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Tips for Teachers

| March 17, 2014 | 0 Comments

By Khalil Osiris

All my life (I grew up during the height of the American struggle for civil rights) I have been taught that education is the key to having a better quality of life.

It sounded good, it seemed to make sense, but I was increasingly unclear as a young person what this meant practically for me. During the civil rights struggle, there emerged a more radical ideology embodied in the Black Panther Party for Self Defence (BPPSD). 1

BPPSD came into my area and targeted seven- to 14-year-olds to participate in its community mobilisation. I became a youth organiser, and it was the first time in my life that I and my peers had been asked directly what we thought about the struggle, social injustice and what our role should be therein. This had a profound effect on me. Not long after the party started its free breakfast programme, free health clinic movement and political education classes, the party came under attack by the US government and eventually was crushed, leaving a generation of youth like me all dressed up for the revolution but with nowhere to go.

So, having been fed a steady diet of antiestablishment ideology, I did not have the maturity to act on that ideology in a principled way, and it was then that I started to justify criminal behaviour. I became so involved in juvenile delinquency that by the age of 17, instead of going to university, I was on my way to prison. It was 1976. I served five years and, by the time I got out, I had received a prison education. Within three years I was rearrested, and when the judge sentenced me, he said: “Young man, you have the potential to be sitting here today hearing this in a capacity similar to my own. But you chose to be here today as a criminal defendant and you have squandered your gifts.”

Never too late to learn

What I recognised in that statement was a truth I needed to hear. In so doing, it became crystal clear to me that the time for blaming others was over. My maximum sentence was 75 years. Given that I was 25 and on my way back to prison, the choices that I would make going forward would truly be a matter of life and death.

In prison, one’s options are diminished. But there was a national movement afoot at the time to use education in prisons as a way of reducing recidivism. Boston University was committed to the prison education movement and sent some of its top professors to provide us with an opportunity to earn a world-class education. It was decided that the only major offered to us was a liberal arts degree.

Their reasoning was that this was a degree befitting free men. It was the intention of all those who designed and offered this programme and asked of us a commitment bigger than ourselves, that we should see ourselves as free human beings and use this freedom to transform our lives in the midst of incarceration. That experience showed me how to take abstract ideas and apply them in a way that I was able not just to help myself, but to help others as well.

Meeting the Mandelas

I originally came to South Africa in 2011 with a group of recording artists from New Orleans for the Joy of Jazz festival.2 My role was to work with the artists to identity social causes that were being addressed through local community organisations. Many of the musicians wanted to make a difference in South Africa beyond their music.

In the course of travelling around the country, I had the opportunity to visit some schools and prisons, and it was during my visit to Leeuwkop prison in Gauteng that I had an epiphany. It stemmed from a relationship I developed with Makaziwe Mandela while I was in Norfolk Prison Colony in America. At the time, Mandela was working on her studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and I was working on my studies with Boston University in the prison education programme.

Norfolk is the same prison where Malcolm X served time and Martin Luther King Jnr (MLK) earned his doctorate degree.3 Having been a youth organiser with the BPPSD, these two great freedom fighters and their life experiences and commitments to social justice helped to shape my view of my own contribution that I could make to my community and American society.

So, I had the opportunity to write to Nelson Mandela through his daughter Makaziwe. By that time, Malcolm X and MLK had both been assassinated, leaving Mandela as the only living breathing example of the need for continued principled struggle, and I was inspired by his example. My question was: how was he spending his time in prison? It became clear to me that he was educating himself and using that education to the benefit of others. So, I applied that to my own journey with two core principles – which guided the rest of my incarceration. Principle 1: Don’t break the rules. Principle 2: Turn the cell into a classroom and the prison into a university.

Keeping a promise

That was in 1987. So, my epiphany was a remembering of that commitment. Twelve years after my release from Norfolk Prison, I had done well for myself personally, socially and financially. Oftentimes when we find ourselves in crisis, we tend to make promises that when the challenge of the situation is gone we soon forget. My being in South Africa was and remains a remembering and a fulfilling of a commitment made at a time of deep crisis in my personal life, as well as an honouring of the sacrifice made by Mandela and countless others who paid the price for freedom and democracy. It is often difficult to understand how young people respond to this legacy.

Every school is a microcosm of the larger society and all behaviour is learned. Misbehaviour can be unlearned. Positive behaviour must be modelled, practised and reinforced. Now, having said that, I believe there is a lack of awareness of the connection between the violence of the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s in South Africa – much of it involving the parents of today and the increasing violence in our schools and communities currently. Our children learned violence from parents who came through a very turbulent time themselves; who responded to injustice and victimisation ultimately without understanding the long-term societal implications. The only question that matters is: where do we go from here?

School-wide system of support

Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Africa provides a school-wide system of support that includes proactive strategies for teaching, modelling, practising and reinforcing appropriate learner behaviour to create positive school environments.

A continuum of positive behavioural support for all learners within a school is implemented in areas including the classroom, non-classroom settings and shared spaces (such as hallways, buses and toilet areas). In addition, parents are consciously targeted and provided with practical ways to support their child’s school experience in the home environment.

PBIS Africa replaces rules with values and clearly defines behavioural expectations. Teachers and parents work together to teach, model, practise and reinforce behaviour based on three core values:

1. Be safe.
2. Be respectful.
3. Be responsible.
These values are effective in achieving immediate positive behaviour when teachers, learners and parents are trained to apply them in various situations, both within and outside school.

The PBIS programme has been successfully implemented in a growing number of schools in the USA, particularly in New Orleans, and is now operating in South Africa.

It’s a question of legacies

My decision to move to Africa to do this work is because this is a unique opportunity to stand on the shoulders of giants. How we respond to the growing challenges of building safe schools to educate a generation to fulfil the promise of democracy requires each of us to find our unique opportunity to participate.

What I know to be true is that our individual responses to the challenges of the day say more about each of us than about the other person. I was 17 years old when I first went to prison. I reiterate that because I want my readers to understand that it is never too early to start a dialogue with young people about the contribution they can make to their community and society, which more often than not will be informed by their level of education. I was 40 years old when I was released from prison.

And the fact that I did not allow my 20 years of incarceration to disadvantage me is evidence that it is never too late to make that contribution. For me, I am going to spend the rest of my life working in schools and prisons doing what Ghandi taught – being the change I want to see in the world.4 And I invite you to do the same. 

Professor Khalil Osiris is our ‘Tips for Teachers’ columnist for 2014. He is founder of Positive Behavioural Interventions and Supports (PBIS) Africa, a researched based school management system designed to support all learners in achieving important behavioural and academic outcomes in every grade. He conducts workshops with parents and teachers, including long-term professional teacher development at schools. He also provides interventions for at-risk learners.


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Category: Autumn 2014

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