Thursday, 02 August 2012

On throwing back sea stars and finding lost pupils

We all know the story of the guy who, in an effort to save them, was walking on the beach and kept on throwing back sea stars that washed ashore. On seeing how many there were, a passer-by commented on the 'lost effort', upon which the guy answered that 'even saving one' would made a difference, even then if only to that 'one that was saved'...

And so my quest to experience secondary education 'first-hand' carries on at an urban school in Johannesburg, South Africa. The profile of learners vary, with a predominant number of them being black -- other races are well represented too. What this means is that in a decade's time a predominant 'white' school has become a 'predominant black school'. This in itself merely reflects the changes currently taking place within South Africa itself -- a school being a mirror of what's happening in the communities it serves. The racial shift is accompanied by a class-shift as well, as economic power in the country is starting to change hands too. A wealthier class of black families is now in a position to escape life in the townships, which includes sending their children to suburban schools located in Johannesburg's various suburbs. The tipping point has therefore been reached.

However, these changes require an ability to adapt, but above all for an 'understanding of what change means'. From a school management perspective, including what's happening inside each classroom, the culture shift is more complex than mere 'numbers according to race and gender'. Far from being an expert on cultural agents shaping schools and/or change management in schools, the observations I have come to make by my third week of teaching can be summarised as follows:

  • Teachers have very little power left in terms of managing ill-disciplined learners
  • The parent-teacher-learner triangle is broken in a number of cases where 'difficult' learners (mostly from neighboring townships) live their lives according to sets of rules that differ from those that are considered to be the norm by teachers
  • Teachers are inadequately equipped to deal with, make sense of or know how to manage large-scale cultural shifts at school level in a complex society that is still trying to heal itself from its racial past
  • From a purely personal experience: Some black and coloured pupils seem to play the race card very well, especially when they fail or struggle to cope with the work
  • Support from district officials and the Provincial Department of Education seems lacking
  • The long-term damaging effects of failed experiments with a new educational dispensation after 1994 have resulted in learners being inadequately equipped to participate in a globalised world characterised by fierce competition for work
And the star fishes -- the lost ones? Going through every pupils' books, looking for evidence of 'work' have left me with that 'sinking' feeling, especially in those cases where pupils who are troublemakers in class also can't really produce anything substantial. The questions that I have are, amongst others: What forces are at play that currently shape these pupils' worlds and lives? What kind of relationships need to be formed in order for trust to be (re-)established in teachers, 'the school' and 'education' itself. Can the Parent-Teacher-Pupil triangle in this particular community be healed if there is a lack of trust and understanding among all parties involved due to our troubled past? Can 'education' itself once again become a worthwhile endevour? There are enough examples in South African society which 'prove' to pupils that 'crime pays' or that 'wealth can be attained without academic qualifications'. Tender fraud, theft, and corrupt politicians throughout the whole system unfortunately don't bode well for teachers who are trying to teach morals, ethics and instill a sound academic basis from which pupils can develop their potential.

So, does the star fish want to be saved? State schools surely don't have the resources or political will behind them to achieve any measure of success similar to that which we witness at private schools. Nevertheless, every learner in my class -- the lazy ones, the hard-working ones, the confused ones, the hopeful ones, even the hopeless ones -- all will get my undivided attention. So, in every 45 minute lesson I have the privilege to engage with pupils, something that I cherish since I am working with our future... at the very least then, 'a possible future'. Perhaps, just maybe perhaps, the one saved star fish will positively impact the universe somewhere. After all, as explained by Christakis & Fowler in 'Connected' everything is interconnected through complex sets of relationships. For me it means that my efforts are not in vain.

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