Parents, Children and Schools: Fissions Within Partnerships

Last year, in its decision of AB and Another v Pridwin Preparatory School and Others, the Constitutional Court significantly altered the nature of the relationship between the school, parent and child.

Previously, as educators, our understanding was that in the basic education setting, the relationship was between the school and the parents. Following the Constitutional Court decision, this bilateral understanding has forever changed within South Africa.

Now the consideration in all matters within the basic education sphere is a triumvirate, with the child standing apart from their parents and having their standing flowing from the Constitution and not dependent on their parents or guardians. In other words, once the child becomes enrolled in an independent school, any residual ambilocal attachments are further loosened. This now raises the question of the parental role moving forward within an independent schooling context.

In her seminal book, The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot tackles the complicated relationship between parents and teachers. This is reflected in her first two chapters. She begins her work with ‘Ghosts in the Classroom’ and follows with ‘Natural Enemies’.

The first chapter commences with this vignette:

The parent-teacher conference is over, the father rises to leave and heads for the door. He touches the doorknob, then turns back abruptly with one final thought that he delivers passionately. ‘And another thing,’ he blurts out, referring to a topic that was covered earlier in the meeting. ‘That same thing happened to me in fifth grade, and I swear it is not going to happen to my child!’ His tone is threatening; his teeth are bared. His anguished outburst surprises even him. His passion explodes in defence of his child and in a self-defence of the child he was.

What parents and teachers can learn from each other

Acting against the child’s best interest

This is all too familiar to educators. When parents speak on their child’s behalf, much of what they say is about their child, and only a small portion is about their own hopes, aspirations as well as their disappointments, hurts, or their own unfulfilled ambitions. How often have teachers seen the ‘anguished outburst surprise’ from the more self-aware parent. And how regular is the hope that, as schools, we would wish to have a greater number of parents who can take a moment to discern that their off-spring is distinct from them.

As my good friend Michèle Krauthamer, who at one time led the Upper School at The Spence School, admonished me when I was speaking about my own daughter, ‘Lebogang, it is not about “we”, it is about her.’ Expressing such deep love and hope that your child will enjoy the best of your experience and none of the wounds of your own childhood should be admired, but as schools we need to guard against such sentiments clouding the needs of the individual child.

In recent years, to our great alarm, the ISASA senior directorate began to see a trend of parents actively acting against their own children’s best interests. Even though the violation and upset that their child may have experienced may be devastating and objectively unacceptable in a democratic South Africa, the manner in which some parents elect to address these violations may tend to harm rather than assist their own child. Instead of protecting their child’s privacy, some parents are using social media platforms such as WhatsApp groups, national radio stations and other galvanising methods to confront the school, including commandeering bellicose political actors.

A situation that could have been addressed discreetly, which is in any child’s best interest, results in the greater school community hearing about what happened to that child. Regrettably, often the person responsible for this breach is another child.

To my dismay, even when the national media assures confidentiality, once the incident is shared and the school is named, I can wager that on a balance of probabilities, what may have been known by a few, now rapidly spreads within the identified school and the children involved in the incident become known. The parents may have had their cathartic moment, but now their child is left to navigate their schooling being known as a victim, whilst the child who was responsible for the infraction is marked with a scarlet letter.

Another dynamic which is all too familiar to educators, is that when your child is the one that has been wronged, parents demand the harshest sanction against the other child. However, when it is their child who has perpetrated the harm, then the school is expected to show mercy and leniency – ‘after all’, the rationale goes, ‘he/she is only a child’. Well, precisely.

The next assumption is often that the child must have learnt this harmful conduct from the parents. In a plurality of instances this may be the case, but with all of us connected via the internet, or in our interactions with relatives who may not share our values, it may not be that child’s parents who are to blame.

The parental instinct not always misplaced

The parental instinct to protect their child is not altogether misplaced. Lawrence-Lightfoot begins Essential Conversations with an injurious story from her childhood. Having missed school for three months due to illness, on her return to school, her teacher bluntly shared with her parents, in Lawrence Lightfoot’s presence as a seven-year-old, that, in her assessment, Lawrence-Lightfoot ‘might, just might not be [university] material.’

Well how profoundly wrong did Mrs Sullivan prove to be. Not only did Lawrence- Lightfoot go to university, but she is also today a Harvard University professor, and the first African-American to have a professorship named after her since that institution’s founding in 1636. I, too, had dire predictions made about my future by a Grade two teacher. Thankfully, I forgot her name, but I wonder what she would say if I met her today.

This was not the case with Sir John Gurdon who kept his science report from Eton College. His biology tutor opined, I believe he has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous, if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part, and of those who have to teach him.”

In 2012, he went on to win the Nobel Prize for medicine and physiology. On this occasion, he shared with the audience his previous teacher’s predictions. When teachers become sangomas of gloom, it is parents who must safeguard the future prospects of their child.

The parental instinct is not always misplaced

Having desegregated St Peter’s Preparatory School in 1978, 2020 was jarring for me as an alumnus of independent schools and leader of the oldest, largest and most representative schools’ association in southern Africa. The postings during the #yoursilenceweamplify campaign were alarming in their familiarity.

Although I knew that as a sector we were, and still are on an inclusion journey, what disturbed me was that the things we few black students experienced at independent schools during apartheid, were still occurring in a democratic society committed to ‘[h]uman dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms [as well as] non-racialism and non-sexism.’ It is therefore unsurprising that many of the parents who have relinquished confidentiality for their children, are those whose children have experienced discriminatory conduct from school employees and peers.

Speaking from a first-person position, for those who are marginalised, the power of testimony is vital when addressing the yoke of discrimination. It is important to receive recognition that what just occurred was indeed an assault on your dignity as a human being. I remember how, as the very few black boys at St Peter’s, my peers and I would support each other and strategise about how to respond when one of us was called the ‘k’ word by a fellow student.

The teachers on the other hand, being adults, knew how to conceal their racial animus. While they would not use overt racial expletives, their behaviour exposed their inclinations. Considering the law of the land, such occurrences, or encountering identifiable prejudiced teachers were relatively rare.

Not only us black boys, but our parents too, had to turn to each other for abutment. Lawrence-Lightfoot knows this phenomenon all too well, recalling that:

I am sure [my parents] felt the necessity to keep a special vigilance helping their ‘token’ black children navigate in a white world that was often unfriendly… I watched the ways in which my strong, courageous parents became uncertain and tentative as they tried to protect me from the teacher’s biased visions, and I heard the guilt that followed when they felt that they had not done enough.

Similarly, I recall the deliberations of my parents when a matron had assaulted my brother with her fingernails. Even with the evident scarring on my brother’s back, my parents elected not to escalate the matter to the headmaster, in order to retain us in the school. The consequences of withdrawal, the infamous bantu education, was too dismal an idea to contemplate. In a democratic South Africa, parents do not, nor should they, accept such a false choice.

Another principle that was confirmed in the Pridwin case mentioned at the start of this article, was that the horizontal application of the Bill of Rights binds independent schools. The majority in that judgement held that, ‘Section 8(2) makes it expressly clear that the rights contained in the Bill of Rights can, depending on the nature of the rights and the duties imposed by it, be applied horizontally to bind private parties.

The child’s best interest must come first

The questions in this case primarily focused on the conduct of the school. However, the principle that the ‘Bill of Rights binds a natural… person’12 is also an accepted understanding of the law in South Africa. If this is the case, it can be argued that parents at independent schools are also obligated to conduct themselves in a manner that does not violate the protections contained in the Bill of Rights to the extent that the best interests of children must have primacy.

According to the Constitutional Court, ‘The right of children to have their best interests be of paramount importance in matters affecting them is a constitutional right enjoyed by every child in South Africa’. In other words, my contention is that when mishaps occur at schools, parents cannot only consider the interests of their child alone, but must also apprehend the best interests of the other child or children involved in any incident.

It takes a village to raise a child

Let us not abandon the African postulation that it takes a village to raise a child. Our Constitution advances this objective and it binds all adults, and I would argue, all parents in schools, to seek the best interest of every child in a school, not just their own.

I now return to Lawrence-Lightfoot’s second chapter ‘Natural Enemies’. She drew the name of this chapter from the work of Willard Waller who referred to teachers and parents as natural enemies. The polarity in perspective between these two stakeholders is that [p]arents necessarily speak from a position of intimacy, advocacy, and protection for their child. Teachers, on the other hand, have a ‘universalistic’ relationship with their students, which is more distant and dispassionate. They work hard to find a balance between responding to the needs and capacities of individual students and supporting the development of a classroom community in which children learn to be responsible and accountable to the group.

The roles of these two parties by necessity raises periodic tensions. That is why Lawrence-Lightfoot begins this chapter by quoting a teacher who in this ethnographic study requests that in parent-teacher interactions, there should be a ‘querencia’. This term is mostly used in bullfighting, to identify the space where the bull feels safe from the attacks of the matador. Lawrence-Lightfoot’s teacher subject pleads that there needs to be ‘a corner in the arena whereby mutual agreement we will not tread… The idea is that – despite the inevitable discomforts and conflicts – we should all emerge whole.’

Regrettably, for many South African parents, their experience of school is that of an institution which, by design, has alienated them. It is therefore unsurprising that we have observed this contusion from parents when they respond to discriminatory infractions. Conversely, ISASA is hearing reports of increasing fear from teachers regarding their interactions with parents. These postures of mutual suspicion do not serve students well. It is therefore vital that in independent schools, we must soon identify our ‘querencias’.

Last year, South African independent schools began to deal with their reckoning of what it means to address the injustices of the past. Building more equitable and inclusive schools will require hard work from everyone. As we navigate this difficult journey, let us remain mindful of our duty to safeguard the best interests of all our children.