that I deserved to be there.”

During his time at the school, though, he always had a long-term goal in mind and the environment helped him progress as an educator: “I think where Newton was very good to me, and it is something that I think we must try and implement here, is that there were areas for one to grow as a person and a teacher, even though the school was much bigger than Saints. If you wanted to choose a direction and you told the Headmaster where you wanted to be in 10 years’ time, he would support you.

“I said to the Headmaster I want to be good in my subject, but I also want to be the best in this line of cricket. I want to be one of the best coaches. He said this is the path you want to take.

“I was also given the opportunity to be the head of grade, so I had the responsibility to be the head of the junior sport, to be able to coordinate that, to deal with parents, to see what works and what doesn’t work.

“Slowly but surely one gets experience in the right places, on the right levels, as you grow. In a smaller school, there are only so many opportunities sometimes. The bigger a school gets, the more opportunities arise. In that sense, I have learnt quite a lot about a lot of different things. That has certainly helped me in my start here at Saints.”

Arno Boonzaier shows off his position in the faux National Elections held to teach the boys in the Foundation Phase about voting.

The role of sports in school

Talking with Arno, one very quickly realises he is a big fan of sports, especially cricket, and he sees sports as an important component of the overall development of children.

“I am a big fan of especially primary school sports where you must try and play everything you can. The reason behind that, for me, is that you very seldom get a boy that’s good at everything he does. Discovering you’re not good at everything teaches them that they can get better if they work a little harder.

“I don’t think we must see sport as a separate part of education. It must work hand-in-hand with the classroom, with whatever we do here. We’re trying to raise a complete young man, so the values that I think are the most important is the sportsmanship, respect for yourself, for your peers, for the game, for the teachers, for the coaches. If you have respect and sportsmanship covered, the rest will come.”

Love of mathematics

In the classroom, Arno has a particular passion for mathematics, but it’s not just about unearthing the top performers, he revealed: “In education, you’re working with five, six, seven boys who are passionate about maths. Then the rest of the grade knows they have to have maths and they have to work hard, including some who don’t like maths at all.

“The hardest thing for me as a teacher is to get the boys on my side. If I can get them on my side with small gestures and small things and they understand that I am there for them and I want to help them, that’s the most important thing for me. I don’t want a grade six boy that just wants to do maths every day. I want to develop a love for maths, especially at Saints, where we can take that through to matric.”

Opportunity at Saint Andrew’s

Arno hadn’t been actively looking for a job when he became aware that the post at Saint Andrew’s had become available. With maths as a speciality, he knew he could find work almost anywhere, but with his passion for cricket, he realised that if he was to take a further step up the educational ladder it would likely have to be at an English school, and Saint Andrew’s fitted the bill perfectly.

He and his wife Alene had spoken about the future and recognised that if an opportunity arose within the next few years they should consider moving. When the possibility of working at Saint Andrew’s came up it had some big advantages, including the fact that Arno’s wife works as a financial advisor for Sanlam in a region that includes both Bloemfontein and Kimberley. She prodded Arno into applying, telling him it was what he always wanted to do and he could make a difference.

“Bloemfontein is much bigger than Kimberley, but there are many similarities. It’s not a drastic move,” Arno said.

Saint Andrew’s junior school Head Arno Boonzaier with the Chapel Field in the background

Traditions and manners

“The biggest difference I have noted is that the English schools do things a little bit differently. I love the tradition. One of the reasons I felt I had to get into an English school was the manners and the respect. That is very important to me. I don’t think a lot of people understand, if you’re a grown up, how big a part of your life that actually is. That’s something that I am very passionate about.

“If you’ve got good manners and values then the other things will work out. You’ve got your side covered. The focus on manners and respect is one of the biggest things that I love here.”

After considering the move and putting in some phone calls to find out more about Saint Andrew’s, he applied for the job and was successful.

“If you really want the job and you put in the hours, you will get results. I knew that the first year or two would require drastic changes in some regards for me, a lot of new things and new people [to deal with]. Once I got my head around that, I knew I could come and make a difference.”

“You’re stupid if you don’t apply”

What, if any, advice did his father give him? “He said to me ‘you’re stupid if you don’t apply. In terms of the subjects, you know exactly what to teach, you know exactly what is happening with sport, and you understand the primary school world’.”

Arno also understands that the challenges of being a Headmaster are very different from those of being a teacher. To make a success of it, he said he will need other people to help him and since he arrived at Saints he has received some good support.  

“I am happy and I want to be here. As long as we do the small things right and we get the right people involved, we’ll do well.”

Arno said a big challenge Saint Andrew’s faces is going up against private schools for the services of top teachers. But, if the school can put the right things in place it can attract the teachers that it wants.

Understanding the boys

Teachers need to understand the boys, not just as learners, but as people and what is going on in their lives, he added. “Teaching is such a simple profession, but it can have such a big impact on a young man’s life.

One of the advantages of Saints is that it is a small community, he said. That means when problems occur there is someone able to help. “I think the family feel at Saint Andrew’s is much more pronounced here than at a bigger school.”

Concluding, he said the bottom line is that academics should carry the school’s name, but the goal is to produce a rounded child who participates in a wide variety of activities, which results in many friendships. Later, those friendships become brotherhood.

“The brotherhood is what’s carrying the school.”