By Sarah Kingon
Amid the vast, tranquil landscape just outside Grahamstown, lies the Mariya uMama we Themba Holy Cross School, where Principal, Kary McConnachie, sits in her office furiously scribbling on documents. A group of children casually walk into her office speaking confidently in isiXhosa, to which she effortlessly responds. It’s an everyday occurrence.
McConnachie’s no ordinary school principal. There’s a personal, affectionate relationship between this principal and pupils that’s quite different.
McConnachie has only been the principal of the Holy Cross School, run through the Monastery connected to the Anglican Church, since October 2013.
She says she “happened into education” when she was determined to go to university after leaving school in the 1970s, but could only get a bursary to study Education. “I wasn’t necessarily interested in education, but my interest grew out of necessity,” says McConnachie. She puts into practise her philosophy that says, “I don’t know what’s coming my way, but let me do what I do well. Then the next door opens and it gets more and more exciting.”
She began her first teaching job in 1976 at a high school in Cape Town, teaching Mathematics and Languages. After a post-work gap year overseas, she married and moved to Grahamstown. While she raised her two children, she taught high school part time at many model C and private schools, including PJ Olivier, Kingswood, St Andrew’s and DSG.
She then moved to East London and did locum teaching at various schools and taught at German at the East London Technical College (now Buffalo City Public FET College) before getting involved at a Montessori School, where she discovered her passion for special needs children. “I was always willing to take on the ‘problem class’ or special needs class. I then realised that was where my talent was, not in a high school classroom,” she says.
Consequently, she had to return to studies and did a course in special needs education at UPE, now NMMU, and then lectured special needs education as part of the Rhodes University Post Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) programme.
“If I can, I try to inspire people to become better teachers. I enjoy lecturing and seeing the students get excited and sow the seed of a spark for education,” she says.
McConnachie completed her master’s degree in education in 2009, focusing on “inclusive education”, which means that every child has a place in education, no matter how abled/disabled they are.
McConnachie began her involvement at Kuyasa Special School in 1994 and continued work there for 20 years. She went through the ranks as a teacher, then head of department, then principal. In 2013 she decided she needed a break from government schooling. At the request of the monks gave up her post at Kuyasa to join Holy Cross.
“There are huge challenges in education and that’s partially why I retired from government teaching. Education has kind of lost its way in the Eastern Cape. There are a few people in the Department of Education trying their best, but they are poorly supported. As a result, it’s rather chaotic in schools at the moment,” says McConnachie.
McConnachie is eager about leading Holy Cross School, which offers a safe haven for children traditionally side-lined from education because they live out of town. Holy Cross School was officially opened in 2012 and hosts children from grades R to 3. There are four teachers at the school and classes are small, ranging in size from 13 to 16 pupils. The school offers a strong educational foundation for pupils to move on to learn in an English-medium at grade 4 level. Many pupils are offered bursaries to study at the former model C Schools in Grahamstown.
“We place an emphasis on teaching spirituality, humanity and bringing back ideas of Ubuntu. It is important to have a spiritual base from which to launch into society,” says McConnachie.
In addition to her work at schools, McConnachie has also been involved in projects including the Grahamstown Literacy Project, the Mandela Rhodes Mentorship Programme and the Grahamstown Audiobox Centre.