Another crisis is taking deep root in our country. This crisis will far out-live the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact will be devastating.
Thus far our rightful focus has been on frontline workers and frontline issues; health, public safety, policing, nutrition and aid. Of course, those of us with children or involved in education have been very concerned about that space, but this is not considered a frontline issue.
In South Africa, this must be questioned. It demonstrates how misunderstood the role of school principals and educators in our society is. Their roles reach far beyond that of educators.
A school principal and his or her staff are community leaders responsible for the well-being of the whole. Their roles are not limited to the school grounds. Their school is often the heartbeat of an entire community and they are looked to as custodians of that community. They function as community conduits, communicators, counsellors, feeders, clothers, surrogate parents and first-responders in many emergency situations.
Overlooked and devalued
Yet even before this pandemic, our school principals were often over-looked and devalued. Consequently, they were and still are, stressed, over-worked, often depressed and burnt-out. And now they must face the biggest challenge of their career: Endure facing anxious and deeply unsettled community members angry at schools closing and reopening and reclosing and reopening, the prospect of sick learners and educators not to mention their own loved ones, worries about the academic year not being completed and the massive ramifications of that prospect and worries about their own health. Right now, we are expecting them to withstand the personal and systemic trauma of one of the biggest human catastrophes of this generation, whilst being responsible for the future of our children and the careful balancing of the ecosystem of a school and its community.
Again – should we not be rethinking our definition of what constitutes the “frontline”?
Leading without support
Beyond this, the question must be, how can school principals be expected to lead hundreds, often thousands of children, staff and community members – including, incidentally, all our frontline workers and their children – with absolutely no training for an emergency such as this and no personal or professional support from government or civil society?
Now and indeed long into the future, these people will have to deal with a system that is currently on its knees and will be forced into total submission as the next 18 – 24 months unfold, resources get scarcer and support dwindles as we focus on “more important issues”.
The Covid-19 Catch 22
Of course, I understand that this is a catch22 of the highest order. How could we realistically be doing things differently? What resources we have are rightly being put into saving lives – and those are stretched to “broken point”.
Yet, this is a time to be applying our best non-dualistic “both/and” thinking. We need to begin looking to the future – a future beyond Covid-19 – whilst fighting the fires of the present. Because the future is one in which our children are safe and well, but months of their lives will have been lost, compromised or traumatised because we failed to invest in some of society’s most valuable workers during these Covid-19 months and years.
Leadership and supporting leaders cannot be viewed as a nice-to-have because leaders save lives. Leadership matters especially in a crisis and especially in schools and we must urgently find the resources and invest in supporting, capacitating and energising school leaders for this fight. We can and we must work together – government, business and civil society – to mitigate the inevitable fallout in our education system from this disaster. And we must act quickly and decisively because principals – and their schools – are at breaking-point.
A change of thinking
As we budget our time, money and energy, we must name educators – and school principals in particular – as key frontline workers who need primary levels of crisis support. They don’t stop the fight because schools close. The principals we work with spend day and night stressing about how they can keep up with the education of their precious charges – our children – with little or no support on-or-offline. As a country we are unwittingly setting in motion the wheels of a secondary crisis that will have untold ramifications for many years to come.
Now that the nutrition program is once again in place and children’s basis needs are being cared for even during this period of closure, let us view school principals and their teams as a critical part of our Covid-19 recovery effort.
What can we do?
Practically, I have noticed that as a parent, simply affirming and thanking your school principal and acknowledging the trauma of their situation (and offering to help where possible) goes a long way to encouraging them to continue the fight. Do this individually but also as a community in the form of some kind of public and regular ‘shout out’.
Lobby government at all levels, beginning with your local Ward Councillor and DoE Circuit Manager, to name and respond to school principals as frontline workers by acknowledging them and arranging support in the form of training and counselling. If this is not prioritised, engage with local mental healthcare practitioners or counsellors and/or NGO’s who may be able to assist pro bono. I include details below of one such NGO that supports school principals though partnership with business.
It is in our hands.
We cannot fail them.
Some years back I realised to my horror that I was a racist.
The world through brown eyes
Perhaps I should start several years before that, when my wife and I adopted Lolly – a black child. As I began to see the world through her brown eyes, I realised how blind I had been all my white life. The world according to Lolly was a white world, full of pink dolls, pink characters in story books and kids’ magazines, caps that were designed for white kids’ hair, pink leotards and pink Band-Aids. Her teachers were all white and the support staff were all black. The waiters were all black, but the managers were all white. One day early in her talking years she asked the poignant question: “Why are all the black people walking and all the white people driving?” We told her about apartheid.
Overt v Systemic Racism
I am not necessarily an overt racist. But that’s been the problem. The fact that I don’t commit acts of discrimination or prejudice gives me a self-righteousness that makes me blind to this stuff that Lolly sees. I thought I was on the side of the good guys. Turns out I am – and always have been – complicit in a racist system that favours white people.
A journey of recovery
But the message of this column is a good news message. The good news is that the journey of anti-racism – or what I refer to as recovering racism – is the most humbling and profound journey I have ever taken. I have had the most incredible conversations with people and got genuinely close to people that I never would have before, stumbling and fumbling my way through my whiteness.
Hello, my name is Justin
I have been exposed to the writing and speaking of the most brilliant black people whom I never knew existed never mind studied. My loss. And I have been able to let go of my protestations and justifications: “I am not a racist!” “I do not have white privilege!” “I don’t see colour!” “I work for NGO’s that ‘help’ black people”!
I am only just out the start blocks of anti-racism – and I will be learning until I die – but I can say this with great sincerity:
Hello. My name is Justin.
I am a recovering racist.
I work with companies, schools, NGO’s and individuals wanting to breakdown racism. We are in a very significant moment in history that is asking big questions of us, particularly white people. Let’s talk firstname.lastname@example.org
A revolution of thought
Several moons ago, astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus discovered something rather disappointing to the 16th Century ego. Up until that point it was believed that the Earth not the Sun, was the centre of the universe. Mr Copernicus disagreed. He asserted that the Earth was one of several planets revolving around the Sun. What is now referred to as the Copernican Shift changed, well, everything.
Fast forward around 450 years and we are faced with the extraordinary possibility of a similarly history-defining shift. The Covid-19 pandemic is asking big questions of us and its only now – some 5 or 6 months in – that we are beginning to hear them.
The “what if” question
The questions are gritty, often intensely personal, not easily answered but whole-hearted and possibility based. As we experiment with asking these mind-bending, Copernican-style questions, the invitation is surely to begin some of our sentences with the almost magical words, “what if…”. As these questions emerge, so does the potential for a very different future. Here are some that I have heard:
- What if we use this opportunity to rethink education?
- What if we decide not to fly to meetings ever again?
- What if we continue to feed the hungry, give to the poor, support local businesses – as we have during the lockdown?
- What if our families were to remain more important than our work? What would need to change?
- What if we fully embrace technology knowing that in doing so, we are healing the planet?
- What if we revamp our healthcare systems to cater for everyone – not just the rich?
- What if we allow the starkness of inequality – so evident throughout this time – to stir in us a real desire to rectify this injustice?
A process for creating shift:
There are endless C-19-gifted “what if” questions like these just waiting to be discovered and the encouragement is to take some time to unearth a few of these with family, friends, colleagues or members of your community.
When you hit on one or two that excite you, jot down a dozen or so outcomes that would result if that “what if” was to become a reality. This will stir your spirits. Then, pick an outcome you truly want to make happen and jot down a couple of micro-steps that you are going to take in the next 1 – 2 days to make that outcome come to life. Voila – your very own Copernican Shift!
The great losses endured by so many worldwide from this pandemic must not go to waste. In fact, they must be seen by all of us as the wake-up call we so desperately needed. We have been given a chance to once more remove ourselves from the centre of the universe. What we do as an expression of this shift in thinking doesn’t have to be big or impressive; it doesn’t have to solve the whole issue.
But we must do – or continue to do – something.
In the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd, racism is back on the table globally. In South Africa, school learners and alumni have given voice to their stories of racism in our country’s elite schools under the hashtag You Silence We Amplify.
Some of these schools have worked hard to distance themselves from racism by issuing statements and putting out social media posts. This is all very well if it isn’t an exercise in restoring reputations. If it is, then it is a crass response that undermines real transformation. If it is just one part of a comprehensive response to systemic racism in schools, then good and well. The best responses that I have seen come from schools that have vulnerably, authentically and comprehensively grasped the nettle and begun a journey of genuine introspection and deep transformation.
The racism issue can seem absolutely overwhelming to most of us, especially when we are running institutions or organisations that have always purported to be bastions of non-racialism. How do you effectively and honestly deal with horrific revelations to the contrary in schools, from learners and alumni? For many it is a massive wake up call to the fact that systemic and even overt racism is still alive and well, and that no organisation is exempt.
If you are a school principal or indeed the leader of any organisation wanting to start the work of anti-racism, here is a process that you may wish to use:
- Conduct a thorough needs analysis involving learners, teachers, support staff, parents and the broader community of the school, including alumni. This is an exercise in deep, empathetic listening to the many voices that have been silent for a long time. It is to understand the depth and breadth of the issue of racism in the school ecosystem, and to begin a new conversation on the topic.
- Produce a detailed report with findings regarding overt and systemic racism in the school.
- Constitute a transformation committee tasked with, in the first instance, responding to these findings with restorative measures that will be taken, timelines and accountability along with an indication of measures of resolution.
- Hold a series of anti-racism workshops for leadership first, reporting back on the findings and conscientizing individuals into the work and language of anti-racism.
- Addition of said anti-racism content into the school curriculum.
- Ongoing (I suggest a minimum of 3 years) anti-racism work to be done with all teachers, support staff, parents and other community members. Everyone in the school ecosystem should be involved.
We have a massive opportunity to keep racism on the table and to deal it a fateful blow.
Now is the time.
We are now deep in the bowels of lockdown phase 2. Phase 1 was all about denial; tearing around the place exercising, homeworking, cooking, feeding, cleaning, meditating, Zooming/Skyping/Teaming, giving, writing, responding, watching, listening, reading. On and on we did.
The mood is shifting
7 weeks in, and the mood is shifting. Can you feel it too? We are moving beyond our own personal need for safety and control – trying to maintain life-as-normal – towards an acceptance of our collective vulnerability and humanity. We are beginning to look out at the terrifying consequences that this crisis is having on our economy and on people’s lives. The loss of income is now biting hard. Over a third of our population has gone to bed hungry in recent weeks. The myriad social consequences of hunger and deprivation are rising. Millions of kids are idling. It is a powder keg.
The reality is cutting deep
Vast scores of small and micro business owners – around 5 million to be exact, many in the informal sector – simply will not survive Covid-19 without serious interventions by both government and the private sector. Unless we all make decisions in the interest of the common good – to support one another flat-out once – I don’t believe we can begin to grasp the social fallout that we will face. What can we do now – during Covid-10 – that will enable people and small businesses to live and survive through and beyond this time?
Do for one what you wish you could do for all
Andy Stanley once made a statement that radically changed my thinking about the impact I could have on the world: “Do for one what you wish you could do for all.” This time is giving us all an opportunity to live this challenge no matter our circumstances; to move beyond the head space – what makes sense from a rational perspective – into the realm of hearts and hands, where we do for others – even just one – beyond what we ordinarily would. But in order to do this we need to think differently – beyond charity – and towards partnership and co-ownership in our collective future.
Our local pizzeria which has had no custom for 3 weeks, will go under soon. Yet I have saved R300 a week that my family would ordinarily spend on pizza. I will put R900 into their account as a pre-payment for pizza in future. The same applies to my hairdresser; our local coffee shop. A small homemade ice-cream business that produces a life-changing product and that is a standout employer in our area (www.scoopicecream.co.za) just received an order of way too much ice cream from the Foxtons.
Of course, not everyone can afford to do this and do for one what we wish we could do for all means different things to different people. That’s okay – do it anyway.
So, what can you do? Who is to your left and right, right now? Do for them. If we all did for one to our immediate left and right, we could survive this lockdown for months on end.
Do what you can for as many as you can.
This article is sponsored by Partners for Possibility (www.pfp4sa.net)
Many of us wish to contribute to our country, help confront our many societal challenges and make a positive difference. This is often expressed sincerely in words like: “I want to give back” or “I want to repay my privilege.”
I have chewed on these words for over a decade now. What has become evident to me is that we need to begin a fresh, new conversation in order to grow and sustain our involvement in the important work of giving and building. This becomes more-and-more vital as our democracy matures and citizens begin to realise their responsibility as co-architects of our future.
Shifting the narrative
Language is powerful and the issue with words like, “giving back” and “repaying” is that they kick-off our change-making efforts from a point of indebtedness. So, the impetus is usually something akin to guilt. Now, I am not saying that we are not indebted or that we don’t need to “give back”. I am saying that whilst guilt can be a start point as a motivator, it seldom drives people to a lifetime of quality service. So, great new possibilities arise when we ask: What if we could sustain ourselves and one another for a lifelong journey of service? For me, this is a truly exciting possibility. It paints a picture of millions upon millions of us all building, growing and giving – over the long term.
A vision of a new future
And what if this vision could begin to take shape simply by me changing my language and moving from the paying back narrative to: “I want to be the change I wish to see in the world”; “I want to be a contribution”; “I want to use my privilege to tackle inequality and restore balance”; “I want to build my community by starting fresh, positive conversations”; “I want to serve people who are struggling”?
These statements are radically different because they are rooted in love not guilt. They involve the heart – the spirit – not just the head. They require an ongoing and very positive commitment backed up by effort and joyful sacrifice. The work is not a once-off but a part of who I am and a daily source of joy, as I live within the reality that it is better to give than to receive.
These generative narratives shift us into new and exciting spaces. They take us away from deficit and lack towards positive and intentional lived responses to the myriad challenges of our society.