Voke brings era to an end

Sel­borne Pri­mary prin­ci­pal’s re­tire­ment leaves be­hind strong legacy of pride, re­spect, af­ter lead­ing the school for 30 years

Daily Dispatch - - Weekend - By BAR­BARA HOLLANDS

AF­TER 30 years – 20 years as prin­ci­pal – at Sel­borne Pri­mary School, Doug Voke had to take tran­quil­lis­ers to get through his fi­nal as­sem­bly at the end of last term.

“Oth­er­wise I would have been a mess. I would have be­come so emo­tional that I would not have been able to talk,” ex­plains Voke, 64, who nev­er­the­less got choked up when the pupils of his school lined the “black stairs” at the hall en­trance to bid him farewell af­ter 20 years as prin­ci­pal and 10 as its deputy.

More tears were shed when Voke spent the week­end read­ing let­ters the boys wrote to him about the im­pact his lead­er­ship had had on them.

“One boy said I taught him that win­ning was not the most im­por­tant as­pect of sport and that aca­demics are im­por­tant, but not as im­por­tant as be­ing a gen­tle­man and hav­ing good val­ues,” says Voke, who was in his of­fice pack­ing the last of his be­long­ings be­fore re­tir­ing to a sea­side home at Glen Ste­wart.

“One even wrote that he likes the gold chain that I wear.”

Defin­ing his mean­ing of the word “gen­tle­man”, Voke says the term re­quires re­spect for adults, peers and other cul­tures.

“What we have tried to do is build up em­pa­thy in boys so that they care for pupils with phys­i­cal dis­abil­i­ties, or for those who are aca­dem­i­cally chal­lenged. Peo­ple have the per­cep­tion that this is a rug­ger-bug­ger school, but it cer­tainly isn’t.

“If I get a call from a host in Bloem­fontein that our boys can come back any­time be­cause of their rap­port with adults and their good man­ners, then that is more im­por­tant to me than beat­ing Grey Bloem,” he said.

This pro­gres­sive ap­proach to bring­ing up boys floun­ders when Voke jokes about the chances of a woman tak­ing over as prin­ci­pal of the school he at­tended as a child.

“It could be a woman, but I don’t think our gov­ern­ing body would ap­point a woman. There’s no rea­son it shouldn’t be, but this is a boy’s school and has al­ways had a male head­mas­ter. I don’t think you’d get a Miss Jones scrum­ming down on the field and singing the war cry on derby day. It would be quite in­ter­est­ing. Of course if she was a sexy blonde it might work.”

Chuck­ling, he quips that his staff tease him for “al­ways ap­point­ing sexy blondes”.

“If you look at the staff photo I sup­pose it’s true. I al­ways say I ap­point pretty girls be­cause they keep the young boys at the school.”

Asked of the risk of this sex­ist ethos fil­ter­ing through to his im­pres­sion­able pupils, Voke waves the sug­ges­tion off, say­ing: “The boys don’t know. It’s just me and my staff who joke about it.”

Another change was the open­ing up of the school to all races, post­democ­racy. “It was a mas­sive change. We had been sep­a­rated for so long, but it didn’t re­ally in­flu­ence us and we had won­der­ful boys start­ing at the school. Chil­dren don’t have a prob­lem, it’s the adults who make a prob­lem of it, but we are fully in­te­grated now.”

While dy­namic deputy prin­ci­pal Abrie Pe­pler will take over as act­ing prin­ci­pal, he is also due to re­tire near the start of next year.

Voke has con­cerns about who will then lead the school, but con­cedes it could “ben­e­fit from some­one new who will shake ev­ery­thing up a bit.

“Af­ter 30 years things do get a lit­tle mun­dane and old hat, but I have very mixed feel­ings and will miss the trus­tees, gov­ern­ing body and in­ter­ac­tion and ban­ter with the boys.”

A high­light of his last school day in­cluded the un­veil­ing of the school’s very im­pres­sive new me­dia cen­tre which was named in his hon­our. Here a colour­ful, curly slide links the first floor hitech labs, Google-style, to the play­ful li­brary below.

Voke proudly shows off the quirky mod­ern li­brary with its invit­ing read­ing nooks, book­shelf arm­chairs and fun­fair mir­rors, a lively space run by his teacher wife El­iz­a­beth, who is the fa­cil­ity’s li­brar­ian. “If you make it fun, that’s how chil­dren learn.”

Up­stairs the su­perb IT area with its gi­ant Google let­ter­ing, ro­bot­ics room and large U-shaped ta­ble from which fold-out com­puter screens pop out with ease, is a mag­i­cal, mod­ern trib­ute to the dig­i­tal fu­ture the boys are fac­ing.

Much has changed over the decades he has led the school. Can­ing was an ac­cepted form of pu­n­ish­ment.

“It was writ­ten up and mon­i­tored and I never hit a boy in anger. I would tell them to ‘bend down and look out the win­dow and think of Africa’, so I made light of it. After­wards boys told me it was not a big deal and that it taught them some­thing. Af­ter fi­nal as­sem­blies the boys all wanted the hon­our of the fi­nal cuts of the year and the first guy at the of­fice got one cut. It was an hon­our for that guy.”

Once “cuts” were out­lawed, Voke changed his ap­proach, and took to talk­ing to of­fend­ers about their bad be­hav­iour. “I tell them that we are all Sel­bor­ni­ans, that we are all broth­ers.”

Still, he finds that pun­ish­ments like de­ten­tion are in­ef­fec­tual. “Chil­dren have gone soft,” he says.

“There are no con­se­quences for bad be­hav­iour.”

Voke, who has three sons, Dar­ryl, Gareth and Bryan, is look­ing for­ward to spend­ing time with his grand­chil­dren as well as fish­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy and car­pen­try.

“I also want to travel to Croa­tia and do a barge trip in France.”

“I am go­ing to miss get­ting to the school at 6am and some­times open­ing it up.

“I read my news­pa­per, go through my e-mails and greet the boys.”

An old head­mas­ter of mine once said: “You have to be there to greet them; they should not be there first to greet you.” — bar­barah@dis­patch.co.za

CHALK DOWN: For­mer Sel­borne Pri­mary prin­ci­pal Doug Voke has re­tired af­ter 30 years at the school, which is also his alma mater

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