School Principals: Frontline Workers in the Battle Against Covid-19

School Principals: Frontline Workers in the Battle Against Covid-19

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.

Beyond educators

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 matters

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.

Racism in Schools: A step-by-step approach

Racism in Schools: A step-by-step approach

#yousilenceweamplify

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.

Authentic responses

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.

Overwhelming

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.

 Anti-racism process

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Produce a detailed report with findings regarding overt and systemic racism in the school.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Addition of said anti-racism content into the school curriculum.
  6. 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.

Thuma Mina – Send Me: Thuli Our Superstar

Thuma Mina – Send Me: Thuli Our Superstar

Last week, Professor Thuli Madonsela – patron of our NGO The Peace Agency – spoke at our annual fundraising ball.

From everyone who was there, it was an exceptional night and Thuli Madonsela contributed in no small way to this success.

A great deal has been written by many – me included – about Thuli Madonsela. But after this night, I wanted to put out a couple of thoughts on what I feel makes this woman so special. The reason for this is two-fold: In terms of the purpose of this column it is to give us ideas of how each of us can respond to our President’s call to Thuma Mina – Send Me. Secondly, it is to honour and publicly pay tribute to an exceptional servant of the Republic. 

Before diving in, it is worth considering that this person has well over a million followers on Twitter. When she speaks, people listen with rapt attention and when she finishes people rise to their feet in unison and queue up – in numbers – for selfies with her. We auctioned a signed and personalised copy of her book No Longer Whispering to Power and it sold for R11,000.00.

As we watched all this going on that night, I turned to my Dad and remarked that this kind of attention is usually reserved for rock stars. So, how is it that this gentle, humble, professorial woman who occupied the office of a hitherto unglamorous and frankly rather anaemic Chapter 9 Institution, is treated like a superstar?

The short answer is that she is a superstar. To us South Africans regardless of age, race, gender or political persuasion – this woman is the saviour of South Africa. I am not saying “a saviour”. I am saying “the saviour”. First there was Madiba and then there was Madonsela and they were hewn from the same stone. And I am not using these words lightly or in any kind of gushy, sycophantic way. Trues true. As far as South Africans are concerned, she saved us. Finish en klaar.

Now, she will tell you that her team at the Public Protector was a huge part of her success. She regularly pays tribute to the many ordinary South Africans, whistle-blowers and the media for playing their part. But the reality is that the towering morality and courage of Thuli Madonsela caused many of us to find our spines and use whatever we had in our hands to play our part.

Thuli Madonsela’s presence in the world is a prescient sermon and three things about this sermon stand out for me: Whilst the world clambers for money and power at all costs, hers is a message as old as Love and Wisdom herself; be a candle in the darkness. That’s it. Will your one candle extinguish the darkness? Yes! Yes, it will. I remember confiding in her one day how I was doing battle with privilege in a sea of poverty and inequality. She said: “Enjoy your privilege but use it to help those less privileged.” Simple. Be a candle.

Secondly, when you hear Thuli Madonsela speak; when you see how people adore her, you are left in no doubt that good will always, ultimately triumph over evil. She embodies a promise that God never let’s go of the world and that all our travails and miseries are small and will pass as the work of the universe plays out; moving the world and its people forward because of and not in spite of the droughts, the floods, the plagues, the deaths, the famines, the genocides, the Zuptas, Trump, Brexit – you name it.  It will all be okay in the end and if it’s not okay, it’s not the end. Hope oozes from Thuli Madonsela. Simple. Live with hope.

And finally – laugh freely and often. Thuli laughs a lot. This is what happens when you be a candle and when you live with hope.

Simple. Enjoy the ride.

Thank you Thuli. Let us never stop honouring you for what you did for us and what your life continues to teach us.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter

The Power of Mentorship and Partnership

The Power of Mentorship and Partnership

Over the 8 years that I have written this column, I have interacted with many people who have shared with me some of the incredible things they are doing to make this country a better place.

I have been very struck by the passion that people have to make a difference and just how willing they are to make sacrifices big and small each day to achieve this end. Many have expressed their frustration – a frustration I share on a very deep level –  at not being able to do more. To those I remind us of Mother Teresa’s often quoted: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.”

By far the most common way that people participate in the healing of our nation is through mentorship. This is almost always informal; we mentor our staff in the workplace, our domestic workers at home, perhaps their kids; educators mentor their learners outside of the formal learning process; religious leaders mentor their flocks; Granny’s and Grandpa’s, aunts and uncles – most of us mentor somebody; young or not so young. It seems that being a mentor to someone is very deeply rooted in our DNA; we do it almost instinctively without giving it a formal name.

There are of course reasons for this; we acknowledge that without healthy and functional younger people in particular, the young themselves and society at large is at risk. So, on one level it is about survival – passing on from one to another the necessary skills to navigate the world and life well. On another level it is tied up in our instincts to care and nurture, which is why we react so viscerally when we read stories of the abuse of children; it goes against every instinct we have.

But science also proves the power of mentorship. Research conducted by the mentorship program Big Brothers Big Sisters tells us that when an adult mentor spends 1 hour a week with a child for one year, that child will be 53% more likely to stay in school; 32% less likely to engage in violence and 46% less likely to use drugs. It is for this reason that I maintain that mentorship – perhaps more than any other intervention – is a critical tool for the healing of our nation.

Over the years that I have been involved in mentorship, I have become convinced that everyone can mentor someone. So, for the purposes of this column I would like to broaden the definition of mentorship so each of us can get a sense of the role we can play. Traditionally, mentorship was seen as an age-based thing i.e. older people mentoring younger people. But some of my best mentors have been younger than me; for example, my dear friend Akhona Ngcobo has mentored me in the ways of Zulu culture. She is several years younger than me. So, mentorship is more about experience in one area or another, than age.

The other perception we should change is that mentorship only benefits the person being mentored. This is perhaps the biggest misconception created by the fact that mentorship relationships have typically been based on an unequal power ratio.  Everyone I know who has enjoyed a powerful mentor-style partnership (whether adult-to-adult or adult-to-youngster) has reported that they grew just as much from the relationship as the mentee did – if not more. This means that we should start viewing and defining mentorship differently.

In South Africa we have phenomenal programs that work on this basis; co-mentorship or what some refer to as “thinking partners”. These programs create partnerships that are totally reciprocal and impact both parties equally. One of the most powerful of these is Partners for Possibility which I have mentioned before. They are leaders in this type of thinking as their program partners school principals from some of the poorest schools in South Africa with a business leader, in a mutually beneficial, generative, adult-to-adult relationship. Some of the leaders are active in business currently, others are retired; some are in small entrepreneurial ventures, others in multi-nationals. They come from different departments within businesses, but all share the same passion; to partner with a school principal in a way that facilitates their respective growth as leaders. This last week, Partners for Possibility achieved the remarkable success of being the only South African NGO to be ranked in the top 500 NGO’s in the world in the 2018 Geneva Rankings by the independent group NGO Advisor. They came in at 97 demonstrating the uniqueness and efficacy of this approach.

For those of us not involved in business or schools there is our local mentorship program, Bright Stars. This assists adults and youngsters to effectively partner with one another. These youngsters may be ones that you are already in relationship with but that you need support with. You might not be in a partnership with a child currently and would like to be. The program offers comprehensive training and support to both adult and youngster for the length of your partnership – usually 1 year.

I extend an invitation to all of you; make 2018 a year in which you partner with someone regardless of age. The contribution you will be making – to yourself, to them and to our nation at large – will be enormous.

For more information about Partners for Possibility e-mail pfp@symphonia.net and for Bright Stars e-mail jo@peaceagency.org.za

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

The Great Matric Lie: A Glimmer in the Darkness

The Great Matric Lie: A Glimmer in the Darkness

“Dear South Africans, why are we so gullible?  Here goes Minister Angie Motshekga once again leading you by the nose.” Former University of Free State Vice-chancellor Prof Jonathan Jansen responding to the release of the 2017 Matric results.

Each year at this time, we the public face up to the spectacle that has become the announcement of the Matric results; a proxy for the state of basic education in the Republic. It’s become a bit of sport. Forget the boxing day test match; its more like the Matric results tennis match with the Minister serving up ever more creative ways to spin the announcement of the Matric results, and commentators and education gurus like Prof Jansen and Stellenbosch University academic and educational economist Nic Spaull replying with winning returns to prove that she is smoking her socks. It would be rather entertaining were it not for the fact that it’s our children’s lives – and de facto the future of our country – that they are talking about.

The devil is in the detail. The Minister tells us that the Matric class of 2017 achieved a 75.1% pass rate. This is true. However, the specialists will reply that this is a desperate attempt to cover up the reality of education in South Africa; there is a crisis of epidemic proportions in our basic education system and we aren’t fixing it quickly or decisively enough to deal with the knock-on consequences including unemployment, poverty and inequality. It is not stretching the point to say that the story behind the Matric results is the story of how and why we are failing to deal with this triad of evils in this country.  This is why Prof Jansen is quoted as saying: “Any government that prides itself on the few that succeed and ignores the many that fall out of the school system has clearly lost its moral bearings.”  He is prompted to make this statement by the fact that over 50% of children who start Grade 1 will not reach Matric; over 645 000 pupils drop out between Grades 1 and 12. What happens to these children? And just as terrifying is the fact that 50% of those who qualify for university will drop out before completing their higher education.

What is causing this crisis and what can we do about it? Time and time again it is proved that schools that have strong, passionate, disciplined and principled leadership succeed often in the face of overwhelming hardship. You would be literally blown away if you were to hear the stories of school Principals I have sat and spoken with who defy all odds to produce astonishing results from their kids. But here’s the challenge – how do we create such leaders?

The answers may not be ones that we want to hear because it may require something of us: We need to acknowledge that the government does not have the answer here. It is failing. Period. This means that – whilst we must hold government to account – we the citizens of this country must step up in the interests of our children and our nation at large.

There are a number of ways we can do this, but I would like to focus on one in this column because it has been proved to be instrumental in fundamentally altering the future of schools and children in our country. It is simple: partner a business leader with a school Principal for a period of 1 year. This hands-on and very simple leadership development approach has been proven both locally and internationally as one of the most effective ways to transform schools and hence the basic education system.

In South Africa, the NGO Partners for Possibility is acknowledged to be a leading light globally in this field. Since its launch in 2010, 684 business leaders across the full range of industries and business sizes, have partnered with school Principals for a year. This leadership development exercise at the top of a school has impacted 20 520 teachers and over 547 200 learners nationwide. This extraordinary impact has led to Partners for Possibility being a strong contender for listing in the prestigious “Top 500 NGO’s in the World” ranking due to be announced next week.  

I want to go at this thing hard because it is a remarkable program that changes lives – and not only the lives of the Principals, teachers and children it impacts, but also the lives of the business partners. If you are a school principal or teacher reading this; if you are a business person who wishes to play a significant role in our country and in children’s lives by using your skills in business, then Partners for Possibility should be top of your new year’s resolution list. (And incidentally, it is not a huge commitment in terms of time.)

Partners for Possibility has information sessions coming up in Durban on the 25th January and in Pietermaritzburg on the 26th of January. For details contact Diane@Symphonia.net.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.

Mass Action Against Zuma United SA Citizens

Mass Action Against Zuma United SA Citizens

“My sole aim was to ensure that my self-respect as a proud South African is restored, and that one way of restoring that was to ensure that the people responsible for large-scale thievery and exploitation are held to account.” Suzanne Daniels – Eskom whistle-blower.

Suzanne Daniels is one of the collective honored by the Daily Maverick in their 2017 Person(s) of the Year. The publication used her story and her face – along with Trillian whistle-blowers Bianca Goodson and Mosilo Mothepu – to honour the many brave South Africans who risked everything to expose corruption in 2017.  Some of these whistle-blowers will likely never be known publicly – like the #Guptaleaks whistle-blowers. Many are still fighting their own battles legal, emotional and physical.

It is because of citizens like this – brave and passionate about what is right – that 2017 was without doubt the most important year in South Africa’s post-apartheid history. Without them we would be none-the-wiser about the breadth and depth of corruption in South Africa. The journalists and editors who exposed the stories must take major credit too, but the real risk will always be to the whistle-blowers.

This begs the question: Did 2017 and the torrent of putrid, rank evil that spewed forth over the course of the year, just happen, or had the right context been created for a year that would end somewhat poetically with Jacob Zuma’s demise as ANC President?

Sometime ago, I wrote an article in which I considered what I think is Jacob Zuma’s greatest legacy: for the first time since the early days of democracy, we unified in our disgust for what Jacob Zuma himself and those associated with him, were doing. We forgot our differences racial, political and economic and we took to the streets in our numbers, united against a man – and indeed a system –  that we knew would wreck our country if we did not act together to stop it. We heeded the battle cry of people like Pravin Gordhan to do what we could to stop the rot.

Whistle-blowers spoke but also writers wrote, lawyers built cases, the public prayed, marched, phoned into radio stations, wrote letters to the papers and excreted all over social media. 2017 saw anger rise in unprecedented ways; we had had enough and mass social action was the result.

This was the context, created by none other than Zuma himself: He forced us out of our comfort-zones, off our backsides and into the arena; he caused us to reevaluate our psychological relationship with leadership; he made us participants in the building (saving?) of our democracy; he forced us to grow up beyond our 23 year oldness and accept that unless the citizens of a democracy work between elections – do more than just bitch and moan – then we cannot expect a different outcome to the one we have just got from him. Zuma caused us to come together and mobilise around a common goal, barriers that had previously existed between us were broken down: We were united against him. Hundreds of thousands, millions of us. I wonder if he knows the gift he gave us?

And now Cyril Ramaphosa. The clear risk we face is complacency; a return to our pre-2017 safe, happy, inactive selves who believe that the bad guy(s) is gone so we don’t have to act anymore. There are two facts here: at the time of writing this, the bad guy(s) were not gone. Secondly, when they are gone there will be more bad guys. That’s life. Ramaphosa cannot save or build South Africa. Only South African’s doing their bit however small, can do that. People love to outsource their citizenry to leaders in high office. But globally that game is up and the “small people” the whistle-blowers, marchers, bloggers, activists, #’ers, talkers etc. – these are the people who are changing the world.

We have about 18 months until the 2019 National elections. That election will be our rite of passage into democratic adulthood – if we make it so.  We need to redouble our efforts as the citizen population during this time. We must put the screws on those who are destroying our nation in a way that makes 2017 pale. We must turn the volume up further on corruption and state capture. We must do this even if it is painful; even if our own friends, colleagues or loved ones are involved. We should hit the streets again and demand that Zuma be removed from office and tried for his crimes and we must do the same for everyone who has propped up the system of corruption that has brought our country into such disrepute. We must use this time to heap pressure on the ruling party so as to force a radical re-examination of itself – for the sake of the country and all who live in it and regardless of political affiliation.

We have a golden moment in time now given to us by virtue of us being between regimes and less than two years away from national elections. Let’s not waste it by taking our foot off the gas.

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency

His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.