Stanford Lake College in the time of COVID

Those of us of a certain age all have an answer to that question, the one that you hear around 11 September: ‘Where were you when you heard about nine-eleven?’ Now it feels like there will soon be a new question: ‘Where were you when lockdown started?’

I will always remember that time just before that week before the announcement was made.

Picture this if you will. A bright sunny Sunday morning. There are mountain bikes, swimming caps and bottles of water everywhere. Flags are flying and sporadic announcements boom over the PA system. There are just so many people, of all ages, all over the place. It is a buzz of activity that feels like chaos to the uninitiated, but is in fact, if one sits quietly and observes, organised and deliberate. The details will differ from school to school, but those of us ‘in the business’ can recognise a school campus bustling with activity anywhere.

This particular event was the 2020 edition of The Wik, a triathlon event hosted every March by Stanford Lake College in Haenertsburg, Limpopo. But the ongoing conversations on this particular day were not all that one would expect. Alongside the fuss and fun of such an event was the underlying tension of uncertainty. The so-called ‘first world’, the ‘superpowers’ in our global society, were failing against a novel coronavirus, and if they were failing, what did that mean for the rest of us? The words on everyone’s lips, parents and staff alike, were, ‘What about our children? What if schools close?’ The rest, as they say, is history.

Tshanduko at Stanford Lake College

In accordance with the presidential pronouncement made on Sunday 15 March 2020, schools were instructed to close from 18 March 2020. On that same Sunday, a number of our boarding parents sought and were given permission to take their children home, so our physical numbers started depleting.

The ball was rolling and it was gaining momentum. On Monday 16 March 2020 we rolled out, for the first time, Google-based school e-mail addresses for all our students. This allowed our teachers to set up Google Classrooms, something more challenging for many of us than for the kids! The students were given a two-day ‘acclimatisation holiday’ whilst Thursday and Friday were spent training the staff on a couple of different video-teaching platforms and basic ‘how to use Google Classroom’ workshops. By the following Monday, we were running a fully-fledged online teaching and learning programme!

Resilience is the word being bandied about with regard to how well communities have managed through this pandemic. While it is both appropriate and well-deserved, when I think of our school’s teaching staff over this time, I feel compelled to extend the idea conveyed by this word. One of Stanford Lake College’s values is tshanduko, a word of Venda origin that speaks to the idea of ‘learning for life’.

Research into values-based education and positive education demonstrates that the children in our care will do what we do, not what we say. And now, for the first time in my teaching career, I have felt that the value of tshanduko has not only been embodied by the whole teaching profession, but has in fact been modelled for the Stanford Lake students by their teachers, school administrators, parents and other adult figures.

This year we have all been first-year teachers again.

We have had to learn new things and new ways to do things in order to live through this pandemic. Experienced teachers have not been able to fall back on our tried and tested methods. They have not been able to simply walk into the classroom, write on the board, point a finger at Johnny at the back because he’s not paying attention and answer questions as the hands pop up in the air. Instead, we’ve had to rethink our syllabi and ask – are we trying to teach too much? We’ve had to rethink our methods of delivery – chalk and talk and handouts are out, and Jamboards and Flipgrid are in.

We’ve had to rethink our assessment methods – how to maintain integrity and promote real learning when the students have uncontrolled access to the internet. And we, the educators, have also had to demonstrate a willingness to learn, a quality not as common in educators as one would suppose. It is hard to do something new when you know you are good at doing things the old way. Nonetheless, the willingness of the college staff to learn new ways to teach has, at times, left me in awe.

Learning how to reconnect

More importantly, we’ve had to re-learn how to connect with our students. It is so easy in a classroom where no-one is wearing masks to flash a smile, to lean over and make eye contact, and to allow our body language to establish that rapport that is so key in helping to ensure student success within ‘our space’. That was lost in the disconnect of cyberspace between teacher and student. During lockdown, every connection had to be deliberate, every encounter planned and carefully managed.

This was, in many circumstances, far more challenging than trying to explain the intricacies of genetic replication to a screenful of disembodied student names. This is where our true tshanduko – the determination, courage and commitment of the Stanford Lake teachers – really shone through.

Whilst, as a country, we are by no means clear of the pandemic, our little school on ‘the mountain’ is surviving and, dare I say, flourishing. It is due to the courage and commitment that we have demonstrated as a whole school community.

These values are embodied in another all-important quality represented in the college, ubuntu, which to us means ‘we are a family’. This has allowed us to be strong through the tough times, and, together with tshanduko, we know the importance of being willing to learn through life. In the words of Dieter F. Uchtdorf, ‘It is your reaction to adversity, not the adversity itself, that determines how your life’s story will develop’.