College of Humanities

Education Student Combats Chronic Depression to Graduate with Honours

The experiences of male foundation phase (FP) teachers in a field dominated by women was the subject of research which led to Ms Esther Novukela graduating with a cum laude Master’s degree in Education.

‘After the violent death of my father in 2004 I suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and night terrors. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and chronic depression in 2019,’ said Novukela, who is a teacher. ‘Completing this degree sometimes seemed like an impossible task. I would often become so anxious that I would faint unexpectedly. I was admitted to hospital twice due to illness caused by the pressure of my studies.’

Novukela was in hospital last year after fainting and hitting her head on her bathtub causing concussion. Her doctor ordered her to rest and not work on her laptop for a week. ‘This happened during the most critical time of my chapter writing. The health setbacks made me question if I would complete the degree in time,’ she said.

While attending a writers’ retreat hosted by the Research Office of the College of Humanities, Novukela found solace and comfort with other researchers who motivated and encouraged her to continue with her study. ‘We advised each other. Suddenly, this lonely journey of writing a dissertation felt a lot less daunting and isolating. The experience helped me to complete my thesis on time.’

The key findings of her study showed that constructions of masculinity in male FP teachers influenced their decision to continue teaching in the phase or to leave to pursue other career opportunities, such as teaching in the Senior Phase (SP). Due to the ‘feminised work environment’ they found themselves in, participants reported encountering gender stereotypes which they resisted through exhibiting alternate and caring masculinities.

Each participant in Novukela’s study expressed a desire and varying motivations for career advancement. The pursuit for career advancement often reflected orthodox gender roles.

Dedicating her degree to her mother, Novukela said: ‘My mom was unable to finish high school during the 1970s and dropped out because she was burdened with household chores, which reflects gender inequality. I became

increasingly interested in investigating the way in which gender stereotypes are reinforced and possible ways new gender norms can be formed.’

In light of this, Novukela plans to continue her research in the area of gender studies and mould her learners in the classroom.

She said she was grateful for the support received from her husband, family, friends, supervisors Professor Deevia Bhana and Dr Shaaista Moosa, and her spiritual leader, the late Dr Basil Tryon.

Encouraging other scholars, Novukela said: ‘Choose a research topic that gets you fired up. Also, do not be afraid to seek help from mental health professionals. Let’s talk more openly about mental illness. Too many lives have been lost because of depression. Let’s break the stigma.’