Meerhof School: The Journey to Independence

Meerhof School is located in scenic Hartbeespoort and if you haven’t heard of it already, be ready to be blown away. This school creates an encouraging and safe learning environment for learners with disabilities. Their vision is to give their learners the opportunity to go from “Dependence to Independence”. I contacted the principal of Meerhof School, Mr Kobus van der Merwe, to learn more about his experiences and practices, and to create awareness for those who might be looking for a school for their own children.

 

Going into the field of education is often challenging for different reasons, but I’m curious about your own experience. What led to you getting involved in this field, let alone becoming a principal?

 

Education and becoming an educator were always ideals for me. From a young age, I was able to interact with children. I grew up with a sister who is differently abled. She got a brain injury as baby after suffering from asphyxia. I never knew that I would be teaching at a school for learners with barriers to learning. In 1997, I started teaching at Meerhof School after coming from a mainstream school. A whole new world opened up to me. Teaching here is a holistic experience and you form children as a whole human being, not just academically. When I applied for the post of principal, I knew that it would be a challenge but I knew that I was well equipped by my predecessor who gave me the opportunity to learn so much from her.

 

Do your staff members work in close contact with your students’ parents? To what extent and why?

 

We have to work in close contact with both the learners and parents.  We form a multi-disciplinary team as school and parents. Learners at our school are all in need of lots of intervention from both parents and the staff. The school renders different therapy to the learners such as physio therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, remedial teaching and we also have the services of a psychologist. Intervention programs are sent to parents to assist at home. The disability does not go away when getting home or when entering the school grounds – it is a forever thing.

 

I saw on your website that you’ve had 8 years of a 100% pass right. How did you achieve and maintain that?

 

Many of our learners were not able to cope in the mainstream schools and therefore were referred to us. Dedicated teachers whose aim is not so much quantity-driven but quality-driven ensures (with a lot of dedication and extra intervention) that work is taught optimally to the learners. They assist with making summaries and extra classes. We also ensure that the correct concessions are given to the learners such as extra time, a scribe, a reader, enhanced font etc. The biggest challenge however, is to keep the learners motivated and to give them incentives to work for. Our motto is “you do not compete against other people, you compete against yourself. Be the best you that you can be”

 

Would you say your extra-mural activities and academics are equally important? What is the value of extra-murals for your school in particular?

 

Extra-mural activities are of the utmost importance. Many of our learners are not capable of achieving success academically but during extra-mural activities, they can prove to themselves that they can be successful. We offer lots of activities to our learners ranging from athletics for the disabled, athletics for our able-bodied learners, wheelchair tennis, soccer, boccia and table tennis to name a few, to cultural activities such as revues, concerts, Mr and Miss Meerhof pageants and participation at art festivals. We found that the physical activities during our activity periods in the week also is to the benefit of our ADD and ADHD learners.

 

Of course you’re not expected to share students’ personal information, but have you been contacted by students who have graduated from Meerhof? Is there any post-matric support that the school offers? Why/why not?

 

We are currently setting up a wall of fame with those learners who made their mark in the world out there. This is to show visitors to our school that Meerhof School is not the end of the road, it actually is a new beginning. We assist learners with their applications for tertiary education and also monitor their progress. We have learners who became auditors, lawyers, teachers, television personalities, tour guides, entrepreneurs and so the list goes on.

 

What would your advice be to new teachers or students who are interested in becoming a part of your school? What kind of welcome can they expect?

 

Be open minded about the challenges you will have to face at Meerhof. It is a place of caring and giving. Sometimes you will have to give more of yourself than what you have anticipated for. We have a saying at our school that “either you start off here and stay for the rest of your life, or you leave after two weeks.” It is much more rewarding than teaching at a mainstream school, but you have to shift you goal posts in order to accommodate the need of every single learner. Do not be outcome driven because many times you will not reach the outcome you wished for. If you were able to lead a child from dependence to independence you have already won the race.

The staff of Meerhof School is a big family and we are always willing to accept a new staff member into our extended family. We learn from each other’s expertise and are willing to share our prior knowledge with each other.

 

Is there anything you have planned for Meerhof in the near future that we can look forward to seeing? 

 

You always must have a dream. Our dream is to erect an indoor sport centre which is multi-functional to accommodate sport for the disabled but could also be used as an events venue. We are also researching the possibility of erecting South Africa’s first playpark for disabled people. I would also like to upgrade the infrastructure of the school. The buildings were built as a hospital during the Second World War and need lots of maintenance.

To even better the quality of teaching and the services rendered to our learners will also be a big bonus.

 

Are there any misconceptions of people and learners with disabilities that you want to clear up?

 

We worked very hard to better our image in the community. People think that we are not a proper school. We actually follow the same CAPS curriculum all the mainstream schools in the country have to follow. We write the same Senior Certificate exams as all the other schools the only difference is that our learners and staff have to work so much harder to accomplish good results. We are not an “ag shame” place. Here is a positive vibe and lots of positive energy even though we are confronted with the brokenness of the world every day. We live above our circumstances making use of the best we have to the best of our abilities.

You will offend our learners if you do not address them in person. When somebody is pushing a wheelchair people will ask that person whether the disabled person in the chair would like something to drink, thinking that that person cannot answer for themselves. It is only their legs or arms that are not working. That person has a mind and needs of their own. Do not treat them differently, they are a human being in their own right.

Working with, and being part of, the world of the disabled enriched my inner self to such an extent that I now am much more grateful for my abilities and taught me that the disabled person should not be pitied, but should be saluted for the manner in which they conduct themselves and face the giants in their lives.

I am humbled by the knowledge that God found me worthy to be the head of an institution like Meerhof School where there are so many gifted people working there with the crown of His creation.

May His grace and mercy guide us and be with every staff member, learner and parent who forms part of the Meerhof Family.

 

 Read more about Meerhof School on their website. Be sure to keep an eye on their Facebook page as well to stay updated on current and upcoming events.