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My Story: Alfred Masinire

Dr Alfred Masinire, Lecturer at the University of Witwatersrand (“Wits”) in Johannesburg, South Africa, was recently in Australia to attend the 2014 SPERA conference. We took the opportunity to speak with Alfred about his journey into higher education, his role at Wits, and his research on incentives used to attract teachers to rural schools.

NCSEHE: Please tell us a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What subjects were your favourite at school and university?

Alfred: I grew up in a rural village in Zimbabwe, in a family of four children – all boys. However, it would be untrue to say that these were my only immediate family members. With strong extended family bonds, it was common for my relatives to spend long periods of time with us, and we could also go and stay with them.

It is only now, when I reflect on my early schooling days, that I realise that my family and I confronted many challenges on a daily basis. There was the long distance to travel to school and back – at times on an empty stomach. It was a struggle to access learning resources. These issues were so common and familiar that they just became part of our daily life in the village; so much that we never viewed them as challenges. One could go for a week or more without a pencil or a ball-point pen. It was common and very normal. These were not issues that could stop someone from going to school.

At school, teachers’ expectations in all subjects were high, and I had to distribute my time equally across the curriculum. In many cases, we had no textbooks to refer to, and had to rely on what our teachers presented in class. It was only in my third year at secondary school that I began to develop a special interest in history. We had an amazing history teacher. He came to teach us with a piece of chalk and described how Otto Von Bismarck, through a series of alliances, divided the European nations into two competing and warring blocks, culminating into World War 1. He was a wonder to listen to. He could make the past alive quite vividly. In my whole teaching career ever since I met him, I have seen very few teachers of his calibre.

I later learned that our wonderful history teacher was a university student who had volunteered to teach us during the long January-March vacation. I grew to like him; he opened my mind. During the three months he was with us, I became his best student, and when he left, I kept in touch with him. He sent me some of his history textbooks and assignments to read. He inspired me to go to university, and when I finally got there, became my mentor as he was doing his Masters in African Economic History at the time.

NCSEHE: Was it difficult for you to access higher education? How did you fund your studies?

Alfred: I began my university studies just as Zimbabwe attained its political independence. There was a deliberate agenda to make higher education accessible to all particularly those who had hitherto been excluded on the basis of racial and class backgrounds.

Like most of my peers then, we had full government funding for all the years of our undergraduate studies. Government funding covered my tuition, board and provided a comfortable living stipend. I remember when I went home on my first semester break; my parents questioned whether I was coming from university or work. I was able to buy my parents and young brothers clothes and groceries and still had enough left over to get me back to university at the end of the vacation.

I had no significant structural barriers to higher education. Even when I embarked on my post-graduate studies, I had government support; I received paid leave throughout my post-graduate studies. It was different when I went to pursue my PhD in Canada; I had to resign from my teaching job. But even then, I was financially supported by the University of Western Ontario. My challenge in Canada was not so much about studying, because out of my 2007 PhD cohort of 10 students in Education, I was the first to complete my PhD. Rather, my challenge was how to live in a different context – the horrible snow. 🙁 Even now I do not understand the fun that Canadians say comes with their winter.

NCSEHE: In your opinion, what are some of the challenges facing South African higher education students today? What opportunities exist?

Alfred: I think the biggest challenge for students who come from backgrounds similar to mine is the lack of information. There could be a lot of financial support available, but many students cannot access that information easily. In South Africa there are lots of opportunities for financial support for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, that information is available on websites and university noticeboards. The challenge is always, “how will this information trickle down to a rural student who has no access to the internet and has never moved closer to a university campus?” Financial support for such students is there, theoretically, but inaccessible in practicality. I think there is a need to revisit the traditional ways of communicating, particularly when communicating with audiences in remote locations. Internet-based communication methods should be complemented by traditional methods. There is a tendancy to ride waves of technological change, assuming they will solve communication and outreach challenges.

As I was undertaking my studies, the significant challenge for me was adjusting to urban life and learning in the city. For a person who had grown up in a rural village, it was a bit difficult to get along with the demands of city life. It was fun, though. What ultimately helped me to get along well was not allowing the urban way of life to swallow my rural identity and values. There are things I have never liked about urban life, for example, partying and clubbing. I guess it was a matter of principle, and realising that university was a one-time opportunity that had to be fully utilised.

NCSEHE: When did you decide that you wanted to teach?

Alfred: I knew of no other jobs besides teaching, nursing, policing, and driving because these were the kinds of jobs we saw around us as we grew up. At one point during my secondary school, I thought I would become a peasant farmer just like my father. It is a tough job, but my parents made sure I was able to do it just in case I couldn’t get a different job.

After I completed my BA in History, Religious Studies and Classical Studies at the University of Zimbabwe in 1989, I got a job as a high school history teacher in a rural district very close to my home. It was a big school with six streams in each grade level.

Over the course of my career, I have pursued further professional development as a teacher and acquired a post-graduate certificate and diploma in education and later on a master degree in education.

I never imagined that I would one day teach at university, and my rise to a lecturing position was opportunistic. At the time, I was comfortably settled as a rural high school principal for about eight years. It was not until the social and economic unrest that plagued Zimbabwe during the 2000-2009 decade that I decided to move. I joined the University of Zimbabwe briefly as an administrator but later decided to do my PhD in Canada at the University of Western Ontario. I moved to South Africa immediately after completing my PhD. I just couldn’t stand the cold and long winter season.

I am now teaching modules in Curriculum Studies at undergraduate and post-graduate level. I also do research on in rural schools. I enjoy the challenges and opportunities that my job provides.

NCSEHE: How does the University of Witwatersrand (“Wits”) compare to the universities at which you studied?

Alfred: I find very little basis for comparison between the universities I attended and Wits because these universities are situated in very different contexts. As such, they grapple with different things that constrain the quality of teaching, student access and success.

In Zimbabwe, if you did not understand something during a lecture or tutorial, you had to do your own library reading. There were no formal structures in place to support student learning outside of classes. The system encouraged individual initiative and independence; attributes I found useful when I went to Canada and South Africa. I strongly feel universities should be spaces that help nurture individual initiative and enable students to be what they want to be.

Canada was a different ball game. Graduate studies assume a certain kind of student, one who plans their study program. You need to know what kind of help you are looking for at any point. You are also driven by why you are doing your PhD. I have seen my peers dropping from graduate studies because it was so different and unsettling to their usual life.

I find the Wits scenario very challenging and yet a lot is being done here. I think the institution is still trying to understand the changing demography of its students. For example, many students come to university without the requisite academic resources and skills and yet they are expected to work independently. I have no statistics at hand, but many students drop out in first year and second year. Those who progress, do so with very weak passes. I am talking here about the bulk of the students who come from disadvantaged homes. The university provides a lot of support, but I don’t think it has yet made a huge impact. It’s a challenge when a significant chunk of the student population is in need of academic development support. Intervention for such students should be done long before they arrive at university, at secondary school level.*

NCSEHE: Your research interests include gender (with a focus on masculinity studies in education), rural education, teacher-education, social inclusion in education and curriculum and knowledge. Aside from education, what would you say are the common themes that emerge in these research areas? What are you currently exploring, and what would you like to explore next?

Alfred: There is an underlying political and social dimension that underpins my research. My overall research goal is to understand the manner in which schools enable or constrain social justice, so I like to explore schools and what they do, and situate them in particular social contexts. I haven’t done a lot yet in understanding my current research, so I think this will remain my research agenda for the next five or so years.

NCSEHE: You recently gave a compelling presentation at the 30th National SPERA conference, titled “Preparing teachers to teach in rural schools: insights from the Bushbuckridge Rural Teaching Experience Program in South Africa.” A significant finding from your research suggests that pre-service teachers who complete a practicum in a rural school are more likely to go on and teach in a rural school than those who don’t. What would your advice be to educators in terms of developing teachers to fill available placements in rural/regional/remote locations? If current teacher incentives aren’t working, should we be considering different incentives or discarding incentives altogether?

Alfred: My argument about incentives is that they come too late, when teachers have already made decisions about whether or not to work in rural schools.

Incentives may work to retain teachers, but they don’t work to attract teachers to rural schools. Currently, incentives are essentially material/financial. But if we are looking for committed rural teachers, incentives should be based on the professional development dimensions that foreground an understanding of rural schools. At present, this is missing in Initial Teacher Education. An appreciation of, and commitment to, working in rural schools should not be driven by material rewards but by a desire to change lives. I don’t think the emphasis should be on want the teacher gets (incentives), but on what the learners get.

Currently, student teachers acquire most of the knowledge about the rural setting from the media. In most cases, this is a half-truth or rather an exaggeration of reality. The media blow out of proportion a single incident as reflective of the rural norm.

NCSEHE: What attributes would you say successful rural teachers have in common?

Alfred: Besides what all good teachers have, rural teachers, particularly in South Africa, should be well informed about rural places and schools. On top of the challenges that rural schools have, would-be teachers should also know what opportunities are available in rural schools.


*The views expressed here are my own and do not in any way reflect the views of the University of Witwatersrand.

Posted 4 December 2014 Posted in General, International, My Story, Regional