When Dr Melanie Drake takes the helm as Clarendon Primary’s new principal in a few days’ time, she will bring with her an admirable assortment of progressive and global views about gender and education and she cannot wait to get started.
In Drake’s considered outlook, girls are shaped to know they have the same opportunities as boys in a rapidly changing world and that gender roles need play no part in the personal, academic or career decisions they make.
“I really want girls to start exploring the perceived-to-be male-oriented domains and to look at starting a robotics club and getting them deeply involved in computer programming and artificial intelligence which is the future language of our world,” said the dynamic educator who is herself a product of the Clarendon prep, primary and high schools and who was raised with no gender restrictions.
“I attribute my passion for girls’ education to growing up in a household where gender roles were balanced, where my dad washed dishes and was involved equally in domestic duties. I never thought that there could be something I couldn’t do, because he would take me to the garage as much as my brother and he would pull me into rugby games in the garden.”
Research has shown that girls perform better across all education mediums in an all-girls school, she says.
“In co-ed schools there is seldom a female principal, so this reinforces deeply embedded views regarding leadership.
“Girls also succeed more in traditionally male areas of maths, science and technology and we do them a disservice if we do not encourage girls in these vital areas.”
Drake traces her love for education to her early days growing up in a small suburb of Berlin in the Eastern Cape, where she would rope her neighbourhood friends into a “classroom” and be their teacher. “I handed out books and recorded them singing. Even in those very early days it was something I loved.”
By the time she was 10 she was teaching Sunday school classes and at 13 was giving guitar lessons.
Then, at 14, Drake landed her first more formal stint at Clarendon Primary. “The music teachers asked me to teach guitar. It was such an incredible experience because I had to write reports in the afternoons and it was my first taste of grappling with important questions of assessment. It fuelled my love for teaching.”
That love prompted her to opt for the education stream in the final year of her music degree at UCT, and after a year teaching at St Mary’s in Johannesburg, she was back at Clarendon Primary where she brought much joy to girls who took up piano, guitar, solo singing or joined the choir.
“I knew I needed to study more in this amazing field,” says Drake, who obtained her Masters degree in educational leadership and management at Rhodes University in 2007, before being awarded the International Commonwealth Scholarship to do her Ph.D in Auckland, New Zealand.
“After four years I came back to East London with a Ph.D, a husband and our baby daughter,” she laughs.
She also returned armed with a cache of valuable experience and information about Kiwi curricula and modern teacher education knowledge and threw herself into academia at the University of Fort Hare’s education faculty where she was a senior lecturer.
“When I saw the Clarendon Primary post advertised I just had to apply. I have always loved that age group and impacting on their character development and the young women they can become.”
Drake, who has three young children with Kiwi husband Dr Toby Vaudrey, said although the news of her appointment elicited many messages of congratulation, a frequent response has also been to question how she would cope with the pressure of a young family and a demanding job.
“I know it’s not a criticism, but I think it’s a deeply entrenched reflection of how we view women when it comes to leadership. Girls need to see that their immediate leader is balancing work, marriage and children and that it can be done successfully. I want young girls to see it is achievable; that it doesn’t come at a cost and that you don’t have to buy into gender roles and stereotypes to find happiness in the 21st century.”
She also questions why, when 80% of South Africa’s teachers are female, leadership positions in schools, universities and government education departments are usually assigned to men. “That’s just ridiculous,” she says.
Her vision for her new role is clear. She wants to ensure the distance between parents and the school is narrowed so that regular discussions can be held tackling “real” issues girls are facing.
“Social media, online safety, bullying, socio-cultural issues, pornography – we can no longer be islands. We have to negotiate together.”
Drake also wants parent-teacher bodies to be more responsive to society’s lobby groups such as the Fees Must Fall and Hair Must Fall movements. “Up till now schools have been able to be relatively silent about these issues, but I doubt that can happen anymore. We have to involve everyone in how we deal with these issues.”
Clarendon is much more than simply a school to this dynamic educator. Outgoing principal Pam King taught her in Grade 7 and both her mother and aunt were proud “Clarrie bags”.
“Mrs King has been a wonderful mentor to me and the school has played such an important part in my personal development. It feels like family.