My Mentor

Mr Rollin Gulston, Retired Principal, Umbilo Road Secondary, Durban, South Africa

Dear Mr. Gulston,

Do you remember, almost 30 years ago now, when I sat crying in your office, overcome by the vitriol that came my way for daring to suggest that we teachers should create a more welcoming space for our students?

Remember you said: “My dear child, they’re just not ready for you yet.”

I wanted you to know that I think they finally are…

Thank you so much for creating the space for me to teach the way I would have wanted to be taught. Thank you for protecting me from Subject Advisors and Inspectors who questioned what was going on in my classroom.

I remember one instance in particular that you told me about,  long after it had occurred. An Inspector had walked past my classroom and noticed that I had placed curtains on the windows. The curtains had poems written on them. The Inspector wanted to know how you, my principal, knew what was going on in my classroom and you replied that you would just open the door and walk in.  You preferred not to spy on your teachers.

We had many laughs though, didn’t we?  Remember that time you had to fill in some kind of evaluation form about me and you called me in to your office and said: “I don’t know what to say in this section! They want me to evaluate how you dress!”

And another time you did a surprise visit to my classroom and sat at the back of the room to evaluate me and I did an impromptu lesson on Language Register, using slang words that horrified my students who were afraid I was going to be fired because you were in the room. But you knew what I was doing and barely suppressed your giggles.

It was not a good idea to tell the staff how much you had enjoyed the lesson though. Laughter was not seen to be a part of learning then, was it?

But wasn’t it wonderful what we managed to accomplish with Friendship Day?  The potluck meal with teachers and students breaking bread together, the discussions on conflict and relationships, the dancing that showcased what else our students could do even if they did not know how to write a paragraph.  And how perfect it was that after such a struggle to get it going, Friendship Day became an annual event?

I wonder how many fights you prevented when you went jogging with students who were all members of different gangs because they had to be in the crazy struggle that was life in Wentworth?  I wonder if the powers that be ever knew how you persuaded those students to not bring weapons to school, simply by asking them not to?

You turned a school that was seen as a dumping ground for difficult students into a place they would rather be because you always treated all students as though they mattered.

I learned so much from you and I will always be grateful for the space you gave me to develop  my inchoate  ideas about teaching.  When I met you when I was 23, I could not have articulated what it was I was trying to do in my classroom and in the school at the time. I just knew what I did not want: for my students to experience the same kind of alienation I had when I was a student.

Now I know that what I was trying to do then  was to create in my classroom a space that was socially inviting, emotionally safe and intellectually stimulating. A space where students would want to be.

Thank you for being there for me at the start of this decades-long journey.

With love,


2 thoughts on “My Mentor”

  1. You are great!
    Thank you so muchfor sharing your feelings
    I’ m a sad Italian teacher…from south Italy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s