The brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, is approximately 8600 light years from our planet, and yet it illuminates our night sky as though it were a few metres away. Sirius is serious about maintaining its reputation as our night time’s brightest star, and will remain in that celestial position for more than a million years.
Like Sirius, Vuleka St Joseph’s is serious about maintaining our reputation of excellence in learning and teaching. So how is our school adapting to the postpandemic reality? To get the answer, we begin our journey at the beginning.
Change is a universal constant
Vuleka St Joseph’s is part of the Vuleka Group of schools: a group consisting of eight schools on nine campuses across Johannesburg. Our school was originally established as a boys-only school in April 2016 to nurture boys into men of honour and integrity.
We pride ourselves as being a school with character, and we believe in a values-based, Christian-centred education. Our school is the epitome of change. We are built for it, and in 2021, we changed our educational offering to suit the demands of a post COVID-19 world, by becoming a co-educational school.
One of the things we had to change with our new enrolment policy, is classroom culture. Doug Lemov wrote a beautiful book called Teach Like A Champion, and in it he describes classroom culture as the discipline, management, control, influence, and engagement of and with pupils to achieve effective learning in the classroom space.
When we think of classroom culture, we use words like calm or focused, or disciplined or positive. These are good words, because we believe they have an impact on whether learning does take place within that classroom or not. In keeping with the same principles, our teachers have adapted some practices, for example, they have created a COVID-safe entry routine to lessons.
The entry routine allows teachers to do a quick emotional check-in, and also helps to ensure compliance with masks and social distancing, and that uniforms are sanitised. This daily check-in also allows teachers an opportunity to assess the emotional and social wellbeing of all learners, which can have a direct impact on behaviour and discipline in the class.
At the height of the global pandemic and during the national hard lockdown, our school had to be agile and quick when it came to adapting new technologies. In preparing for this shift, we developed a training module for all our staff. We ensured that all our teachers had the technical skills to use Microsoft Teams, to add new learners onto the platform, and to help parents with connectivity issues.
Following the successful on-boarding of all staff onto our new online learning platform, we implemented the training for our parents and guardians, to allow smooth transition for our learners. This made a big difference when it came to ‘saving’ the year. We believe that teaching with technology is an approach to learning that allows the integration of technology into the day-to-day normal learning and teaching activities in the classroom.
Our commitment to digital technologies predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, the school adopted a new strategic plan, and added a digital citizenship pillar to that plan. We deployed a three-pronged approach to online learning, called Devices, Data and Delivery (D3).
Firstly, the school did a survey of our families to establish the levels of access to devices, data and connectivity. This allowed us to make an informed choice as to the type of platform we would use, and the mode of delivery.
We concluded that our school community would benefit from a hybrid approach to online learning, where learning would take place at home, via live online video lessons. We decided furthermore that learning packs would be made available for collection, through arrangements with teachers and parents; and finally, that there would be a slow return to school for contact learning.
We believe the level of communication and problem solving that ensued because of the health crisis, gave our school a unique set of circumstances to change the way learning and teaching place in class.
Parents as partners in education
For nearly two years we have not hosted parents on our campus for meetings or big events. The distance that this has caused has forced us be creative. For example, we hosted an off-site cook-a-thon, which was a cooking contest for staff and parents as part of Africa Month.
Parents worked with the children to create unique and hearty meals, all in the name of #StJosephFoodies. The initiative was aimed at building strong parent-teacher communication, enhancing collaboration, and connecting learning to real life activities.
This helped us to springboard other projects, such as ‘parent maintenance day’. We invited a limited number of parents to come to the school to work with us on a painting project and together we repainted our jungle gyms, restored our lunch stations and brought new life to our play areas.
The flexibility needed to make these projects work came from our newlyfound understanding of how parents wish to experience school for their children. We have come out of this with parents as full partners in education and this bodes well for the future.
Small school, big heart
Recently, the South African minister of education, Angie Motshekga, was asked what a small school is, and she humorously responded ‘a small school is a school that is small’ to loud laughter from the audience. Perhaps hidden in the minister’s response is the fact that a school is not a school only on the strength of its numbers. The independent school sector continues to show that numbers may matter when it comes to scale, but not when it comes to quality.
Our organisation, Vuleka, chooses a theme towards which we direct all our efforts, and this year our theme is: ‘The quality of life starts with a quality education; join us in creating excellence.’ We remain mindful of our social mandate to be agents of change for our communities.
As part of the group of Vuleka Schools we believe in transgenerational thinking, and we have a 100-year vision of impacting the lives of the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of the children we teach today. This commitment allows us to overcome any adversity we or our school community may face.
Our parents, pupils and staff believe that learning is an experience, and to this end, we are creating a new school spirit which covers all areas of academics, culture, technology and sports (ACTS). In the area of sports, we are currently not affiliated to any local sports leagues, but we are enhancing the experience of our learners through a strong inter Vuleka sports league.
The league will see Vuleka campuses play round-robin matches throughout the year across different codes such as swimming, athletics, soccer and netball, with the overall winners crowned the inaugural champions of Vuleka.
The post-pandemic reality has been called by many names, such as ‘the new normal’, or ‘the post-COVID-19 world’. At Vuleka St Joseph’s, we have declared this period, the ‘Great discovery’, which is a bow to the formation of our great city, Johannesburg, built upon the discovery of gold.
We believe that the period we are currently in will uncover some hidden gems and help us to set our country on a new trajectory; one which will see the talents and abilities of all our learners being celebrated and rewarded.
Like Sirius, quality education remains this country’s brightest star in a sea of despair and despondency, and Vuleka St Joseph’s will do its part to keep the light shining, from our small corner in the iconic suburb of Sophiatown.