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.