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More than a fleeting moment: mindful mentorship at Herzlia High School

| March 10, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Daniella Conibear and Marc Falconer

Quality education is a difficult concept to define.

While there is almost universal agreement that education is important, how to do it best and how to measure its progress is harder to define.1 Many of us would agree that central to an education of excellence is the quality of teachers – not only their subject knowledge, but also their ability to create positive and collaborative relationships.

A busy, varied school day is another indicator of success. An academic year characterised by accomplishment is the result of a variety of engagements: excellent results, sporting achievements, cultural involvement, academic inquiry; by everyone at school contributing meaningfully to the community; and above all, by fostering a sense of self-worth and efficacy in all young South Africans.

Process vs product

The value of these outcomes is seldom debated. The means by which they are reached, certainly in South Africa, however, often seems divergent and is sometimes contentious. On one hand, schools and school-leavers mark success by the allimportant matric results, yet we are all uncomfortably aware that these results do not necessarily indicate that our schoolleavers are ready for the world that awaits them. As a result of this, more than ever before, schools are charged with the pressing task of instilling and nurturing social mindfulness and self-awareness in our pupils. What we need is a generation of ‘change-makers’, equipped with the tools to build and nurture, to give rather than to take for their personal gratification.

There is much spoken and written about the need for education to be increasingly more concerned with process rather than product, and while all schools would like a product worth boasting about, we all understand that establishing lifelong learning habits is one of the characteristics of a world-class education. For quite long enough, standardised testing has formed the basis of school decision-making in many parts of the world, while contemporary disillusionment about this format of testing increases.6 At the heart of it, education is about what we would like our children to be and not what they can do, or necessarily even what they know. This assertion calls for a re-examination of the day-to-day school experience.

We should want, as Adam Grant says, our children to be producers and not consumers.7We should all want pupils who understand and enjoy the learning process, who are listeners and who have the grit and the resilience to take on and even to relish the challenges that life will certainly present. No person is wholly defined by what they can or cannot do, but rather by their mindset and how they field the problems of the world in which they find themselves.

Growing true grit

Carol Dweck’s8 research into what she calls “fixed” or “growth” mindsets is currently the focus of many education conversations. Her research, unsurprisingly, indicates the difference that attitude can make in a pupil’s progress, although using the term ‘attitude’ is not quite sufficient. Dweck’s term ‘mindset’ gives a better sense of how the educational sails can be hoisted to catch the wind of progress. As is the case with most human activities, pupils need to be guided and encouraged to develop these mindsets. Any teacher will recognise the importance of interactive encouragement and best practices such as goal-setting and fostering a positive attitude – what Dweck would call “growth mindsets”. Dweck’s thesis, the culmination of years of research and study, shows that at least one advantage – along with being more stimulated, being absent less frequently and being more socially at-ease – is that pupils who are able to develop and maintain a growth mindset are concurrently positioned to achieve significantly better academically. However, it is here where a disjuncture can often occur, as too often there are simply not enough hours in the school day to justly serve the curriculum while building a relationship of mentorship.

A crucial question is, how do we create a learning environment that caters for the obvious, unavoidable and pressing academic achievement expected as a key output, while fostering an environment where children are stretched and grown to become active change-makers with a sense of self robust enough to weather the pressures of the world?

This question is one that is being grappled with both locally and abroad.9 How can we as educators reimagine what we do and find time to do that; to teach, to mentor, to coach, to
explore, to reflect and to nurture?

Herzlia embraces mentorship

Our own response at Herzlia High School, in Cape Town in the Western Cape, has been to develop a mentorship system where every teacher becomes an active ‘life coach’ for a small group of pupils, who stay together throughout their years in high school. With these groups, teachers have the opportunity to do what should be at the heart of our profession: to allow pupils to reflect on their own worldview and mindset.

Any change, innovation or mobilisation – institutional or personal – is often first manifested in these mentor groups. These mentor groups comprise of eight to 10 pupils and one staff member. This minimises the teacher-tochild ratio while incorporating both the academic and non-teaching staff into the exercise. In doing this, children have the opportunity to interact with a broader range of expertise while scaling the size of the learning community.

While the system is very young at Herzlia, it is gaining traction and strength from both teachers and pupils. On a dayto- day basis, a concentrated group meets with their teacher to
field the demands of the school day. During the course of the first term, mentors examine the dynamics of their groups, both collectively and individually. To do this, staff are using a variety of techniques to profile their pupils’ personalities and aspirations, with a key focus on goal-setting. The result of this is that pupils are engaging actively with their teachers, their school and, most importantly, their futures. The South African reality is one where, as a result of frequent volatility in home and community environments,10 the teacher’s role is to provide a safe space for children to develop their self-actualisation. The benefit of this is reciprocal. While engaging in active conversations daily, pupils are learning a fundamental lesson in empathy; through being heard by the collective, they are also learning the value of listening.

At Herzlia, emphasis is placed on community involvement and space is created in the day’s timetable for teachers and pupils to engage in lessons outside the classroom. This year, Herzlia pupils are involved in programmes such as Equal Education,11 the Treatment Action Campaign,12 Greenpop,13 sustainable greenhouse farming and weekly visits to local retirement homes and primary schools to share best academic and social practices. It is in engaging in such projects that our children are preparing to become change-makers in the world that awaits them. They are also learning to share authentic social experiences with teachers outside of the classroom.

Finding time a trial, but results in triumphs

Key to making our mentorship system work is the training of staff. In turn, the key to successful staff training is finding time, both for the training and for the non-academic interaction that follows with students. Time has been generated by rethinking the role of the teacher in day-to-day administration. Technology in education affords us one thing: to dedicate more time to developing our mentorship programme. For example, biometric registration frees up a surprising amount of time.

Nonetheless, sustaining energy levels of staff and pupils remains a challenge. While teachers hope for schools with a greater holistic ethos, the reality of this is an increased
workload. Despite the added strain, the impact of these sessions at Herzlia is starting to increase the number of pupils and teachers buying into the new system. Teachers and pupils are sharing in the process of education, creating common ground where relationships are developed. Allowing teachers freedom in the school day to develop relationships with the children in their care has been an important part of securing teacher buy-in. Day to day, teachers are sharing their success stories in their mentor groups. For some groups, it is getting to a point of collective discussion; for others, it is small individual victories.
No matter how big or small, we have learnt the most from each other’s best practice stories.

The system has allowed teachers to see their pupils in a new light. An effective mentorship programme thrives when pupils are brought into the structural ethos of the school. During
adolescence, when self-doubt and social pressures can taint young people’s esteem and identity and undermine academic performance, young people are empowered when they feel cared
for and noticed.

A successful school, therefore, is not only a busy school, but one where pupils own structures for themselves. This infiltrates all aspects of school life, from fostering restorative discipline to crossing the athletic track finish line.

Lead the way with life coaching

Contemporary South African schools, however, face a larger challenge. South African children come from a variety of homes, backgrounds and environments that are often traumatic. What they do have in common with one another, however, is a teacher. If that teacher is suitably engaged and empowered, that teacher can foster a sense of self-worth, efficacy and, above all, of hope.

We teach in a country where confidence in our school system is dwindling.14 Some schools are more developed in their approach to mentoring than others. While academics are important, so is the degree of optimism with which schoolleavers enter the world. The more teachers (and parents) who invest in the lives of their children, the more likely we are to see success.

Our goal is to couple education with growth and hope – and to continue to look for the best possible ways of doing this. Our schools and our country are hungry for change.


These references have been removed for SEO and security best practice. Some of these legitimated destinations have been hacked and are now flagged as Malware sites. The orginal published article includes the relevant referecnes.

Category: Autumn 2016, Featured Articles

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