ISASA Transformation and Diversity Workshop fundamentally changes Knights Preparatory School

| August 22, 2018 | 0 Comments

By TOM JORDI

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu is an isiZulu saying that refers to a person’s real humanness, which can only be created by the collective society.

This saying describes a person who carries a heart that protects and values others at all times. We live in a country with a history overflowing with instances where so many have been stripped of this humanness. From unjust laws and policies to passbooks, separate development and the debasing of people’s basic self-worth by the harshest of treatments, our history gives a glimpse into the darkness that can be created and carried out by humankind. Arguably, one of the greatest battlefields where this darkness found a home was in the classroom. Now a basic human right, in the past education was a means to impress dominance by one group of people over another. I am certain that education was what he thought of when the late president Nelson Mandela said: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another.”1 As such, schools today carry with them an opportunity to fight to correct the injustices of the past and to equip a population that will never again accept practices that seek to dehumanise and enslave one group of people to another.

ISASA Transformation and Diversity Workshop life-changing for Knights

Knights Preparatory school, located in Randburg, Johannesburg, Gauteng, had the opportunity to take part in an ISASA Transformation and Diversity Workshop during the latter part of 2017. Filled with hope and uncertainty, those taking part in the workshop discovered the depths to which their past has penetrated their present-day realities and played a part in forming habits, prejudices and biases that they potentially did not know existed. The workshop skilfully guided the delegates through a process of discovery, where themes such as understanding the need for transformation in schools, terminologies and their meanings, and diversity and awareness were tackled. Practical examples of privilege, bias and racism were discussed and used to probe beliefs and encourage introspection as our implicit biases were uncovered. A clear goal of the workshop was to remove the comfort levels many of us cling to in relation to race, diversity and transformation, and in their place was planted an understanding that such comfort should never be allowed in a society where so many still live with such high levels of daily discomfort. We were left with the tangible understanding that desiring unity in our diversity and a need to transform our schools in line with this diversity is not only the right thing to do, but also a strategic, educational and moral imperative of independent schools across South Africa. We were challenged but emboldened to take on this massive task.

Diversity at Knights Preparatory

Knights Preparatory is a unique place to learn, and is a school that accurately reflects a demographic which is representative of society in southern Africa. Through our diversity, we hope that our learners will be able to gain a better understanding and ability to interact along racial and cultural lines. These were some of the features that led us to place our own children at Knights Preparatory when the need to choose schools arose. Every day, my sons go to a school with friends who come from different backgrounds and culture groups. They have the opportunity of learning not only in an environment that is unashamedly Christian, but also proudly South African and representative of a diverse world.

A parent’s perspective

I am privileged to be the father of two sons and a daughter. My eldest came into our lives through caesarean section, whilst his younger brother and sister became part of our family through adoption. I am proud to be a dad in a multiracial family, navigating the challenges of adoption while simultaneously appreciating that my children are growing up and being educated in a country which will treat them differently, purely because of the colour of their skin. Already at their young age, I have been witness to second glances at the grocery store, comments informed by prejudice and unacceptable ignorance from adults who should know better. In spite of this, I want my children to achieve based on their ability and passions, unlimited by others’ prejudices, whether they be applied to my white kids or my black ones. They will not only have shared challenges, experienced through the process of growing up in this fast-paced, ever-changing world, but also ones unique to them and resulting from nothing more than the colour of their skin. Because of this, I am passionate about engaging with schools and education, with the aim of seeking greater transformation. The ISASA workshop provided the tools and foundation to place this need for transformation squarely on the radar of our school.

2017 a year full of racial tension

In the months that followed the workshop, it was very apparent that we were not alone. Last year seemed to act as a magnet for challenges facing schools in the area of transformation. These challenges ranged from addressing hair and uniform policies to outright racist behaviour by educators.2 What became very apparent with each new incident was the lack of preparation for the transformation challenges facing schools. Ironically, it sometimes seemed as if institutions of learning were failing to learn from the mistakes of others. However, in response to these challenges, some futurefocused schools have tried to instil a culture of transformative tolerance. We are trying to belong to that cohort: schools that have sought to appoint staff whose role is to focus on the implementation of transformation programmes, workshops, discussion groups and the implementation or amendment of curricula to focus specifically on the need to engage with the diversity that exists among us.

A long walk to freedom

I have been on a wonderful journey, as I have met with people in the Knights school family to discuss not simply the challenges they face, but also their ideas for equipping both
learners and educators at Knights Preparatory with new skills. It has been so encouraging to see the desire of educators, parents and learners to engage with the challenges of transformation. Through my interactions, it has become clear that opening up dialogues with parents of different colour, purely to better understand perspectives and context, has become a must. One enemy of transformation is the fear of having open, honest and vulnerable discussions where experiences are shared and collective truths are discovered, not simply our individual opinions masquerading as truth. However, it has also become clear that it is no longer sufficient to engage parents with the goal of understanding their expectations and desires when it comes to the education of their children. We now have to negotiate and navigate how their responses, expectations, desires and presence – or lack thereof – may be informed by varying cultures, beliefs informed by the old apartheid schooling system, biases and prejudices. It seems we can no longer provide the service of education without taking into consideration that we are teaching children who come from very different backgrounds to their teachers. This may affect how they engage in a classroom environment, while they strive to uphold the quality of education that is expected of an independent school.

A safe space to speak

At Knights Preparatory, we have begun engaging with this opportunity by taking what was learnt at the ISASA workshop, incorporating discussions with staff and other schools and formulating our own transformation and diversity workshop, aimed squarely at facilitating discussion and placing the need for transformation on our radar. It leverages off those who have gone before us and seeks to foster an environment where our educators and others can unpack their truths, felt experiences and potentially biased perspectives, with the aim of achieving a greater understanding of diversity and its role in transformation. The workshop places an emphasis on the need for trust as participants commit, engage, share and move towards a better appreciation of where they have come from and how this informs and affects how we move forward, towards the common goal of achieving transformation in our school. The workshop makes use of various tools shared during the ISASA workshop, plus resources from well-known African authors and sociologists, and provides opportunities for introspection and discussion. Online assessments gauging implicit biases and various media sources, together with genuine open and honest dialogue, will, we hope, provide a good platform for the next phase of our transformation process.

Supporting individual and group transformation

We anticipate future steps will include further discussions and workshopping around specific classroom scenarios that require diversity-appreciation responses, a transformation committee to formulate and oversee Knights Preparatory-specific transformation objectives; parent engagements where we can have round-table discussions to foster unity and better position ourselves to move forward in the spirit of understating and unity; and creative think-tank sessions, which will seek to infuse a uniquely South African flavour into learning areas, cultural and sports programmes. We will also encourage and support continual individual development focused on the need to better understand where we come from, where our learners come from, where their parents come from, how this effects each of us in the learning process and how best we can navigate the way forward to achieve the best possible outcome. We seek to be proud parents and teachers, who are creating a future where we can all be united in our diversity and puts into practice the truth that is Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu: “A person is what he is because of other people.”

Tom Jordi is a teacher and a parent at Knights Preparatory School.

References:
1. See: https://www.sahistory.org.za/archive/mandela-quotes-and-interestinginformation
2. See: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-08-02-education-southafrican-schools-ongoing-wrestle-with-racism-reveals-gaps-inpolicy/#.WvlrEpq-nIU

Category: Winter 2018

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