Tribute to the world teacher of the year: Prof Michael Cross

05 October 2021 - 16:15 By Professor Chika Sehoole
Prof Michael Cross.
Prof Michael Cross.
Image: Supplied

Every year the world celebrates World Teachers’ Day. It is customary to focus on primary or secondary schoolteachers when we celebrate this day. I have also done that in articles I wrote over the past five years in celebrating this year.

This year I want to focus beyond the schooling sector and celebrate teachers in the university sector. University lecturers are also teachers. Because they deal with adult learners their role extends beyond a mere teaching and learning to mentorship and role modelling.

Those that do their work well demonstrate that there is never a time when one does not need a teacher. Teachers are universally needed, from the cradle to the grave, and teaching is a lifelong career and activity.

This year I want celebrate Prof Michael Cross as a champion and an embodiment of teaching as a lifelong career. I met Prof Cross in 1988 when I registered for an B.Ed honours degree at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof Cross lectured me on political economy of education for a semester at honours level and comparative and history of education at masters level. Hundreds of student teachers passed through his hands during his four-decade-long career as an academic.

My meeting him was the beginning of three long decades of a relationship and friendship that was characterised by teaching and learning, mentoring and role-modelling. His legacy is that of instilling the discipline of writing and scholarship and producing the next generation of black academics.

He would always talk inspirationally about the need and role of a black intelligentsia in SA who would step into the shoes of Jabavu, Moroka and Plaatje. He set himself a mission of training and producing this intelligentsia.

He instilled in his students critical thinking skills, inculcated the art of writing that is characterised by clarity of thought and expression. He believed scholarly writing should not end in the computer folders but should be disseminated in different forms, be it journal articles, book chapters or books.

I was privileged to learn the art of writing essays from laps of this giant; that to make it in academia one needed to learn how to write for publication. Coming from a background of Bantu education where rote learning was the norm, and there was no expectation made of Black people to produce knowledge, this was a long haul.

Prof Cross showed his mantle by patiently working with his students, teaching them the art of writing essays around an argument. He was a believer that to change the face of knowledge production in this country, new voices had to be brought on-board.

This could be accomplished through teaching, training, mentorship or role modelling. He would supervise a dissertation or thesis with the end goal of having it published. To instil such beliefs and courage in young black students during the dark days of the apartheid era was quite visionary and transformational of him.

His training skills were effective. The first essay I wrote for him, in which I learnt how to write around an argument, I got a distinction pass. That was a breakthrough and all the subsequent essays I wrote for my master’s and doctoral studies were awarded a 74% mark and above. I used the same approach for my doctoral thesis, and it got a good pass with a recommendation to look for commercial publisher to publish it as a book.

Education is not a technical space but is infused with the personal, ethical, spiritual and political. Michael taught me how this was so, and I as an educator have a responsibility to do the same with the next generation of scholars and teachers.

During my doctoral studies I wanted to have international study experience and sought opportunities to travel abroad for my studies. One day he called me and advised: “You know, the kind of training time which you get from supervisors here in SA, you will never get in the US. In SA we make time for our students more than the US professors do.”

After that conversation I focused on continuing to work with him to complete studies with him. My doctoral studies journey was filled with challenges, and I was in the danger of not completing due to a slow progress. He cautioned me: “Chika, do you want to suffer? If you don’t want to suffer, make sure that you finish your PhD.”

He advised this because my doctoral studies had scholarship commitments which, if I completed it, I would not have to repay. He further quipped: “Can you imagine if you complete this doctoral degree, how your world will change for the better, what impact this will make to your family and the rural community of Marapyane where you were born?”

As a way of managing my time and commitments he further advised: “`You must learn to say no! You cannot be available for all the invitations to parties, family gatherings and social events. People need to miss you, and when they ask where Chika is, the answer should be: 'He is a doctoral student at Wits, he is busy in the library.' You will complete this degree and you will go and join them.” I took the advice and the results were evident.

The solid training and mentorship I received from Prof Cross laid a good foundation for my future academic career. In the process of completing my studies he handed me to Prof Jonathan Jansen, who was then the dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria.

Prof Jansen employed me as lecturer and within five months of completing my PhD I secured an international postdoctoral scholarship funded by the Rockefeller Foundation at the Centre for African Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

There I was under the tutelage of another world scholar, Prof Fazal Rizvi. He helped me to translate my doctoral thesis into a book within four months following a securing publishing contract with Routledge. My academic career blossomed through the tutelage of this Black intelligentsia (Cross, Jansen and Rizvi).

Prof Cross was proud of and always celebrated the achievements of his students. He modelled what mentorship was. He opened his house to his students, took them to conferences not to listen but to make presentations, he ventured into their social lives to ensure that all is well with them.

He was more than his students could ask for from a teacher, lecturer, and mentor. He was a trailblazer. Now as dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria, I still use the skills, insights and pearls of wisdom he imparted to me during our training sessions.

Education is not a technical space but is infused with the personal, ethical, spiritual and political. Michael taught me how this was so, and I as an educator have a responsibility to do the same with the next generation of scholars and teachers.

On this World Teachers' Day, October 5, we celebrate your life and contribution to humanity and scholarship. You deserve the honour of the World Teacher of the Year. Robala ka kagiso.

We need to remember that through education we build our personal and social relations, and these relations lie at the heart of the educative process. It is through these relations that we build our individual and collective futures.

Prof Cross succumbed to Covid-19 related complications on June 6 2020. At the time of his passing, he had authored 15 books, of which six were single-authored while nine were co-authored. He produced 27 book chapters and 45 articles in leading scholarly journals.

At a mentorship level, Prof Cross produced 37 Med/MA graduates, 15 PhDs and mentored 12 PDRFs, including several who were still under his supervision at the time of his passing.

Prof Cross received the first Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) award in 2012 as the most Outstanding Mentor of Educational Researchers in Africa.

This was testimony to his great passion of developing young scholars. He proved, that there is never a time when we are not a teacher. At the time of his passing he was director of the Ali Mazrui Centre for Higher Education Studies at the University of Johannesburg.

On this World Teachers' Day, October 5, we celebrate your life and contribution to humanity and scholarship. You deserve the honour of the World Teacher of the Year.  Robala ka kagiso.

  • Prof Chika Sehoole is dean of the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria.

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