With a passion for special needs education, Retha van Niekerk has had a busy few weeks as she began her job as the very first principal of The Bridge Assisted Learning School in Beverley this year.
Officially opened on 10 January, the school located off of Robert Bruce Road in Beverley provides the help needed for children to overcome learning difficulties such as high functioning autism or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. With such an important task, the school was placed under the leadership of Van Niekerk who has decades of teaching experience under her belt.
Originally from the old Vaal triangle in Gauteng, Van Niekerk said that she always knew that she wanted to go into teaching. After completing her undergraduate degree and PGCE (Post-Graduate Certificate of Education) at the then Potchefstroom University, she taught matrics for 18 years at mainstream schools.
“I don’t think I ever want to go back to teaching mainstream [education] again,” she said. “Mainstream can be quite competitive in the classroom and is achievement-based. With assisted learning, the focus is on the individual and teachers approach it differently.”
It was only later that she came to special needs education at all – over a decade and a half after completing her studies in Potchefstroom, Van Niekerk decided to study an Advanced Diploma in Inclusive Teaching through the University of South Africa.
“I saw it [studying further] as a challenge,” Van Niekerk said of this decision. “When I taught matrics [earlier in my career] I realised that the ‘clever’ children didn’t need me, while the kids who struggled definitely needed the help of a teacher.”
Van Niekerk taught at the special needs Newton House School [newtonhouse.co.za] in north-west Johannesburg for six years before she was selected by AdVtech [www.advtech.co.za] to head up their new school in Fourways. Van Niekerk admitted that the process of getting the job was lengthy, although she is obviously delighted that it was successful.
“Starting a new school is almost like having a baby,” she told the Fourways Review. “I get to see it growing and watch as it all comes together. I’m not going anywhere anytime soon!”
Looking forward, Van Niekerk said she hopes that The Bridge becomes a landmark school where parents know a difference can be made in their children’s lives. She reiterates that the earlier you get intervention for a learning barrier, the better and that she is willing to guide parents who are not sure what is best for their children.
“If any parents in the community, not just at this school, don’t know where their child is [in terms their education] or whether remedial schooling is needed, I want them to know that they can approach me as I’m happy to give guidance and advice.”