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.
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.
Cathy and I adopted Lolly when we were a bit older than some of you. I am of an age where I remember wooden desks with flip-up lids and a hole in the corner for an ink-well…although not even I’m that old that we still used fountain pens!
My teachers used green chalk boards, I had actual text books
and I played cricket and rode my bike without a helmet. My primary and
secondary school both had 30 kids per class. They had wooden floors and high
windows and certainly no aircon or screens or fancy halls or what are now
referred to as theatres. And I went to two of the poshest schools in Joburg –
Pridwin Prep and St Johns College Houghton.
Now of course I run the risk of sounding old and nostalgic.
I may be old but I’m not nostalgic. I mostly hated school – especially high
school. The reason for that is not that we lacked anything material, but
because of what schooling lacked on other levels; warmth; love; compassion, care,
balance. It was all about academic results, sporting achievement; cultural and
extra-curricular excellence; “developing the young person for the future”.
I have come to understand in my adult life that what the world
lacks is not necessarily smarter, sportier, more culturally gifted adults
(although these are all fine characteristics). What the world lacks is
emotionally intelligent, caring, balanced, conscious, present, unmaterialistic,
compassionate, non-racist, non-sexist, non-abusive, well-adjusted, well-read adults
who can live all-embracing lives in an increasingly fractured, violent and
But the funny thing is that when we look at schools for our kids, we don’t look for these things that will keep them (and humanity at large) alive and functional in the year 2030 plus (just for the purposes of location in history this is the AI, biotech era in which the caring/human careers – or those that can look after machines – will be the ones most highly sought after).
We look for astro-turf fields, sparking pools or what we now refer to as “aquatic centres”, dance studios with sprung floors and mirrors, smart boards, iPads and airconditioned classrooms with ergonomically designed chairs. Only the best for our little munchkins. But is it?
Because we don’t ask about their approach to the education of resilience or emotional intelligence – key attributes in this 21st Century workplace – or how the child of colour is educated to deal with a world that is structurally racist. We don’t ask about their approach to the empowerment of the girlchild or their employment policy and whether it demonstrates the racial and gender demographic of our nation (and this is particularly worrying because so many of us are people of colour or have children of colour – or are women!). Or how they deal with the introverted or very extroverted child, or the anxious/depressed child or the child of a single parent or the adopted child.
But who cares about all this if there is a “deli” where they can order their over-priced tramezzini off a personalised credit card.
Like you, we were unnerved by the closing of our high
school. And when a couple of teachers left and only a few people pitched at the
recent open days, we too went and looked at other schools in the area. It was
disturbing to say the least. Why would I want my 8-year-old kid to go to a
school that looks like a corporate head office; that has all the trimmings but
lacks even a modicum of soul or history? Are we really to be enticed by
chandeliers and the smell of drying paint?
Yes, Trinity is a lot more traditional, simple and less “corporate” in feel. It also doesn’t have all the bells and whistles. But then why do we all feel a sense of it being a very special little school? Perhaps precisely because it is smaller, friendlier, more family-oriented, and caring. Trinity is by no means caught in the past and is also not slavishly obsessed with modernity at the expense of a more balanced, down-to-earth, less-materialistic, less overtly-privileged environment. It offers smaller classes, exceptional teachers and a solid base of spiritual and emotional care for our children.
Why would we choose to move our children from this incredible environment? Upheave them to fulfil our desire for “all that sparkles”?
Just as an aside, Trinity is also the very best value
private school in our area; the cheapest and the most exclusive in terms of
numbers and personalised care and attention of our kids: Lolly’s teacher from
last year came to her birthday party!
But the point of this letter is not to encourage you to stay if you don’t want to. It is your right to leave. But this I do ask; if you are going to leave, leave quietly, happily and peacefully. Don’t feel you have to spend the rest of the year justifying your decision by running Trinity down. Don’t feel you need to go on about the great facilities at other schools.
The rest of us really want this school to succeed and here’s the thing – there are plenty of us who will choose Trinity for all the reasons others are leaving; we want our kids to grow up in a less materialistic, simpler, “less shiny” environment with some older-school values. By the way, I spend a great deal of my working time in rural and peri-urban government schools. Before moving schools, go and visit some of those for a perspective on how privileged we are to have Trinity literally on our doorstep.
Our aim is for Lolly to be at Trinity until she
matriculates. Maybe we will maybe we won’t – but Cathy and I are determined to
do all we can to help this special little school not only survive but grow and thrive.
We hope you join us – but we fully understand if you don’t.
Justin Foxton – aka “Lolly’s Dad”.