Are You ‘Woke’?

The need for perspective transformation for South African teachers

‘Why do I need to transform? I am not part of the problem!’. But, a sobering thought haunts us: ‘What if I am part of the problem?’.

Your sense of identity and beliefs are intertwined and influence your behaviour. When your beliefs are challenged, you are forced to scrutinise the validity of your belief system, which can cause anxiety and fear.

In the turbulent landscape dominated by hashtags, school communities are facing a world of shifting perspectives. In the last two years, the solid ground on which schools stood, wobbled dangerously, leaving teachers uncertain, scared and vulnerable. This was not unexpected since the number of student uprisings since 2015 gained momentum and gave rise to a generation of ‘woke’ students.

What is decolonial education?

The notion of decolonial education is the foundation on which all these hashtag movements were built. This concept was introduced by researchers in 2000 as a critique of modernity’s promise of progress at all costs. It strips the individual of culture and history, thereby denying the marginalised person’s worldview and existence. The aim of decolonial education is to see ‘the other’ as a person with emotions, thoughts, and feelings, not as an object to be studied and controlled.

Decolonial education does not require one to ‘throw out the old and replace it with the even older’, but rather to free people from colonial perspectives and to create: ‘a specific epistemic, political and ethical instrument for transforming the world by transforming how people see it, feel it and act in it.’

For this instrument to work, it requires two elements: instruction (providing knowledge which is useful to practically navigate the world) and nurturing (knowledge that is focused on the collective wellbeing of society). Teachers are the change agents and transformers of society and must see themselves as active participants and constructors of change, rather than passive victims of a top-down reform process.

Overcoming disgust and division through decolonisation

Disgust and division

Many South African teachers justify their decisions in classrooms based on information tinged with cognitive imperialism or west-centric knowledge. They easily accept the standards and values of the western (colonial) worldview. This worldview is communicated directly and indirectly to peers and students.

Division – a remnant of apartheid – still hampers progress in South Africa. The rift in the relationship between teachers and pupils is widened by the influence of a multi-cultural, mass media-driven world on the pupils, in comparison to the, often mono-cultural upbringing, of the teachers.

For many teachers, the norm is to transfer ‘deposits’ of knowledge to unquestioning students, whilst firmly remaining in control of what information is to be shared. When this ‘banking system’ of teaching is also based on the blanket generalisations of what constitute different racial groups, and a west-centric worldview, the powerless pupil suffers a loss of self-esteem and identity.

In- and out-groups are formed, based on the inequality that exist in such environments, whereby an ‘other’ is portrayed as inferior and with a sense of disgust. Digust is an emotion that is formed at early age when people learn how to react towards things others find revolting, intolerable or inferior. It becomes an instinctive impulse and is called projective disgust.

If a person learned early-on that certain groups of people are intolerable and inferior, stereotypes and biases take root in their minds, and those thoughts (despite being false) are psychologically very powerful and employed as a lens through which to judge the ‘other’ in society.

Teachers are often the main culture bearers in schools and it is only natural for students to mimic their behaviour and values. In this way, a whole school community can come together in support of, or condemnation of, an object, event, person or groups of people. Therefore, teachers must model the behaviour and attitudes they expect their pupils to have.

Pupils at Michaelhouse

Woke students require woke teachers

One of the most confusing, albeit humorous, activities a teacher can engage in, is trying to understand the prevalent dialect of teenagers! ‘Woke’ is a concept that summarises, for me, what teachers should aim to be.

Being woke is described as having an awareness of, and being actively attentive to important facts and issues, especially those surrounding racial issues and social justice.

Teachers operate within a school community and must act responsibly within it. Teachers are responsible and accountable for what society becomes. A society that does not value integration, has no understanding of itself and is bound to react impulsively to criticism.

To understand oneself implies that a society will value the indigenous knowledge of the region. Indigenous knowledge underpins the formal knowledge that laid the foundation for the innovation and knowledge we experience today. By ignoring it, one also ignores the people at the heart of it. When we include indigenous knowledge in education, we allow for the development of identity and self-esteem for those people whose voices were marginalised in the past.

The good news

Transforming your perspective can lead to rewarding growth and development. By recognising areas of concern, we will all be able to let go of political rethoric and discourse that led to us believing certain ‘truths’ of what is either acceptable, or offensive in a society.

Perspective transformation is a process that will help us to understand – though dialogue and mediation – why we believe and do certain things. It can provide teachers with the confidence and knowledge to understand both themselves and society in a more nuanced way. It is a healing process that provides us with good reasons for our beliefs, ultimatelty enhancing our own self-esteem, empathy, compassion.