Baptism by Fire at Harriston School

The editor’s brief was succinct: ‘Tell us all how Harriston School managed its relationships with parents over the last 18 months’. However, before tackling the topic directly, I feel compelled to provide a certain degree of context in terms of our unique school, nestled in the shadow of the Platberg mountain and situated in the Eastern Free State town of Harrismith.

Our uniqueness is inextricably tied into our heritage, which, without digressing too much, could serve as a self-explanatory introduction to this article. Harriston celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, with our theme for the year being ‘Proud of our past whilst embracing the future’.

The relevant connection to this article is that our founders were parents from the immediate and surrounding areas who wanted their children educated in an English medium, independent school. A very bold initiative, given the largely Afrikaans nature of this entire region and the naysayers were very vocal in their criticism of this concept.

Both the creation of the school and its continued existence has relied very heavily on productive, extremely supportive parents; hence we have always viewed our relationship with parents as exceptionally important – perhaps even more so than most schools.

Harriston School in Harrismith

COVID-19 and the community

A school such as ours can proudly claim to be a ‘community’ school, as not many of our learners travel vast distances from other centres or provinces to attend classes or live in the boarding house.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head and we soon discovered that our community in Harrismith and environs had been savagely mauled by the virus and the draconian lockdown. Livelihoods had been destroyed, businesses lost, and a human migration of sorts had begun. The close relationship we had enjoyed with so many parents was consigned to the history books!

The saying that ‘Money is the root of all evil’ certainly strikes a chord, but the stark truth is that any institution needs that particular resource in order to operate. And so it proved that a number of parent relationships were soured beyond repair – this despite every effort within our means to salvage tough financial predicaments in which parents found themselves.

Clear communication is always key

Clearly, communication is always key when fostering the critical relationships with parents which should ensure a successful partnership throughout a child’s school career. A vast range of really good literature has been written on this broad topic – a bit more about that later.

The COVID-19 impact on Harriston and our relationship with parents took on its own interesting twist, thanks to my own particular situation!

My tenure as head began at the start of the second term in 2020, and apart from addressing a parent meeting in February, before I had moved to Harrismith and Harriston, I had not met more than a handful of our parent body.

Suffice to say, this presented a significant challenge as all the correspondence regarding school closure, online teaching and the like was being communicated electronically by a headmaster who hardly anyone had met, let alone knew!

Now that a significant period of time has passed since we exited from the lockdown, it is perhaps appropriate that we reflect objectively on that extremely difficult phase and more specifically on how we interacted with our parent body.

One thing that our senior staff agree with is that the online/distance learning options, allied to the pandemic environment, certainly challenged and ultimately altered several parenting styles – with interesting consequences for us.

Clinical psychologist Michael Thompson who is coauthor of Hopes and Fears – Working with Today’s Independent School Parents describes two categories of parents: ‘The 95 per centers who can be worked with – and a small minority – the five per centers who can disrupt the school community.’

I would recommend this book, which Thompson co-authored with Robert Evans, as compulsory reading for all heads of schools, especially now in this post-pandemic period.

Pupils at Harrison School in Harrismith

Critical observations

As mentioned earlier, our school, even though it is very small – a ‘community school’ in its own right – might be as representative of the population of South Africa as can be. The two coronavirus years have shown this more than ever. We draw children from rural areas, as well as relatively wealthy families, either from Qwa Qwa or the Harrismith district. Some of our long serving teachers made the following observations:

Learner ‘X’ embraced every single instruction. She enjoyed the freedom to choose her programme for the day … studying, resting and exercising. She took ownership of all learning material but also used the opportunities to interact with me.

Loads of work had to be repeated once the lockdown was over and there was no time to focus on enrichment, also due to the extremely diverse group. Her final mark was above 80% but could have been so much better. Her father met me recently (two years later) and testified about her excellent university marks and how she asserts herself in the ‘clever’ group of medical students of her year. COVID-19 made her strong and independent.

Learner ‘Y’ ‘disappeared’ during lockdown. We helped her with data, but I suspect she used most of it for other ‘not so academic’ activities. Her mother was, however, very grateful for all our efforts and kept trying to motivate her. The mother is still grateful for the school’s input. Here is a single mother, who saw and appreciated the efforts of the teachers with no blame-game at all, it made all the frustrations worthwhile.

With regard to another learner who had had very little parental support over the entire period:

His mother phoned me when the results came out and was upset that he did not perform as well as she thought he should have and was upset about the possibility that he could not follow his dream.

School buildings at Harrison School

And in similar vein:

Learner ‘Z’ (in Grade 10 in 2020) did not come back to school when learners had the option to do that. She did not complete online assignments etc. She had several emotional fall outs in that time and achieved a 35% mark for the subject at the end of the year.

I advised the parents that it would have been better for her not to study the subject for matric and they accused me of killing her dreams to become a doctor. It seemed that both the parents and the child still feel her success depended more on my efforts than hers.

The above comments pertained to high school learners’ parents, whilst one of our primary school teachers shared some interesting insights, especially as she was ‘marooned’ in the United States for some time during the initial lockdown.

This teacher commented that her class WhatsApp group was her saving grace, especially when Google Classroom was down or not ‘connecting’. She added:

I started by getting all my children connected and made sure all my parents understood how Google Classroom worked and I made sure I had their support. … This was tricky because a lot of my parents were second language speakers, so I had to go step by step.

This teacher also said that online teaching worked well whilst parents were also at home during lockdown as they got further insights into their children, as well as teaching and the lot of the teacher! Effective communication, even across continents, ensured stronger school/parent relations!

Harriston staff in general felt that parents were grateful that the school provided every opportunity for teaching to continue and that children who did the best in the long term had parents who were caring and involved, expecting responsibility from their children. They were not overprotective, making victims of their children. Similarly, children who made the most of each situation came out of it much stronger than they would have without the COVID-19 curveball!