Nikki Malcomess, the newly-appointed Campus Head at Generation Schools Hermanus could well have made an old John Denver melody her theme song: I’m leavin’ on a jet plane / Don’t know when I’ll be back again But this peripatetic educator who has lived all over the world has finally come home to roost – at least for now.

Nikki Malcomess, the new Head of Generation School Hermanus with son, James on her lap, is mobbed by his small classmates.  At the back is teacher Deandre Etalla.

Certainly no event in her life could better illustrate her response to happenstance than her presence in this place at this time. Up to March this year, she had been heading up a school in Mauritius.  Then her husband, Andy’s father passed away in Durban. Literally at the eleventh hour they managed to get four tickets on a flight to South Africa. They threw together hand luggage for themselves and their two children, Amelia, aged seven and James, five, and left early the next morning, 14 March, intending to be back in a week or so. 

Unbeknown to them, it was the last flight out of Mauritius before it closed its borders against Covid-19. And they were locked out. 

They spent some time with Andy’s mom in Durban and then, bringing her with them, they decamped to Hermanus where Nikki’s New Zealand-born mom and step-father lived. Hermanus was Nikki’s happy place, having spent many memorable holidays here, even while living abroad. 

As time passed and they had no way of knowing when they would be able to return to Mauritius, she felt it was important to get the children into a school in Hermanus as soon as restrictions were lifted, and to find a home of their own, instead of continuing to camp on her mother’s doorstep. She notified her school in Mauritius that she would not be returning, they found a home to rent and she looked around for a school for her children to attend.

Mainly because the school follows the Montessori curriculum and offers a Cambridge school-leaving pathway, she settled on Generation Schools Hermanus. This turned out to be not an end, but a beginning. 

Calling the school to confirm her children’s enrolment, she was surprised when the call was answered by Founder and CEO of Generation Schools, Jevron Epstein. During a short chat, he mentioned that the incumbent, Charl du Toit would be transferring to their newly-acquired Reddam School in Somerset West and asked if she would be interested in coming in for a job interview. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Nikki is beyond excited about the opportunity and is having a wonderful time getting to know the 52 educators and 276 learners at the school; her energy and enthusiasm are infectious. “I mean this is absolutely the dream job for me. What more could you ask for? It’s the kind of school I love working in, the staff are incredibly motivated and well-trained, the culture is not unfamiliar to me and the cherry on top is that I’m at the same school as my children. What a blessing! I realise I’ve been homesick for South Africa for years and as Amelia said to me the other day, ‘Mommy, you’re home now’.”

Nikki’s travels started at a very young age. Born in New Zealand, the family subsequently lived in Hong Kong and Australia where her father was a diamond merchant before returning to Johannesburg. She finished her high school education at St Stithians College in Johannesburg, then it was off to Rhodes University, where she obtained a BA in Psychology, English and Drama. In her third year she taught Drama in a township school and enjoyed this experience so much that she decided to follow in the footsteps of her New Zealand grandfather, a school principal, and obtained her teaching diploma. 

It turned out that, spanning a teaching career in a variety of schools and countries, Drama became a golden thread binding it all together – a thread she hopes to extend into her new posting at Generation School. 

After leaving university, she travelled to London, together with five fellow students and was fortunate enough to obtain a Drama teaching post almost immediately. Unfortunately, the school was in crisis and threatened with closure, so in addition to her teaching responsibilities, she played a leading role in interacting with the Education Department in an attempt to revive the school.  She eventually ended up staying there for three years before hitting the road again.

From running a theatre in a US summer camp, she moved on to Canada before returning to Cape Town and a most unlikely detour. After obtaining a diploma in Marketing and Advertising at UCT and a further diploma from the Red and Yellow School of Marketing, she obtained a research job organising focus groups countrywide to assess the response of youth groups to a variety of products. Although she loved the work, teaching was in her blood and eventually she took a job teaching English and Drama at Abbott’s College, Cape Town.

But by then, design architect Andy Malcomess was in her life and when he was offered a job with a company in Hong Kong, they decided to move on and Nikki entered a new phase in her teaching career. Between getting married and having two children, she worked herself into leadership positions in three different schools (she had attended one of them as a child), where she was introduced to and trained in the IB (International Baccalaureate) and Cambridge education systems. 

When Andy’s work in Asia came to an end, he joined another company with projects in Africa and they moved to Mauritius, where Nikki’s father lives. With three years at an IB International School and a Master’s Degree in Education under her belt, they received the fateful call from Durban and jumped on yet another jet plane, bringing her full circle back to Hermanus.

From a personal point of view, Nikki feels the Covid-19 pandemic has given her spiritual respite and an opportunity to reassess her life and future career. “I also think it has been an important chance for my children to reconnect with their identity and family values, and Amelia, in particular, has already responded very positively to this opportunity. Of course, it’s also been wonderful for my mom to play a more active role in their lives.”

Professionally, Nikki has come to espouse the enquiry-based, leadership-led Montessori system of education within a Cambridge and IB framework. At Generation Schools Hermanus this applies to children from the age of 18 months to 18 years, with the option of tertiary education through the Cornerstone structure. 

“There are so many features of the school that I love,” enthuses Nikki. “For instance the emphasis on on-going, in-service training and the sense of community you feel here. Our full-time chef cooks a nourishing daily meal, picking veggies from the school’s own garden, for every child in the school.  They eat it together in the central courtyard of the school, creating a real sense of family.” 

Central to her vision is whole-child development, which includes access to sporting and cultural activities in addition to the academic programme. “I believe that education is all about offering learners as many pathways to individual choice as possible.

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