This is heart work…

My reflections below are drawn from things I heard on Monday 13 November 2017. These are not necessarily my words. Most are the words of others. I have simply linked them together to challenge people like me…

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

On November 13th, 2017, I attended an event at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre for school leaders. Coordinated and facilitated by Roy Hellenberg and Dylan Wray, the Transformation Conversations for School Leaders event was a powerful and poignant call to action for South African schools; many of which remain zones of authoritarian control because of the historical power structures that are deeply embedded in their whitewashed walls.

In a tea break, half way through the morning, I shared with some of my fellow delegates the sense I had that the stories we were privy to that morning could not leave one unmoved. Hearts would need to be granite-like to ignore the pressing call to abandon the comfort of colonial hegemony. However, the delegate demographic was telling. Mostly white; Mostly male — a stark reality that was echoed by Sizwe, who reflected on the truth of so many prominent schools in this country: these are places where the “white, heterosexual, male narrative” is crowned king. Sadly, I walked away with the distinct feeling that some (not all) people were there to simply tick a theoretical box.

Ticking theoretical boxes, however, does not cultivate a sense of belonging.

Educators in these schools have so much work to do. My new friends, Athambile and Mbongeni call this “heart work.” It’s heart work because that’s exactly where it starts. A shift cannot be imposed; it has to be lived. But, unless we’re willing to do this work, our recognition of privilege and power means nothing. Recognising these things is simply not enough. We have to do something. We have to start dismantling.

The voices I heard on Monday affirmed my resolve to speak out; to stand up; to choose courage over comfort; to challenge convention; to remember the real history of our people; to write a new narrative; to challenge my own unconscious bias and to do things every day to make my school, and other schools, places of belonging.

Students of colour feel that they have to “play the game” in order to fit in to a “dominant culture [of] whiteness and privilege.” The walls of our schools, “painted white”, are “symbolic of a whitewashed culture” — one that many of us continue to perpetuate. We create spaces that look beautiful on the outside but are — in fact — hostile to many. When our students feel like “visitors in a space” that was not “created for them” (but where they “should belong”), and feel like “foreigners in their own homes” because they have to “posture to fit in”, things need to change. You see, being a minority has nothing to do with numbers; but has everything to do with systematic and historical power; and, in many schools, the leviathans are school leaders like me.

We see anger in the eyes of young people. But that anger is — in fact — a deep sense of betrayal. The betrayal is found in the bartering of one identity for another: many kids have traded their distinctiveness for social status. That trade-off is our fault. We have created the spaces where identities have become commodities. And, we have allowed these transactions to continue.

Our past has created this monster but we still tend to celebrate the stories that make us look good, rather than reveal the truth that some of the best schools in the country are what they are because they are beneficiaries of an unjust past. When we don’t own our histories (many of which are rooted in colonial Christianity), we “deny the pain of the past.” We need to acknowledge this pain, and address it. We have to reevaluate everything: “our learning spaces, the languages we speak, our staffing policies, our ceremonies and celebrations, the sports we play, the names we give things and the narratives we espouse.” The truth is, “a long, unapologetic history” has created the challenges we face and there are “shadows” in the archives of many schools that need to see the light. The truth needs to be told.

As white teachers, we have to acknowledge our implicit bias. A friend of mine tweeted, ‘It’s not the explicit racist in the room who is most dangerous to schools — it’s the unconscious thoughts and actions of the majority who believe they are “colour blind”.’ In many schools, “racist issues — especially subtler, bias-based transgressions — are often not dealt with in the moment.” Instead, these are covered up by the “it’s his opinion” narrative (as if opinions were a get-out-of-jail-free card). “It’s the subtleties” that teachers like you and me “don’t address, that perpetuate privilege and whiteness.” We simply have to choose courage over comfort, and confront and unpack bias in the moment. And, leaders in schools need to do this important work first; we need to lead the way.

As a result, and for far too long, many schools have not sought difference. The challenge is for schools — when hiring new teachers — not always to “go for the smooth fit.” Prominent schools are largely insular spaces where the dominant culture is “in front”, but doesn’t see itself as such. Students of colour want (and need) teachers “who are like them.” Moreover, our systems have access to information and intellectual capital that can be used to champion black teachers. We simply have to ‘deinsularise’ our schools. Also, the notion of experience is overplayed, and we have to recognise this for the excuse that it is. Roy Hellenberg asserts that “experience is overrated. These days, things change so quickly, that 15 years of experience means very little. What’s more important is agility in challenging circumstances — the ability to respond to change from a core set of values that don’t change.”

School culture is vitally important — “vision and compassion” must co-exist. Leading historically advantaged schools into a new era is not an easy task. ‘Necessary’ is rarely a simple task, but it is exactly what it says it is — necessary. Institutions must be led into the future by brave people who have a clear plan. Schools, and in particular, school leaders, must paint a clear, uncompromising vision for their future. Schools’ “executive bodies must explicitly communicate that they mean to transform”, and they must follow this up with action. People simply have to “invest in change.” Now is the time!

Lastly, because historical power structures remain entrenched in many South African schools, we have to start “civil discourse in classrooms.” This “is key to starting this change.” And, we have to learn to listen because generative “listening makes one shift.” Truth is, “the only thing worse than having difficult discussions around race, gender, inequality, and belonging in schools is NOT having these discussions.”

Fellow teachers, will you be brave? Will you join me? Let’s do the heart work that will lead to a better future, because “the most aware people we need in the world are teachers.”