A recent e-mail to me included the following lines: “Thank you for publishing our article.
We hope that sharing what we’ve learned may prove useful to another school.”
This is a heart-warming comment that speaks to the point of belonging to a network like ISASA – which, as letter writer Valentine Blacking on page 8 reminds us, continues to accept a wide diversity of schools.
Since 2010, when the then-new Independent Education team began to refashion the look and content of the magazine, we invited schools to send us stories about their community work. Our thinking was aligned to Blacking’s point: “Let us never make the mistake of thinking that a school with excellent facilities has more quality than one with none.”
We planned a column especially for the purpose, titled “Making a difference”, and stories have ceaselessly flowed in to fill that space. Indeed, they have made their way into other stories in our “Teaching and learning” and “Going green” sections, our “Leadership” slot and onto our “Snippets” pages (see page 10 for a great short story about King David Victory Park in Johannesburg, Gauteng, and the 35 557 sandwiches the students made for communities in need).
That phrase – “communities in need” – is worthy of examination. Writing in the Sunday Times on 31 July 2016, Gilad Isaacs, coordinator of the National Minimum Wage Research Initiative at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Economic and Business Sciences, in Johannesburg, Gauteng, revealed the following figures and facts:
South Africa has dire levels of working poverty: 54% of full-time employees – 5.5 million workers – earn below the working poor line of R4 125 a month and so cannot meet the most basic needs of themselves and their dependants… 75% of agricultural workers earn less than R2 600 a month and 90% of domestic workers earn less than R3 120 per month… [wage] inequality curbs economic growth… and undermines social cohesion.
The “working poor” are increasingly those parents who seek desperately to break the cycle of poverty by sending their children to low-fee, high-quality independent schools, many of them ISASA members.
One of the ways to determine a quality school is how the teachers deal with students from home environments where there just isn’t enough to go around. We have therefore included part one of Erik Jensen’s seminal article on page 18: “Teaching with poverty in mind: what being poor does to kids’ brains and what schools can do about it”.
Jensen has rightly forecast that times are going to get even tougher, and the impact on children will be severe. As manmade borders collapse around the world and people fleeing their homelands flood other countries, schools can become places where the social cohesion that Isaacs speaks of takes place. In this regard, our entire teaching and learning section, beginning on page 44, reveals what some ISASA member schools are doing in their own classrooms that could inform the
practice in other less-resourced schools.
My current heroine is 12-year-old Daniella Zinanni, who attends Elkanah House in Cape Town (see page 32). She has grasped what many have not: that literally millions of girls around the world are too poor to afford sanitary protection and therefore skip countless days of school. In her own community, Zinanni is working to return dignity and hope to hundreds of young women who should not, in the 21st century, be deprived of an education for this reason.
On page 50, Mike Aubin, principal of Wellington Preparatory School in the Western Cape, asks a significant and related question: “Are you a ‘nurturing’ or ‘nanny’ school?” It’s a question that all should take seriously. Are you shielding your students from the world, or are you preparing young change-makers?
It’s a question that should ripple throughout your school and throughout the ISASA network. Sure, it’s important to take blankets to old age homes and orphanages in winter, but what is the long-term benefit of such “charity” for the giver? If you’re brutally honest, does the term “outreach work” suit you, or does it suggest that every so often your school steps out of its comfort zone to paint a defaced wall in your community? Should preschools be pleasant play areas, or could they reach the thousands of toddlers missing crucial educational input? What is the right way to approach those in need, so that they retain their dignity and pass on what they can to the next school or community?
I know of a small school in the Eastern Cape that many would term unsustainably “poor”. Yet, this humble institution is the hub of its community. It is where, for example, people from all over turn up for “Service Mondays”, knowing they can get help with challenges ranging from applying for government grants, to benefiting from work in the communal vegetable garden.
I also know of other schools in more fortunate positions, where at the end of their final school year, Grade 12 students ritually give their school shoes to those who need them (see how going barefoot can ruin a child’s life on page 60). On page 14, our article on endowments reinforces such acts of giving by pointing out that financial sustainability “starts with student involvement in philanthropy”. On page 11, you can see how this fact is playing out at Christel House SA Senior in Ottery, Cape Town, in the Western Cape.
Giving and sharing resources and skills should always be reciprocal, and there is something on almost every page of this edition of Independent Education to spark ideas (see, for example, pages 48 and 92). Here’s another: for those who lack access to our publication, could your school sponsor 10 subscriptions each year for teachers and administrators hungry for knowledge?
One thing that every teacher can do, every day, without any cost, is to ask the simple question of your students: “What are you doing to change the world today?”