Friday, 29 July 2016

New blog: moving over to WordPress

Dear readers...

After a long hiatus (personal reasons), I've kick started my blog again on WordPress. Please head over to to keep following.

Thanks for reading

Monday, 8 September 2014


Contrition (noun) -the state of feeling remorseful and penitent.

synonyms:remorse, remorsefulness, repentance, penitence, sorrow, sorrowfulness, regret, contriteness, ruefulness, pangs of conscience, prickings of conscience;

I am in a permanent state of contrition. 

To all those who have appreciated the posts of this blog, I have to make a declaration that I have been too long holding back. I have held it back because I have not made peace with it. 

By the middle of last year, during the gargantuan rollercoaster that was the attempt at building a new school, I realised that I was completely burnt out. Not a little burnt out. Not showing signs of burnt out. Burn-out started in about April. By July, there was not much left really of my health, my personal life, my sleep cycle. I was on a cocktail of drugs to manage the deep depression that had taken hold of each of my waking hours: SSRIs to boost my mood combined with lithium to stop me going manic (which also happened). 

The drugs made me flat line. Students would do things to me, in front of me, in my classroom that were completely inappropriate and instead of being filled with the indignant "that's not ok" feeling, I just felt nothing. Nothing. 

Each trip to school was in tears. I'd leave before sunrise and drive a very dark, unlit winding mountain pass with a pretty sheer drop off (often in sheets of rain). Many a time I thought of jerking the steering wheel to the left and just going over. It was really quite appealing at the time. Most trips home were in the dark too. After getting home and eating something provided by my supportive and caring partner (who was also taking strain at his wife being replaced by a tearful angry zombie--does that make sense anyway?) I would then work some more: lesson plans, marking, records on student behaviour. 

By July I realised a few really important things. 

1) drugging yourself to be able to do your job is no way to live

2) I was not being the teacher I believe I can be. I was turning into a snappy, angry, teary monster who could not see perspective for the chalkboard and who was taking her extreme stress out on her students

3) I was trying to build a school: but it was not the school I believed in. I believed in the pastoral care we provided. I believed in my own convictions about how rubbish the intended curriculum is and how much more important cultivating deep, conscientious and caring thinking was in my students. And while I was trying to do all these things, I found myself playing the amapolisi (Xhosa for 'police') role that I feel is so regulative and unethical about western schooling. "Take those earrings out, tuck that shirt in, no you may not go to the toilet, report back for detention". I found myself replicating the very teaching practices I vowed to resist. Between students who had virtually no intrinsic motivation or discipline for lack of structure in their lives, and being absolutely and utterly EXHAUSTED, I fell back onto strict disciplinarian measures to try and control my environment. This is not what I believe in. This is not why I became a teacher. 

I decided I had to leave. 

At the time, I thought the drugs indicated my own intrinsic mental inability to cope as a teacher. I convinced myself that I didn't have what it takes: that I couldn't cut it in a Quintile 1 school and I just had to accept that. I didn't think it was the environment: I thought it was me. 

I have subsequently come to a different conclusion. I am off drugs now, and have been since the end of the school year. My depression has rectified itself with good diet, exercise and some time off (please let it be noted here that I am not suggesting all depression can be rectified thus). I'm really not the manic-depressive suicidal black hole I'd convinced myself I was. 

Then what was it? Was it this school? Was it every school? Was it a mix? Why did I feel this way? Why did I have to go?

While some of my overworked madness may be attributed to the circumstances of this specific school, it really does warrant consideration of how typical or atypical my experience was. 

My experience was atypical in the following manner: as a person privileged with a wide variety of skills coupled with a rather pathological work ethic, I found myself shouldering a massive portion of the workload. Besides being on the Senior Management Team, I often got the vibe that I was 'to keep an eye on things' when the principal was out (Deputy job? Debatable, but it felt like that to me, with the concomitant stress of it. Many students thought I was the Deputy Principal). I was the social worker liaison. I was the head of mathematics: the subject that was the deciding factor between passing and failing for 80% of the school: as a result I was teaching an extra 20% a week in after school lessons, including Saturdays. I was a hands on mentor. I was a choir-group leader. I was the Secretary of the School Governing Body. I was on the SGB Interview Sub Committee: the team tasked with shortlisting and interviewing for almost every post in the school, as a new school hires temps on contract and these each need to be formalised and made permanent (each position taking up to 100 man hours across 5 committee members). I had to lead the role of interviewing the Principal to get him into his post permanently. And I had the highest teaching load on the timetable, with the fewest frees (despite some colleagues thinking I had 'fixed' the timetable to benefit myself--a quick lesson count showed this to be the farthest from the truth). 

Normally these roles would be spread across at least 3 people, if not more. Of course I burnt out doing all these. Any human being would. Partly I ended up with these because when one of these roles is not done--when a gap is left unfilled--everyone (including me) suffers and I hate that: I hate sitting by when someone is asked to step up to a plate and there is tjoep silence in the staff meeting. But there can be no doubt: some of us stood up to the plate and some of us just didn't. And in some instances I said "not me" and the Principal said, "um, yes you."

Perhaps my colleagues were endowed with a far healthier sense of self-preservation? I'm not sure. The basic job of teaching is tough as it is. Many of them also had families, which I did not. Many of them lived considerably further away than I did and travelling was a serious time consumer for them. In some regards, some of them would've willingly taken the role if they'd had the skills. For example, the school timetable. Most teachers cannot do one (frankly why should they? It's not a specific teaching skill, and is rather maths oriented). But in some cases, I became resentful at what I perceived to be attributable to nothing else but self-centred behaviour.

In many sense my experience last year in our school was, however, quite typical. It was quite typical of a new school. It was the beginning of the story, with later chapters to be seen in established schools across the country. Our funding woes were the same (if not better than most average township schools: we secured private donations). The department's ridiculous expectations were the same. Our staff-student shortages were the same (if not better!). Our infrastructure was leaky and didn't shield us from extreme hot or freezing cold (although, again, we managed to get wi-fi through our school: so, in this case, better!). But despite our better circumstances in some respects, we found ourselves gaping into the same abyss. To look at our fellow schools was to look into our own future and it was bleak. We were desperately trying not to fall to the same fate. I'm not sure anything we did would've saved us from it.

I have come to the following conclusion. In our SA schooling system, teachers are expected to work miracles. We are expected to be the police, the surrogate parents, the health care workers, the psychologists and trauma counsellors, because most of these other social services around us have failed. "Don't do it--it's not your job" was the advice from the education department. Completely useless thing to say, because if these things are not in place I can not do my job. Without these more basic needs being met, a child can not learn. So how am I supposed to ensure they learn while these massive gaps exist in their lives? As the social services and structures in these spaces fail and collapse, the burden of addressing the services they are intended to provide falls to schools. And yet schools are not given any additional resources to fulfill these roles. They are expected to produce the same output with menial input, their functions outside of teaching ignored.

So those teachers who try to fill these gaps experience what I experience: they burn out. I think many teachers try this in their early years, efforts born of naive optimism. They soon learn it is not possible alone. Then one of two things happens:

If they can leave, they do. 
If they can't, they find ways of surviving in their jobs without being actually able to do their job. 

One of these ways of surviving is to become hardened. To train yourself to 'not care' because frankly, caring in the face of such systemic misery and abuse is to condemn yourself to madness. There are, I know, those few exceptional human beings who have managed to face these circumstances and still retain their human capacity for caring--a capacity that I think leads most teachers to chose their job in the first place, a capacity we all started with. But we cannot build a system on exceptions: we cannot develop a teaching corp where the requirement of the job is some kind of innate super-humanness. That's just folly. 

Another way of surviving is to cut corners where you can. Frankly, I don't think my extra maths lessons after school made one blind bit of difference to our students' results (there is some interesting research emanating from Wits University that substantiates this instinct). So why break myself for it? So out the window go the extra lessons. Students want to bunk extra murals? Why break myself for it? I'm struggling to survive already! So out the window go the extra murals. The kids have wasted 40% of my lesson with poor behaviour: why break myself for it? Is fetching the cup of tea I have not had a chance to sip since 6am going to make a difference? Not really. And so you see teachers popping out of lessons to go fetch a cup of tea.

When you find that trying to 'do your job' even in the most basic sense against these circumstances, without all the added extras I took on, results in you looking pregnant your bladder is so full; when you don't have a chance to have a sip of water or go to the toilet from 7am until 4pm; when you find yourself counting the moons, the hours, the days, the minutes to the next holiday to try and get through the term; when daily you fear knife wielding gangsters coming to search for your students, or--worse--you; when your own students throw objects at you or push you to the floor; when you are riding on 6 hours of sleep a night and pulling 80 hour weeks of work; when you are constantly pulling as hard as you can and nothing seems to make a difference but everyone blames you anyway... well, people become dejected, defensive, indifferent and passive aggressive, especially if they have no exit strategy, if they have no choice. I did have a choice. And I was already well on that track.

And that is what we see left in our schools today. Not bad teachers. Not nasty people. Well-intentioned people who have been so dehumanized by their work and the odds they face that they have become bitter and jaded over the years. Teachers who feel so under attack and forced to deliver without resources or recognition they hide under the skirts of the union that feeds on their insecurity, even if that union doesn't represent what they truly think and feel. I really believe this. I honestly do. It took a mere 8 months for me to look in the mirror and ask myself "what have I become?" I can't imagine what it would be like if I was trapped in that job with no options, dependant on that income to feed my family and without transferable skills. I just can't imagine. 

So dear readers: it is with enormous contrition I have to say I left my school. I still feel it is my school. I still struggle daily with my decision: 9 months later, I still wish I didn't have to leave. This event has completely shaken my foundations of my identity. I am not who I thought I was. But in doing so, I'm hoping it has made me a better person. 

I admire my colleagues who stayed on when I couldn't. And I will endeavour to use every aspect of my experience last year to improve the working conditions of teachers and help find ways towards finding long lasting and meaningful solutions to our education problems. I now work at a university here in Cape Town teaching trainee teachers: this is the closest I can come to my final goal. 

I will write, advocate, petition and lobby in every way I can for people to really understand what it is like inside our poorest schools. The public perception in this country of what schooling is and who our teachers are is severely distorted and frankly cruel. We teachers are blamed and vilified, called stupid and lazy. We are not. Society can't just ignore our teachers and label us as 'the problem': we are not. Even if we were, you cannot ignore us anyway. We must be a part of the solution.

To sum up, a quote from a dear friend.

"Attributing negative, destructive behaviour to solely laziness is a lazy way out of understanding the problem."

If you take anything away from the blog post, please take away this. What you see teachers doing in our schools today is the long, protracted result of what I suffered and did not survive last year. Those teachers who have survived have done so by adapting to their circumstances. You can judge how they have adapted as much as you like from your comfy armchair: but you have not walked in their shoes. Take a little time out to understand teachers' circumstances and challenges before you condemn us.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Thoughts on mother-tongue based education

I wrote the following synopsis of my own and others research for a friend who asked for some insight on the topic of mother-tongue based education. The topic has recently flared up (again!) in the South African media and, frankly, I'm a little fed up of people treating these insights like they are new. Educationists have known this for years. Policy makers just don't want to listen because the research is inconvenient and requires a political will and long term resource planning that the government is unwilling, or unable, to commit.

So here it is. The old stuff. That every one seems to have forgotten.

Thoughts on mother-tongue based education

There are strong feelings on both sides of the argument, pro-mother tongue and pro-English only. Very rarely are the contextual factors influencing the practicality of either option discussed in a nuanced, pragmatic way. The argument tends to be fueled a lot by ideology.

The first critical mistake people make is to talk about all our schools as if they are in the same situation, when they are clearly not. Setati and Adler very importantly pointed out the difference between schools in rural areas, which have relatively homogenous language settings, and urban schools with their diverse and very fluid langscapes (langscape--the word used by linguists to refer to the linguistic make up of a particular community, environment or place and purpose of language practice).

In the former, you'll find all the students and teachers share a mother tongue. Often non-academic texts are unavailable due to resource shortages and a lack of literacy practice in the home. Parents' own literacy levels are poor and a culture of reading is absent. Spoken language is almost exclusively the mother tongue, including the choice of radio, TV and music. The school is the only environment in which the child is exposed to the second language, and although the school's official policy might be 'English' as the LoLT (language of learning and teaching), this is not what happens on the ground. It does not make sense for a teacher, who themselves are not confident in English, to talk to students with whom they share a first language in a second language. In such environments, Setati and Adler quite rightly term English a FOREIGN language, as opposed to a second language. It is almost as foreign as French or Portuguese to most South Africans, and the opportunities to use English for any purposeful activity is very rare.

In the latter, you may find a class of 50 students in a township school who have 12 different mother tongues between them, especially in Gauteng. That's a VERY different situation to a rural school, and a lingua franca is required. That said, these children are still second language learners and the pedagogy in the classroom needs to be structured as such. Teachers in these environments have VERY different challenges to those in rural schools.

The mother-tongue as the bridge to second language acquisition

One phenomenon that is well understood is that of the primary language being the platform off which other languages are learned. This is almost always the case where a child has not been brought up bilingual from the cradle.

Cummins' research is seminal in this regard. Extensive vocabulary and knowledge of complex grammatical structures in the first language almost always predict better second language acquisition. In the context of rural South African schools, where children are not brought up truly bilingual from the cradle, this idea is very important, because it affects the decision on when students can or should transition from their mother tongue as the way they learn at school to a second language.

Many South African children reach school with limited academic language proficiency. This is due to many factors: lack of reading in the home, the limited vocabulary they are exposed to due to the lack of available adult attention (parents and caregivers often work very long hours and are unable to spend the dedicated time to stories, songs and reading that middle class parents can) and the educational level of the caregiver themselves. Reading is only first introduced at school in Grade 1, by which point our children are 7 years old. The correlation between English and class here becomes clear: English speakers are often also middle class income earners, with the literacy and language practices of middle class families (Shirley Brice Heath did some great research on what class means for acquiring the language practices that work well in schools--middle class families: how they talk to their children, how they play with their children and how they read to their children, apprentice their children into the language practices that are replicated in the schooling system). It is not surprising then, that children coming to school and only meeting text for the first time then are way behind their counterparts who have had far richer language experiences at home.

If this is the situation, then the school has to be the location where deep language practices are acquired. This has to happen in the mother tongue first, both verbally and written. The 3 years currently given to our children to learn both their home language formally and their second language is insufficient to prepare them for the demands of a curriculum at school when they transition to second language instruction in grade 4. Margie Probyn did some good research on how children only have a vocabulary of 800 or so words in grade 4 in English, and yet the textbook in grade 4 required a vocabulary of 3000 words upwards. The gap is huge and the children aren't ready. In this situation, further mother tongue-based education makes more sense, with excellent second-language instruction.

The written/verbal dichotomy

Language acquisition has two components: verbal and written. Often proficiency in the first is acquired where transactional conversations have been necessary to reach certain goals (getting what you want/need). The second (written) is acquired when what you want/need is only available in a text form. The two do not develop naturally together. People are often fluent conversationally and yet unable to write a language (most African languages in South Africa fall into this category). There are also languages which are almost exclusively written and yet people cannot speak them (e.g. Latin).

This distinction is extremely important in the South African educational context. Often students are not adequately taught literacy in their mother tongue. Texts are scarce in their home language. This makes mother-tongue based education extremely difficult: a point for English-only instruction as this is the language in which resources are available.

However, developing literacy in a second language does not mean a good grasp of the language per se. Students are often able to read texts without 100% understanding. Many South African students can read an English text out loud exceptionally well and not have a clue what they just read. Reading for meaning means an ability to attach written words to the real world. This occurs far more easily in the mother tongue. Some institutions are working hard to translate educational resources into mother tongue (e.g. Xolisa Guzula at NMMI in East London is working on the DBE's workbooks in mathematics, translating them into isiXhosa). Literacy in the mother-tongue is critical. Written word is often context independent so more words have to be used to describe a setting, a situation or emotion. The ratio of new vocabulary in writing is 3 times that which is used in spoken conversation. Exposure to more complex lexicons and grammar is through reading, not speaking. These complex language structures are often the difference between those who succeed in the schooling environment and those who don't. Another point for mother-tongue based literacy. PRAESA and other institutions have been working hard at encouraging mother-tongue based literacy practice in the home.

Other schooling models around the world

People often invoke other schooling models around the world as examples where students can become proficient in a second language by using it as their medium of learning. The most common one is that of French Canadian schools.

This is, however, not a good comparison for the South African situation. Firstly, most of the students attending such schools come from homes with good socio-economic backgrounds, where vocabulary and literacy practice in the mother-tongue has had a strong foundation from the home. Secondly, these schools are staffed with truly bilingual teachers who are well trained in the practice of second language acquisition, even if they are content teachers (e.g. mathematics, science etc.). Thirdly, these schools are true immersion programmes. Students are not allowed to use their language AT ALL: only French is allowed. The school day is extended with a rich variety of practices, both curricular and extra-curricular, which are supported via well planned language development resources.

A student can also be schooled in their mother tongue for their entire school career and still be proficient in a second language, provided the political will and resources are committed to that model. A good example of this is the acquisition of English by Afrikaans speakers and Afrikaans by English speakers pre 1994. Despite being taught exclusively in English, many South Africans are adequately equipped in Afrikaans and, when exposed post school to a study or work environment that requires Afrikaans, improve rapidly in their proficiency to the point of being perfectly functional. Their content knowledge, given to them in their home language, is already present. They need only attach new words to this pre-existing knowledge. This is another point for mother-tongue based schooling, with good second language teaching.

Other African countries succeed in using their colonial language as a lingua franca in their schools in a space where South Africa fails. In this instance, apartheid does have to take the blame. Parental mastery of the language of instruction in other African countries is relatively high. Even though the language of home might be Lingala or Kikuyu, the parents have full mastery of French and are able to bring their children up bilingual from birth. South African parents are often not in a position to do so, most especially those in the former homeland areas. Unsurprisingly, Pam Christie's latest research shows clearly that the geographical location of a school in a former homeland is the best predictor for educational failure.

In short: the only language acquisition model that works for developing a second language without using the first language is complete immersion. We DO NOT have the resources for this in South African schools. Only 8-9% of our population are first language English speakers. Many of these are NOT interested in becoming teachers as the vocation is one of the toughest jobs in the country (believe me) and other, more appealing and lucrative options are often available since English mother tongue correlates with class, income and educational level. We cannot create schooling environments in which our students are completely immersed in English with the resources we have. So mother tongue has to be the bridge to English acquisition. Which means the mother tongue must be properly and deeply developed first.

Parental resistance

It is completely understandable that many South African parents for whom English is not a first language want their children to acquire the best proficiency in English possible. Firstly, mother-tongue based education lives under the dark shadow of Bantu education. Parents still remember the use of their languages to educate them as a means of denying them access to the formal economy. Secondly, parents quite rightly identify proficiency in English as the means of access to formal tertiary education and jobs--this is not a figment of their imaginations. What is not well understood is the need for the development of the mother tongue as an important stepping stone to excellent English acquisition. People are often of the opinion that language acquisition is subtractive: this has been well debunked by linguistic scholars around the world. One does not have to sacrifice the development of one language in favour of the development of another. Education of parents in this regard is critical to schools adopting alternative models of language development and practice.

English and content subjects with specific discourses and registers

Subjects such as mathematics and science are not only English heavy (i.e. most of the resources available are only available in English), but they also use very specific language unique to their subject areas. So students are learning the language of mathematics through the language of English through the language of home. A bit of a mess. Even academics around the world find themselves having to write about these subjects in English as the words they need to describe mathematical and scientific phenomena have not been developed in their home language.

Such development is a matter of political will. Afrikaans is again an excellent example where vocabulary can be explicitly and purposefully developed if the desire is there that the language should be used in scientific spaces. Pam Maseko at Rhodes and others have done a lot of work on developing mathematical lexica in isiXhosa. Such programmes are incredibly resource intensive again, and it is understandable when people argue for students to simply learn English and acquire these words that already exist instead of creating new ones, as mathematical jargon in isiXhosa will have limited scope for use beyond school.

Teacher resourcing

All the theory about language acquisition must be read in the context of teacher resourcing. The following facts are salient:

1. Many South African teachers are not mother tongue English speakers and struggle with English themselves. This is not an indictment on them, but rather a simple fact of training and teacher education.

2. Many teachers are often the only exposure to English that students have.

3. Most textbooks are only available in English. Teachers depend heavily on textbooks in the South African context, particularly in content subjects, due to their lack of confidence in their subjects.

The reality on the ground...

But most importantly, certainly from my own experience, our teachers are in such tight spots at school due to staffing shortages that language is hardly on the top of their agendas. My own training was in the use of scaffolding and code-switching techniques to teach mathematics. I have a degree in pure mathematics and was taught isiXhosa by an EXCELLENT teacher at UCT. My research at the Masters level was about the interaction of language and mathematics instruction in deep rural isiXhosa speaking secondary schools and I started my job this year with the sole intention of putting the theory of scaffolding language in the mathematics classroom into practice.

The few opportunities I have had to do so have been very fruitful. Explaining to students in isiXhosa has made a huge difference. My own isiXhosa skills are still developing in the space of pedagogy, but it has already been quite clear how powerful this scaffolding tool can be. Not only have I been able to manage my classroom behaviour better (mother tongue is always best for this), but relationships with my students have been critical in my ability to be a teacher and my formal training in isiXhosa has enabled me to be a language teacher too (my students' isiXhosa is often very mixed and incomplete... they speak a strange township dialect which, while perfectly functional in their current context, holds no weight in an academic space at all!).

My deepest regret is how under-staffing and the trauma that schools are perpetually faced with constantly pushes language development to the back burner. Whether it is gang violence, student abuse or lack of basic resources such as the availability of enough textbooks, a reliable electricity connection, adequate security or acceptable levels of communication from the department about what is expected of us, language--while critically important--is not urgent compared to these other day-to-day demands. We are constantly in fire fighting mode.

What I really need to teach mathematics well and to use my language skills and training to do this, is 5 less lessons a week and a teaching assistant in my classroom: even a trainee teacher who is apprenticing me and able to spend extra time with those students who have obvious learning difficulties (Foetal Alcohol Syndrome, dyslexia, autism, etc. There are many! Up to 30% of my students have special education needs which I am physically unable to attend to). Most of my students live in high trauma environments and are either exposed to primary or secondary abuse. Their higher cognitive functions shut down until they feel safe, heard and wanted. Again, my ability to speak isiXhosa has been invaluable in creating relationships that have enabled me to bond with and support my students through their difficult lives. But the time I need to develop curriculum resources and lesson plans that speak specifically to language acquisition is simply not available. A 60 hour week is a good week.

We cannot talk about the lack of language acquisition or educational attainment without talking about these other issues: they all interact deeply. Most schools where students don't speak English are schools in poor areas. These schools are also wracked by gang violence, drug abuse problems, lack of teachers, lack of infrastructural resources, departmental apathy, poorly educated parent bodies and students who are regularly exposed to abuse and do not feel safe. Changing to mother-tongue or English-only education is not going to make a feather's difference to our schooling outcomes until those committed and skilled teachers who want to be in the system do not feel compelled to leave for their own or their families sakes due to the extreme pressure and workload. Two committed teachers in my school are either leaving or have been booked off by medical advisors for stress and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Teachers need more support to do their jobs, in the form of protected non contact time and/or teaching assistants and reasonable class sizes (under 40). Until these happen, any policy put in place regarding the language of teaching and learning will be nothing but another piece of paper.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Only birds born in cages...

One of the most important things I think this job is teaching me (nay, ramming down my throat!) is that I bloody accept that I can't do everything. End of. Including regular blog posts...

So much has happened since the last post. We have elected a governing body, that motley crew of teachers, parents, staff and students who reign supreme by South African law over schools. A good School Governing Body is a fundamental part of a functional, well-run school. I'm pleased to say that I think the parents we have found to serve on our SGB will play an important role in reaching the dream we have for our school. Already this week they have sat through disciplinary hearings for students who are repeatedly disruptive, and their proactive approach and pertinent questioning during the hearings was very encouraging. It is all too often that schools that serve middle-class families have a much easier time of the Governing Body. The parents come with all sorts of skills to offer and, usually, far more resources to put into the school. Our parents are struggling to string it all together generally, but kudos to them, they are not taking it lightly.  It is heart-warming to see them take the school seriously too.

The elections were held on Monday night. This was a tentative event because of what happened at school during the day on Monday. As my colleague and I herded the students up to assembly, we found a poster stuck to the pillar, hand-drawn on a page torn out of a student's notebook. The poster was a direct threat by one faction of boys against another, claiming that 'tears of blood will flow'. Not acceptable, by any means, but there's been so much hot air out of the boys that is preposterous that one doesn't know how much is real and how much is bravado anymore.

We're used to the factions the boys have drawn up amongst themselves; the Xaba Boys, the Bad Boys Club (BBC) and the Young Money Hunters (Y.M.H.). Unfortunately our desks and chairs are littered with inscriptions already, as are the kids themselves. Some fake their tattoos. Others don't need to.

So having found this poster, we took it off the wall (my colleague knew who had drawn it), and we cornered the boy in assembly with the head master and frog-marched him down to the office. This was at 13h30.

At about 13h35, a group of 6 gang members scaled the fence (we have a HUGE unpatrollable perimeter) armed with foot-long kitchen knives and an axe. The teacher on duty was unaware until these kids ran through the playground, looking for specific students, right on top of us.

Someone had tipped off the police because at the moment when we had just realised what the hell was happening, the men in blue were hot on their heels, chasing them up the hill.

They were obviously looking for a particular student/group of students. The teacher on duty found herself between one intruder and one of our boys armed with a rock. The policeman dashed past her, gun in hand, safety off, and the intruder fled. The students had followed the gang fight a la gladiators. Their bloodlust is quite disturbing. The teachers flocked up the hill to find out what the commotion was and herd students down to the classrooms and to safety. Break got terminated early (we have mentor period after second break) and I spent 10min frantically searching for my students and coralling them like a mother goose into my classroom.

Once I'd gotten them all in and locked the door, it was clear that some of them knew what was going on. Turns out that one of the girls in my class went to a birthday party on the weekend and 'kissed the wrong boy'. She's supposed to be 'with a BBC' and snogged a Xaba. BBC gatecrashed the Xaba party and there was a stabbing: a BBC stabbed a Xaba over the girl. The remainder of the weekend was spent invading each others turf and beating each other up.

Monday was full on retaliation. Obviously a BBC had heard that the Xabas were going to the school to hunt BBC boys (of which we have many) and called the police which is why they appeared so quickly.

At about 14h15, a bunch of older BBC boys from outside the school had heard about the attack and jumped over the wall behind the classrooms to retaliate. These guys had pangas. The BBC boys in my classroom were scratching at the turf to get out and 'sort it out'. I locked the door and told them that they were not going anywhere.

I have a soft spot for one of them: a bright boy who is actually kind, although tough as nails, and quite respectful. He wants to be an engineer. Perhaps I flatter myself but I'd like to think we have a good relationship. He would never admit the depth of his involvement but he is in deep: it breaks my heart.

Again, the parents response was encouraging: several came down to the school to find out what was happening. Last night there was a community meeting involving the local authorities, parents, church leaders, politicians and general community headmen, and these boys involved in these junior-gangs (I call them junior because at this point its violent turf assertion amongst laaities on booze and weed, not organised crime. Yet.) Apparently the response was one of 'no way, not in our area' with patrols set up between parents and police to terminate the boundaries of the various factions. We'll see what comes of it.

But to say it was scary is an understatement. One of the boys in my class asked me "Are you scared Miss?". I responded "well of course! There are crazy people running around outside with axes and knives. Who wouldn't be?" He thought it was very funny. I said it was natural. But it does go a long way to indicating how normalised this sort of exposure to violence is for our kids. Some expressed shock at it spilling into school, but outside school it was something they were used to.

At least it was only blades I suppose. Our container walls would not stop bullets.

Prior to said incident, it has felt a bit like the wheels are coming off this term. Something amongst the staff feels like the standards are slipping: getting to class on time, follow up on homework, expectations of behaviour. Mostly the promptness I think. There is nothing more frustrating than trying to be one of the few teachers who is insisting students arrive on time to class when others don't... you really are trying to hold back the tide. This takes a lot of energy which really could be used for other things. Like behaviour management.

The kids are also responding to the slackening... they smell it and respond immediately with pushing boundaries harder. Holding the line in the face of a larger wave takes more energy. I'm pretty sure my own steadfastness is waning rapidly. Being quite seriously sick twice this term has not helped. The cough is still persisting 3 weeks later. It may be time for a chest x-ray.

On other fronts: having been elected (reluctantly) to the SGB and serving on the SMT as well as trying to orchestrate (with mixed success) a maths intervention programme, I'm realising that I need to work on my leadership and management skills. For one, I still get too pissed off when it seems to me that people are not pulling their share--this will always be the case and there must be ways of changing the situation or working on it rather than just sitting and stewing. Not good for mental or physical health (speaking of which, I haven't been for a run in almost two months! This somehow needs to move up the priority list. Once the cough goes).

In summary: while we still have our ambitions and high standards, there have been some pretty cold reality checks that we are what we are: a township school. Complete with gangs and violence, persistent bad behaviour, vandalism, worn-out teachers and massive learning deficits. To forget that is folly. What happens in other schools is a complex product of teachers being slowly ground down by what are, in all honesty, completely unfair and ridiculous requirements of them, coupled with an uneven distribution of belief in the vision for the school, and effort applied to fulfill that goal. I am starting to understand far better what has created the dysfunctional schools in South Africa (not that we are one, yet). They are the natural outcome of a long process of unbelievably severe conditions which are not quite believable or understandable until you've seen it yourself.

To end off positively: relationships with individual students are starting to really blossom. On Saturday we spent 2 hours 'playing' with our maths, whereafter I got takeaways and the kids designed a mural on my classroom wall. Then we spent 3 hours painting together, listening to music off one student's phone [who knew that windows could be used as natural amplifiers? He wedged his cheap Nokia between the pane and the burglar bars and VOILA! The entire side of the classroom turned into a giant amplifier. Pretty neat). We sang and laughed (and made a mess) and overall had a good time. These are the moments that matter to me most. Not only do they make my job easier with the kids, but they also keep me sane and provide a different outlet while still getting work done. Otherwise I'd be home marking.

Painted on the wall of my classroom:
"Only birds born in cages think that flying is an illness."

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Power of Positive

Sorry for the long hiatus folks. As you probably correctly guessed, the quiet coincided with the return to school. Good to know I'm working instead of blogging huh? ;)

Term 2 has gone, from my perspective, a lot more smoothly than Term 1 (surprise surprise). I think I was more prepared from a planning side and the obvious bonus was having a much better idea of what lay in store!

Aside: there is NO SUCH THING AS OVERPLANNING in teaching. I don't care what anyone says. No such thing.

Only one challenge has arisen which has really knocked me sideways. I got sick.

It was inevitable I guess: all those hours and lack of sleep and inability to eat properly + the change in the season and the high-risk environment of a school. Understandable that the flu eventually arrived. What I did not anticipate was how much feeling rotten would diminish my capacity for patience and positivity with my students. And you never know quite what you've got until its gone.

My fuse got short. My words got snappy. My grumpiness grew and my frustrations were palpable. As I've mentioned before, our students do not respond well to the grumps. At all! Loads and loads of infusing of firm positivity is the way to do it with this lot, so naturally my shorter fuse resulted in more antagonism, conflict and further grumps. Since I fell sick (and missed a couple of days) I've felt an eerie and disturbing sense of "whatever" and I know my students can smell it.

As if by divine intervention, this same period coincided with our introduction of a merit system at the school. We tried the intrinsic-motivation-appeal-to-your-better-sense-of-self stuff. It does NOT work on 14 year olds. So we went blatant: merit awards for doing stuff that is above-and-beyond or remarkable (teachers discretion). We decided NOT to introduce 'demerits' straight away: we wanted to see if we could build a positive system that was around incentivising the right behaviour rather than punishing all the time. So far so good! Man, what a merit can't do to promote a change in behaviour! Students gather up books and help in hopes of a merit. The naughtiest of students will try and behave in case they get a merit. A system I introduced today got more work out of my kids in an hour than normal: something along the lines of 'difficulty level' for questions in maths class to hurry them up through the simple stuff and get them chewing on the tougher material.

Level 1: Rookie. Everyone should do this. Everyone CAN do this. Get off your lazy bum and work.
Level 2: Pro. All of you should try. Getting up to this level should get you to pass maths. Just.
Level 3: Boss. A merit to anyone who can get all but one Boss-level question right. [I love writing on their merit slip "Reason: Doing algebra like a Boss"].
Level 4: Legend. Peeps who get level "Legend" right are a-away for a 70% if they work.
Level 5: Master. Only for those who should be able to get 80-90 for maths.

So the idea is that kids can actually say 'Miss, today i'm doing Maths like a Pro!" and feel good about it. It also sets a clear and obtainable "minimum expectation". The kids loved it! They came up with "Legend" and "Master". And all of a sudden, maths class became a game. Let's see how long it lasts...

What all of this did remind me (sickness, merits, level-ups) is the power of positivity. Really, there is no other explanation for it: something about our kids is wired into shutting out the negative and craving the positive in ways that is almost pathological. The challenge to us as staff, then, remains in keeping up our energy to stay positive.

The kids have asked for extra classes on Saturdays. I'm thrilled (and devastated)... it's wonderful they want them but man, really? More? That said, I canned last weekend because the little blighters hadn't done their homework and were unapologetic about it. So I told them I wasn't bending backwards if they couldn't be asked. Deep down I know really I won't stop, even when they are being lazy buggers... experience tells me that they come around eventually.

Meanwhile, I'll just keep trucking like a Boss. No Legend. Wait... Master. Yes :)

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Play the game

This post is predicated by a fascinating discussion in the conference today about game playing.

The research presented was some really useful work being done in remote areas of Australia where staff turnover is high, student attendance is very low and every teacher who rocks up changes stuff in order to 'make a difference' (cue: note to self on this one...)

Those schools that are functioning relatively well in this environment have begun adopting a discourse of 'the game' whereby they make the most simple actions and behaviours of going to school explicit to their students and communities as the rules of the game "Going to School" and then are consistent about those rules. For further information, read the paper here. It's really good.

This notion of game playing really resonates with me, but not in the way intended in the paper. Here are 3 examples of games I've encountered that are worth sharing.

Game 1
My own offering to today's conversation involved the most strange and alarming phenomenon that I first encountered at the school regarding my students' books.

For my students, the main function and attribute of their book was form: it must be neat, it must be beautiful, it must not have scratchings or incorrect answers or messy work or mistakes in it.

Rough work was done on ANY other available surface: torn out papers from homework diaries, toilet paper, the wall, the desk, you name it. Anywhere else except in the book.

So when I insisted that they show me their working inline they were--initially--horrified. "But Miss, that will mess up my book!" Or, even worse (lord forbid) I came around to check how they are doing and wanted to do an example with them together in their books so that they could watch good mathematics being modelled and retain the example for future reference...

"NO MISS NOT IN MY BOOK! NOT WITH RED PEN!" <thrusts a pencil into my hand>

The only red allowed in the book is a tick. A nice red tick. And if I don't provide it as timeously as the students want, they put it in themselves, irrespective of whether the work is right or not.


I was boggled. Bemused. And disturbed at the same time. Because there is only one place that my students could've learnt this particular ritual, and that was in their previous classroom.

What on earth could possibly conduce the teachers to only ever tick, or the students to never show their working and scratch around thus for any surface (including, might I add, themselves) on which to perform their calculations?

To economists my answer will seem obvious: incentives. The Rules of the Game manifest in different ways. There are the 'official' rules of the game. And then there are the real rules, the ones that the rewards, penalties and pressures incentivize. The Rules of the Game might 'officially' state that teachers need to check all their students books regularly. But if a teacher is being told that books will be randomly inspected by the visiting authorities and each sum must be marked, well the incentive is to do as few questions as possible to alleviate the assessment burden (any sane mathematics teacher will tell you it is nigh on impossible to assess every question that every student ever does. That's where self-assessment comes in).

Also to alleviate the burden of marking, we go old-school: ticks and crosses against the final answer only. Working, misconceptions, the process of calculation count for nothing. Only the answer. *tick*.

The result is a charade: a dance of shadows where teachers act out something they call 'teaching' and students act out something they call 'learning'. Learner copies off the board and then waits. Teacher comes along and goes 'tick'. Inspector comes along and goes 'very good! Beautiful books'. Teacher smiles. Student smiles.

Nothing approximating the igniting of mathematical understanding has happened at all.

Game 2

Another interesting example of the Game. Who would've thought that a potential explanation for principals admitting students into their already over-full schools could be linked to salary scales?

Size of school -> Principal's payscale.

So here we have a payscale system that is trying to acknowledge those principals who are running schools of 1200 kids and that what they do is harder than running a school of, say, 300 kids. And that's fair enough. But the distorted behaviour that manifests is profound.

Game 3

The final interesting example comes down to advisor visits. I was really not very happy about my advisor visits (euphemism of the millenium). I was particularly not happy about being made to sign their report to acknowledge they had 'advised' me. They came on a day when I had no free time to chat with them, at a time when I was teaching all day, with no room for negotiation. They arrived late and then were frustrated when they had to leave late.

[It should be added that this rather rushed engagement was the result of a slightly tense interaction in which many emails over a period of about 5 weeks requesting an amicable visit went unanswered. I think they got upset when we contacted the powers-that-be and asked why we were not getting any responses to our requests for help.]

No effort was made to engage with what I have tried to do for remedial interventions with the students. The interventions were just 'me going off curriculum'. They poured over my files while I was in class and then I kind of got it with both barrels about 'not sticking to the pace-setter'. My protests of the students' weakness and knowledge gaps were met with the response "That doesn't matter. You must stick to the pace setter. These kids will keep you behind if you give them half a chance".

Give them half the chance? Perhaps them not getting half a chance might explain why they are in such a pickle in the first place? I'm not joking here: on the notes they gave to me they have literally written "do not let "don't understand" get in the way". I've been officially instructed to not worry if my students don't get it.

At this point in the hurried meeting I really was restraining my desperate urge to either pack up laughing hysterically or punch someone in the face.

But off we set on this game. They talked at me, s-l-o-w-l-y, showing me in monosyllabic terms the most unpedagogically sound mechanisms for teaching fractions I have ever seen, assuming that I didn't know how to teach this level of mathematics. I nodded, steam coming out of my ears, wishing they would go away or make an effort to get to know what I've done, what I can do and what I'm trying to do and actually advise me. No such luck. We just played the game. The Box-Ticking Game. Educator X has been 'corrected' and has been made to sign a document stating as much. School Y has been visited and can be ticked on the list. We've done our jobs here. This school is now 'right'.

I think it was John Maynard Keynes who said something about creating employment by paying people to dig holes and paying other people to fill them in again. This really sums up to me what our education system currently is. One very large, elaborate, expensive charade, a game to keep a few hundred thousand people employed. Which it does very well. But in the immortal words of Blackadder, there's only one teeny tiny problem....

It was bollocks.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

The difference between theory and practice is...

...that in theory there is no difference and in practice there is!

In about an hour I'm heading off to Seapoint to register for the 7th Mathematics Education in Society conference where I'll be presenting my Masters work and getting the opportunity to gather opinions and insights from people whose work I've been following for 5 years now. I'm rather excited!

More importantly, I've just reread the (very short! damn word count limits!) summary of my work I submitted ages ago as my conference application. I can't say I'm happy with it, but it was a furious click-send-at-23:59 submission so I shouldn't be surprised.

For those unaware, my Masters thesis is about teachers beliefs about mathematics teaching and language and how these things interact in the classroom. I'll do a follow up post about why very few South African children learn in their mother tongue and what implications research is showing from this (I'll delve into some of Neville Alexander's writing on language and political and educational emancipation to illustrate the point in said forth-coming blog. The topic deserves tomes of its own). Suffice to say for now, there is a very strong correlation between mathematics attainment and language of teaching and learning in SA. Of course, language of teaching and learning also proxies for many other variables that are known to have an effect on students' mathematical attainment, such as socio-economic circumstances, access to physical resources such as solid schools, textbooks and ICT equipment, access to human resources such as well-trained teachers etc. and this all comes saddled with the moribund gamut that is South African political and social history. But there's definitely something to the language variable on its own: across the world, students who learn in their home language learn better. It seems an obvious thing to say, but you'd be surprised at how controversial it is.

So I spent a month in a very rural school up in the Eastern Cape observing teachers and chatting to them about their thoughts about the role of language in their classrooms. Unsurprisingly, they didn't think it mattered much, and this is not an uncommon response. People think mathematics is symbols and numbers... the least language-dependent of the subjects. Not at all. Firstly mathematics is often described as a language itself. Choose a random textbook off the shelf and turn to the introduction. 10:1 says the first paragraph mentions something like "Mathematics is a language that... " or "Mathematics is the language which...". And like all languages, you learn what the NEW word/symbol/signifier means IN YOUR OWN LANGUAGE so that you can translate: attach meaning to the new squiggle on the page in terms you already know. What does "<" mean? What does "!" mean? How do we use the word "any" in mathematics and how is it different to the way we use it in the super market? Never mind overloaded terms such as "element" or "power". And then there's the discourse: how we talk mathematics. The way we rationalize our responses, structure logical arguments. A lovely example is Goldbach's conjecture (I had to look that one up because I always get it confused with Riemann's hypothesis. Oh well...). Goldbach's conjecture is still unsolved and is very easily stated. Something like this:

Every even integer greater than 2 can be expressed as the sum of two primes.

Simple huh? But every word is used in a mathematical way. The word "every". The word "expressed". The word "prime". Mastering such overloaded lexica AS WELL AS the style/register of mathematics is difficult enough in your own language, never mind a second language, and certainly not in a language that is--for all intensive purposes--foreign. 

So when our children are learning mathematics in English but they speak isiXhosa 90% of the time, well, making real meaning is very difficult. This combines with rote learning, teachers who are unconfident of their subject content knowledge and little linguistic resources to use to acquire English in order to acquire mathematics. The textbooks are in English. The exams are in English. And a kid who gets a question like "b) Hence, determine the roots of the new equation if p=0" ... well, you can guess what happens.

But I'm not happy with my conference submission for a couple of reasons:

In particular, the crappy word count doesn't give space to unpack and explore problematic terms such as "rural" or "poorly trained" teachers. When I describe the village as "homogenously isiXhosa speaking", well, it doesn't feel quite right: such a whopping big generalization is not au fait in academia. Grr... now I'll have to waste 5 of my 10 minutes of presentation time sounding defensive while I qualify what I meant when I wrote that near-midnight-rushed-submission. I promise the quality of the work is better than the submission! Promise!

Meantime, here's hoping I'll get to really chew the fat over some of the things troubling me about the research. Like validity issues around measuring and studying beliefs (ouch!).

One positive thing though. My work in my new school over the last 3 months has confirmed the major trajectory of the research. What teachers believe about their work is one of the core fundamental variables in determining what they are willing to try and how they are willing to change their practice. And effecting change in teacher practice is probably the single biggest thing we can do to improve our rather defunct education system. Connecting theory with practice! Here's hoping that comes through in the conference...