Celebrating amazing teachers: Michael Peter Curry on saving lives

Today we are celebrating the many teachers who go beyond their job description to help their learners reach their fullest potential. We are humbled and inspired by those who are approachable to their learners; who keep working long into their evenings; who make do with limited resources; and who are always open to learning about and improving their craft.

Michael Peter Curry is an example of one of these teachers. Having taught for 37 years, he currently works as a Senior Mathematics Teacher at Fairmount High School and has a particular passion for preventing school dropout. Below he shares a window into what it is like being a teacher in South Africa and what it takes to make sure that learners complete their schooling.

Why do you teach?

It has been part of my family’s DNA. My grandfather was a teacher and my father was a teacher, so it is in me to be a teacher. My aim is to help learners see the balance in life. I try to provide options, so they can decide which side of life they want to be on.

What key life lessons do you wish for your learners to take into adulthood?

Basically to find out what their purpose is in life; it’s part of the journey of being human. Each child must find what contribution he/she will make while on earth. I want my learners to know empathy – I try to understand what it is like to be in their shoes.  I want them to experience a culture of caring, and not of giving up – I encourage them to be part of the school’s support structures and activities like the Transformers; the Marching Band; the Young Filmmakers Programme; the MOD Centre Programme; the After School Game-changer Programmes; the Feeding Scheme; the role of the NGO Bottomup; and many sporting codes. I want learners to take with them the kindness and concern they experienced whilst being skilled to empower themselves by making use of wellness services at the school like aunty Linda, the school psychologist, and aunty Ruth, the school counsellor, who support them through family, social, drug or sexual abuse experiences. They must also remember being encouraged to reach out to networks of support like the Foundation for Positive Change, Life Changers and Drug Counselling Organisations.

What’s been your most memorable moment in teaching yet?

I have a gift that helps me to save young people. I have heard this from psychologists who have spoken to the learners as well as from some of the children whom I taught, so my most memorable moment relates to saving lives. In the early 80s, when being HIV positive was a grey area for people, a youngster adopted me as his mentor. He found me after school hours. He always knew where to find me. He was involved in the film industry (which is another of my passions) and had been an aspiring actor. But one day he had to go for an HIV test. It came back positive and this broke his self-esteem. That boy was going to commit suicide and there were no counselling services for people with HIV at the time. I asked him about the procedure that was taken when they did the test. Something did not sound right about it, so I advised him to get retested. It turned out that he was HIV negative. Education can happen both inside and outside the classroom. This was an example of it happening outside of class.

Another story:

I remember clearly, it was a Monday. There are certain things I do at the start of every class, like standing at the door, making little gestures or making eye contact as a way of acknowledging the child as they walk in. I noticed one girl walk in and things weren’t as normal. I just said to her, “Whatever happened to you over the weekend, I’m sorry it happened to you.” This led the girl to have an emotional breakdown in my class. I recommended she talk to the principal or another staff member, but she insisted on talking to me. She told me she had been date raped the night before. I had to take her to a clinic to follow the necessary procedures. This made me wonder what it is about me – a male educator – that makes a child under such traumatic circumstances trust me with this.

That is why I go back to work every day. Teaching the curriculum is part of the deal, but it is really about saving lives.

What sparked your interest in school dropout prevention?

I am an informal researcher. I started collecting data as a mathematics teacher to gain insight into the phenomena of Fetal Alcohol Effect, the subtle cousin of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, on mathematical performance. This opened a number of avenues that resulted in home visits and engagement with learners who have dropped out. I read several research papers to help me understand how to make mathematics accessible as a skill to learners who would otherwise find themselves academically estranged. Several of the former learners whom I interviewed expressed a desire to return to school, but found many obstacles along the way. I have links to organisations that assist me with information to gain a better understanding of ways to address the dropout situation. I also collect data in class on children who are at risk of dropping out, tracking absenteeism and reasons for that.

Absenteeism is the factor most closely correlated with dropout rates. I can help turn children’s lives around, but only if they show up. Attendance problems often indicate negative parent attitudes towards school. “Parents who did poorly in school themselves may have a negative attitude about their children’s school (Freiberg, 1993) and, in an effort to protect them, may even discourage their children from participating (Morrison-Gutman & McLoyd, 2000)” (Jensen, 2009).

“These parents are often unwilling to get involved in school functions or activities, to contact the school about academic concerns, or attend parent-teacher conferences (Morrison-Gutman & McLoyd, 2000)” (Jensen, 2009). Children raised in poverty are more likely to lack – and need – a caring, dependable adult in their lives, and often it’s teachers like me to whom children look for support.

Knowing all the above caused me to do home visits and discuss academic and social concerns with the parents/primary caregivers in order to establish relationships of respect and trust. This is developmental and has encouraged me to feel empathy rather than pity. I know that the children whose homes I visit appreciate my ability to know what it is like to be in their shoes. As I said, my aim is to establish a culture of caring, not of giving up. I help with the establishment of this culture by speaking respectfully, not condescendingly, of and to my learners, and by using positive affirmation, both vocally and through displays and posters. My learners love having the opportunity to share their narratives.  It gives them a sense that they are accepted and that they are okay and lovable. If I can end the cycle of blame and resignation and embrace a new mission to help my learners to fulfill their potential, I would fulfill my soul’s work in creating a new order one step at a time. I believe my interventions can be quite potent in reducing the impact of poverty.

Why are learners not coming to school?

In my experience, some of the reasons why learners are not coming to school is linked to the above-mentioned research that says there are a number of parents who did poorly in schools and have a negative attitude about their child’s school and, in an effort to protect them, discourage their participation.

There are also some cases where the child has reached a higher level of education than their parents, so they question why they need to continue at school when their parents seem to be managing with a lower level of education.

Dropout also happens because of teen pregnancy amongst the girls as well as drug or substance dependency.

What advice would you give to other teachers to address school dropout?

It is essential to build a relationship with the parents and the child. The first thing I do at the start of the first term is to try to meet every parent of each child that I will be responsible for that year. Because I have been doing this for a while, I feel comfortable visiting the learners’ homes or standing at the fence speaking to the parents. One must always be humble when doing this. I have chosen to work in an under resourced community and it is important not to be judgmental, but to learn where the child eats and sleeps. While the child’s living standards might not fit with your own, the child still gets up every day, washes his/her face and comes to school. I honour the choice that child has made and create a learning environment where that child can experience being educated with support and encouragement. I would also suggest that the educator be flexible enough to reflect on the current norms and standards and adapt them to ensure effective knowledge transfer. I cannot stress enough how important it is to build the relationship first.

We could not agree more, as research points to the necessity of having a caring, supportive adult who can provide physco-social support to learners at risk of dropping out.


Reference:  Jensen, E. (2009). Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What Being Poor Does to Kids’ Brains and What Schools Can Do About It. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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