Principal closes book on teaching career

Sea Point High School principal Pieter Botha is pictured with his wife, Marlene, who also works at the school, as an administrator.

As the academic year drew to a close last week so did the 38-year career of the principal of Sea Point High School, Pieter Botha.

Having started out as a rugby coach and Afrikaans teacher, he has overseen many changes at the school over nearly four decades.

He said there had been many challenges as well as rewarding moments throughout his time at the school. One of those was his role as a rugby coach, which was one of his biggest passions. He went to work at the school after he graduated from the University of Stellenbosch.

“The first thing I had to get used to was the English language. I can still remember the first day, at the end of the first period. I ran out and couldn’t believe it. I started screaming because the kids were chatting and walking all over the place.
That was quite a culture shock to me.”

Mr Botha had been involved in sport and was a rugby player before he became a coach. “The thing that I found challenging was to get sports up to a competitive standard. Because, the problem we had was that the junior school, Sea Point Primary, didn’t play rugby. When they arrived here, they hadn’t played at all.”

Mr Botha was first team coach at the school for about 15 years.

Another challenge he encountered when he first came to the school was water polo – something, he said, that was completely foreign to him. “I knew nothing about it, but eventually I took over as coach.”

There were team practices in the morning before school and after school. “I built it up to be one of the top schools. This was something totally new; I found that the most rewarding.”

He says that rugby and water polo players still come and visit the school long after they had left. “With sports you can have contact with them that is on a different level, it’s not in the classroom. It’s something that they like doing.”

However, he said, it had been challenging for sport at the school since fields were taken away for the construction of Cape Town Stadium for the World Cup.

“Up until that time, we had three rugby fields, a soccer field and two fields for athletics. These kids need an outlet. Unfortunately we can’t do it.”

Mr Botha said the school offered netball and table tennis but would like to be able to do more.

Mr Botha said while the school had once been an all-boys school, it was now co-ed, and while, in the past, most pupils had been Jewish, the school population was now much more diverse.

He also recalled that, in the past, the school had an enrolment of about 250 pupils, with about 20 in a class.

It was in 1988 that the school ceased to be a boys-only school, when the girls from Ellerslie Girls’ High School joined them.

“That was the first major change, then of course came Model C. We decided to open our doors to all races as soon as possible.”

Asked for his assessment of the education system, he noted: “Primary schools will do whatever they please. You have to start somewhere and that somewhere is right at the bottom. They expect us to fix the problem.”

Mr Botha said, for example, results of a recent national literacy test showed that 75 percent of Grade 4s struggled with reading.

“The biggest challenge that Sea Point High is facing is that we are getting our pupils from about 75 different feeder schools. You have these different levels and now you need to try and balance them. That’s why I have huge respect for the teachers.”

He said one of the most rewarding things, as principal, was the compliments they got from the community about their pupils.

Mr Botha said that one of the most important things at the school was to have caring staff.

“They come here and we are the parents here. All of the staff give them the love and attention. When I became principal, one of my main dreams was staff stability.

“We had about five or six staff per year leaving us. I’m proud to say that last year, for instance, we had nobody leaving. I’m very proud of that because these kids need the love, caring and attention. I’m really proud of these kids.”

He said the thing he enjoyed most about teaching was being able to shape young people.

“It is the end products that make me love this. You have such a huge role to play.”

Mr Botha said what he was looking forward to most during his retirement was spending more time with his family and travelling around the country. But, he said, he would still be available to help out at the school if needs be.