Strathmore Personalities: Margaret Roche – The Future is in Our Classrooms
As Kenya was celebrating five years of independence, Margaret Roche, young and with a whole life ahead of her, left Ireland and jetted into the country with a large spirit of adventure. Since then, she has seen the country grow, watched the political scene evolve, enjoyed plenty of adventure, and made her mark through the education of women and the development of teachers. She has molded young women at the Loreto Convent Valley Road, Kenya High, and Kianda School. A lover of literature, drama, and language, she was part of the team that was instrumental in the development of the Institute of Humanities, Education and Development Studies (IHEADS), now the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She also had a hand in the Strathmore Drama Society (DRAMSOC).
We speak to her about the role of the teacher in building the future of the country.
Why did you come to Kenya?
I did a Bachelor of Arts degree and saw theatre as my profession. But by the end of the degree, I realized I had an interest in teaching so I did a higher diploma and got the license to teach. I also had a desire for adventure; Ireland is a beautiful country and I love it very much but I wanted to explore the world. So I left in 1968, and got a job in Loreto Convent Valley Road (LCVR). I was very young and it was a good place to begin to work. I spent two years there.
After two years at LCVR, I joined Kenya High School for the next 6/7 years. It was here that I matured, thanks to its well-structured environment. It was here that I nurtured my passion for drama as the school had a beautiful theatre and put on a drama production every year.
In 1977, when the founders of Kianda School thought of starting the secondary school section, I left Kenya High School and was part of the team that started the secondary school. I went on to stay in Kianda for the next two decades.
What made you stay in Kenya?
In fact, yesterday I met a past student who is about to turn 60. When you are a teacher and you live long enough, you see generations!
Many have often asked me why I didn’t go back to Ireland – which I was asked to do by my relatives quite often. There’s something about a country that is still developing: When you are in the education sector, you have your finger on the pulse of the country because you know what is going on. So I think I got caught by these dynamic changes and chose to stay. I visited my family and spent a year in Ireland doing my masters but I came back to Kenya.
How did you meet Opus Dei?
I met Opus Dei in Galway in 66/67. There wasn’t a women’s Centre there so they would make trips and I would take part in the activities once in a while. When I came to Kenya, I was invited to do some drama productions in Kianda College and that was my introduction to women in Opus Dei here. With time, I became a member of the Work. It was an unexpected happening for everybody concerned! More than 50 years have passed since then; those years have gone by so fast!
What was the experience of growing Kianda?
I took over from Mary Kibera, the first headmistress. I learnt on the job and used the years of experience I acquired from Kenya High. The headmistress helped me in terms of putting structures in place. We were learning a lot, especially to do with the education of young girls. The first class had only 40 students – two classes of 20 each so we kind of grew together – the students and ourselves. I loved my experience there and the work with parents. I am still in touch with the parents and meet the students who are in all sorts of positions. There is something very alive about education.
It reached a point where I felt it was a real need to retire. Not so much because of age or that I was particularly tired of Kianda – but because the same person had been in the same position for a long time. And it was very important that a Kenyan took over. I’m Kenyan but I’m not a Kenyan. The current principal, Joan Odera was my student and the Vice Principal, Evelyne Khamati, is an alumna. To witness that succession has been satisfying.
How did the teachings of St. Josemaria impact the running of the school?
We based our approach on education on the ideas of the founder of Opus Dei – St. Josemaria: he had interesting ideas on the formation of young people, and the importance of a relationship between the school and the parents, and, the importance of the tutorial system, which is the one on one engagement between students and staff. He encouraged the adoption of other values – freedom and responsibility, collegiality; loyalty, and the warm relationship between staff. These have a great influence in any of the institutions overseen by Opus Dei.
The tutorial system allowed the students to talk to teachers; the idea was to maintain a respectful distance, but be close enough to our students. That had an impact on the students – it gave them a certain sense of self assurance, confidence and understanding of their own identity, which is important for a woman. We formed our students to have a very high sense of self-respect and to understand her place in the world. We strived for a high level of academic excellence, and helped each student do the best they could. At the beginning, we never used to rank students. Now it’s done because it’s a national tradition but initially each girl would do the best she could. And many who didn’t do that well in form 4 ended up doing very well afterwards. And that’s the idea of the mentoring system in Strathmore. We deal with each student as an individual.
What’s the role of women in the Kenyan society?
It’s really important for girls to understand their worth and see their relationship between the man and the woman as complementary. They need to see themselves as individuals, to have their identity clear and their value as a woman. They need to take on whatever challenges they come across but at the same time to understand that the social stability and growth depends on the woman because if you think about it, everything grows from the home. If the home is fractured, it is really difficult to move ahead as a society. Don’t get me wrong – both the man and the woman have huge responsibilities in parenthood but the woman’s capacity to see things from different perspectives, her femininity and capacity to multitask is a gift of nature. It’s therefore important to help young girls understand that in themselves they are of great value and can therefore be a stabilizing or destabilizing factor in society.
What was your experience when you first came to Strathmore?
When I retired from Kianda, I joined Strathmore at a time when it was transitioning from a College to a University. I was lucky enough to get a post that involved setting up of IHEADS.
I also lectured for a while and enjoyed teaching the great books course that was Prof. Sperling’s brainchild and which involved an open discussion and dialogue. The question of literature, theatre, and language has always been an interesting facet of my life. The analysis of a book allows for a lot of personal discussion and independent thought and helps students hone their thinking process and their capacity to give opinions with evidence from the text.
I also did quite a bit of drama in my first years at Strathmore – DRAMSOC was introduced then. It was another way of engaging with students. We had one very big production called ‘Kenya dreams are dreaming’ at the Kenya National Theatre.
How did the teacher training start?
When I first came to Kenya, the teacher was a major figure in the social setup but that was changing. The number of schools had increased and the position and attitude towards teachers had changed.
By the time I got to Strathmore, I felt that teachers weren’t feeling too good about themselves yet society can’t develop without teachers. I felt, and I still feel, there is an issue with image – how the teacher views themselves, and how society views the teacher. Some people would say to me after I’d been teaching many years – are you still teaching? And that issue began to bother me. I began running professional development programs for teachers.
For the first course – teacher self-image, we booked a small room as we didn’t think we’d get too many people. We advertised it in the dailies, hoping for at least 20 but a few hundreds, some with their suitcases, showed up! We also had one for principals called ‘The Art of Leadership’, which we still run.
What has been the impact of the TEP experience?
As I began to talk to those teachers, they began to tell me what they felt. And they felt that they were considered a ka teacher, lost in some staff room, you know, somewhere nobody ever visited. So we organized the course to boost their morale because society can’t develop without teachers.
If a teacher has a positive self-image, they teach better and the impact on the student is higher. The courses grew into sessions that we now, more 20 years later, still have every school holiday.
We once had the late Prof. George Saitoti, who at the time was the Minister for Education, in one of the sessions for the Art of Leadership course. It turned out to be a very interesting session because there was open dialogue with the minister, a thing that hitherto was not common. That encounter left the teachers feeling encouraged about the future.
What’s the future of higher education in the continent?
In the Kenyan context, the future of education is very bright as we already have great minds passing through the education system. Particularly, I have to say, if the Competency Based Curriculum is allowed to develop and reach beyond the top schools, both in primary and secondary school.
Earlier this year, I spent 10 days in Liberia on invitation from the Catholic Church to help with their diocesan schools. Liberia is a beautiful country but it’s had a tragic history and it is still trying to pull itself together. Although it is endowed with a wealth of natural resources, its human resources have been shaken up. But just looking at the challenges the teachers have, and later listening to the school children full of hope, one realizes the future is there – in the young.
This is a project that many departments in Strathmore will help with and it will be like a seed sown, and which can grow. My philosophy of life is that you must believe in the people you are dealing with; you must believe in the people you live and interact with. If not, move elsewhere! You need that believe. And we will believe very much in the people in Liberia.
So I’d say there are many journeys to be taken and new visions to be seen but it’s a very bright future, especially for Kenya!
What’s your take on social media and its impact on literature and language?
It’s becoming common to find students who cannot speak fluent Kiswahili or English, a phenomenon to a certain extent proliferated by the use social media. They develop a language of their own, usually a mixture of the two, which greatly impacts their language skills. So, at University level, for instance, you find lecturers being at a much higher level, one that some students are unable to engage with. And this gap between the lecturer and the student will keep growing yet that’s the next generation we have to handle. It will get to a point where they have to learn either Kiswahili or English.
Language is a tool to express oneself, and the depth of one’s being. If your language is limited, it is difficult to express what you feel and it’s very hard to communicate at a real level of depth.
What’s it like to interact with past students?
A teacher is not a public figure, but the experience of interacting with parents and students, particularly if you stay in the profession for a long time, is very satisfying. There are often many occasions where I don’t recognize a student but they recognize me and say – hey, you taught me! When I was still teaching, it was interesting to find past students in ministry offices who’d quickly assist me and sort out the problem for me. One also comes across past students in highly influential positions.
At some point I went back to Kianda to work with its alumni who told me that their experience of being treated as an individual and learning certain tricks of being a young adult woman stayed with them. They also tended to keep friendship with girls in their class because they had similar approaches to certain values, standards, and ethical approaches to life.
The current first lady, Margaret Kenyatta, is an alumna of Kianda School. She assisted us with various projects and on one occasion when we were launching the peperuka scholarship fund, referring to the values taught in the school, she said that one of the things that she never managed to do was the heroic minute in the morning – St. Josemaria talked about getting out of bed quickly.
Just this week I met another alumna, the one who is turning 60, who said that there are certain habits that she will not drop because when you pick them up at a young age, they stay with you.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, I got a phone call from some of the girls I taught in Kenya High in 1971; maybe they just wanted to find out if their teachers are still alive, haha!
What’s your favourite food?
Bread. Home baked bread.
What do you do to relax?
I read. One’s taste in reading changes – I now find myself reading books about the difficult beginnings in countries.
I walk and sometimes swim.