Updated: Feb 20, 2019
Interview: Esmie Kühn - School Teacher - Zoetendal Akademie, Struisbaai, South Africa
Have you ever thought about what sort of mark you would leave on mankind? It is impossible to measure objectively, because in so many ways the impact we have on others is intangible. Maybe you could look at the number of patients you cured, if you are a doctor, or the number of people who watched your movies if you are a film maker. But that does not help. Because your impact is not quite in the measure itself, it’s all in the way those people received the experience… Still I’ll take a shot at it with Esmie, a South African pre-primary school teacher [i].
At age 70, having officially retired in 2013, Esmie still teaches [ii]. Angela Duckworth who wrote about grit in the eponymous book [iii] explains that what truly demonstrates passion in human endeavours, rather than the intensity of the feelings they evoke in their pursuers, is how long they keep at it. Esmie’s passionate love affair with kids started young. She studied pedagogy for special needs children in 1967-68 and later obtained a specialist certificate to teach in pre-primary classes.
Esmie married in 1971 at age 23 which proved to be a hindrance: In the seventies and eighties, the established rule in South Africa was that if a school had too many teachers, the ones who were married would be made redundant first, being of course assumed that their husband would provide… This happened to her three times. This, added to early career temporary jobs and 3 relocations linked to her husband’s work, means that she taught in 9 different schools during her career.
"Very often when I arrived there was nothing. Nothing to work with or support any teaching activity."
A new teacher arriving in a pre-primary [iv] class is like a family moving into a new home. Things often need to be updated sometimes overhauled, and Esmie met her fair share of dumps to modernize.
More times than not she would arrive in a class where everything was left to prepare. Try and imagine your prep school classroom of the seventies, a room with tables and chairs, no toys or nice pictures on the walls, dusty floors and grimy windows and think: “Now would I drop my 5-year-old here to learn?”.
The frequent mobility of her career had an upshot: Esmie needed to invent her way of furnishing a classroom and organise schooling activities very quickly and with limited funding. She loved teaching and resented poorly furnished classrooms. She organized collects, recycled everyday objects and packaging, relentlessly petitioned parents, friends and family to donate everything she could use for teaching purposes. Still today, after visiting us, Esmie flies back to Cape Town with plenty of toys and objects of all shapes that we no longer use for our own kids. This focus and energy meant that her class was always well appointed in toys, and full of wondrous learning opportunities for young children.
Her repetitive furnishing efforts led Esmie to wonder about how best to organise learning activities in a systematic way, which she could transport from school to school. So, she devised a curriculum based on a set of educative toys, like Tricky Fingers [v]. These were popular children games of increasing level of difficulty, each level consisting of multiple assignments. In the course of a year, each child had to complete every level of every game, and autonomously reported their accomplishments by colouring in blocks on a card. It essentially worked like the multi-stage interactive video game, that Namco and Nintendo later brought to our watering holes and sitting rooms.
The children adopted the system immediately. It afforded them lots of autonomy, gradual challenge, and as they proudly reported having completed a row or a block on their colour card, boosted their self-esteem. Because several kids were always simultaneously working on different assignments of the same game, they tended to bond, help or emulate one another, providing their teacher with a wealth of social interactions to observe and use as lesson-worthy material. This also meant that Esmie ended up with a very effective early warning tool for detecting developmental or learning difficulties.
She also created songs by writing words on popular tunes, brought to school an anger cushion to help children express their anger safely, without casting it as a bad emotion. She created games to stimulate and anchor kid’s lateralization which worked well for visual, auditory and kinaesthetic children. She taught them how to climb the tree standing in the courtyard and allowed them to do it freely once they understood how to do it safely. She built a sandpit that had a real river with real water, from a tap that kids could open during recess, it even had small plastic boats! The courtyard also featured a 10-meter zipline and a set of fully tarred mini-roads, with road markings and stop signs, which kids could roam on the school’s bikes and tricycles. For the smaller kids, a lot of toys were available from clay to Lego bricks, through dolls and cars.
“My teaching approach for the youngest 3-4-year olds, was very simple: play and have fun. For the older ones, autonomous discovery with simple rules.”
And it worked. Parents were suddenly facing loudly complaining offspring if the morning routine was too slow. No way they were going to be late for school!
“Children should want to go to school! If they don’t, something’s wrong with the school.”
Consequently, an only teacher in a group of school directors, she was invited to join the board overseeing pre-primary educational methods in the Western Cape, which in turn adopted and spread her system to the entire region.
She evolved further her developmental test tool. She ended up doing comprehensive testing on all the children on language, physical development, art, perceptual development, motor skills, agility, coordination, fine motor skills, music, rhythm and balance, and for the oldest, calculus. She then was able to coach parents whose children had challenges to overcome, and was able in many cases to influence them to create a friendlier home environment for that particular challenge. And that too was adopted by the Western Cape region.
Esmie differentiates developmental testing from standardised testing. Young children develop at their own rhythm and trying to go faster is counterproductive.
“You can’t say to your child: You have to lose a tooth, please make an effort”.
Then she introduced fashion shows and other theatrical representations at school events. It wasn’t always well received (because hey… that’s a lot of work). But perseverance paid off, and Esmie’s home office today is still full of recordings of small kids parading the brand-new clothes of nearby shops at a year-end functions. She did nativity and popular school plays.
She recalls that young boys had mixed feelings about the fashion show. But that changed when she made James Bond the theme of the show and they saw the trendy clothes they would wear…
“And then there is that moment when a 5-year old gets to walk on stage in front of 100 parents and grandparents getting applauded the whole time. They learn how it feels to dare, to be admired and important, it is wonderful”.
43 years later, now teaching at her 9th school in Struisbaai (That's not counting the places where she did relief teaching), plotting her next school revolution, working on funding for kids who can’t make the school fees, and welcoming high school kids to play in clay or paint sessions with their younger fellows, I asked her what she loved that much in her teaching job.
"Young children are full of wonderful promises", she said.
They are spontaneous and have a totally open and loving approach to the world. They are all about what’s the next fun thing to do. They touch that which is softest and most child-like in me. I grow tired more quickly now, but I can’t help it… I’m a teacher, it’s a calling... So, I teach.
From a leadership standpoint, there is of course a very useful lesson. If one day you end up in a completely empty classroom where nothing is ready for the job, rejoice of the opportunity and get furnishing. Who knows, maybe you’ll end up changing the world.
And now I think I’ll take a shot at the question we started at. Since early year education has a tremendous impact on our lives, I think that Esmie has had a transformative impact not only on the kids she had in her class, but also on their siblings, parents, spouse and own children. And when adding all that up… I find that at this point she has had a life changing impact on 8,162 people [vi], who are far better off for it, and an indirect on thousands more…
Such is the power of passion.
[i] For full disclosure, I met Esmie Kühn in 1999 for the first time, and she is my mother in law. So I will be a bit more partial than usual in this article, but I think the story is still worth writing.
[ii] She currently teaches in the Zoetendal Akademie, in Struisbaai, South Africa.
[iii] Duckworth, A, 2016, Grit, Why passion and resilience are the secret to success, Vermilion, 334pp.
[iv] The names of grades vary by country. We will take Pre-primary as age 3-6, and preparatory school from age 6 to high school (11 or 12).
[vi] This is based on average class numbers per type of class (Nursery: 20, Special needs: 12, Pre-primary: 30 and Prep: 30) and year, in the 43 year of Esmie’s career. It takes in account her long tenure in Durbanville, where she taught successively the siblings of many families, as well as average numbers of children per family in South Africa at the time. The total adds up the total number of children she taught (1,141), the siblings she did not teach (1,532), their parents, (2,066), their current or future Spouses (1,141) and children (2,282). It’s all very scientific, so 8,162 is the number.