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Updated: Jul 14, 2021

When the Siyahluma Sisonke Sakhingomso (SSS) Network was first established in 2012, schools were guided by input from the Manyano Network of Community Schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay area. An existing model for collaborative school improvement, Manyano worked by the slogan: “Change…starts here…with us…with what we have…and then with others…”

Though SSS has progressed along their own path since then, teachers at the 2018 annual SMT Retreat in May showed that this empowering motto remains relevant. Over two days, they formulated independent and actionable strategies for dealing with challenges faced in their schools. Last year’s retreat focussed on building effective leadership while this year moved towards involving families and communities and developing more supportive environments. This has been based on uChicago Consortium’s “5 Essential Supports” framework for school improvement, adapted for the rural South African context.

“We know a lot of schools have a really hard time keeping school looking the same everyday,” Axium co-director Craig Paxton said going into the weekend. “Fine, so where do we go from here and how do we get to the next level? We’re not going to be the perfect school yet, but we can do some things, other schools have tried them.”

In line with this, SMT leaders recognised both strengths and weaknesses in their first plenary discussions. Among challenges they listed attendance, language barriers, and substance abuse, while their noted opportunities included eager learners and committed teachers.

When thinking about supportive environments that can build on opportunities in this context, one of the main themes that came up is order and control to sustain a steady learning space. Timetables, attendance and accountability are key issues to overcome disruptions.

During the SMT Retreat, schools came up with a few strategies to try help sustain order and control in their own schools:

  • Teachers must prepare well before class to follow the timetable.

  • Use a register for each period to monitor the syllabus topic being covered in that lesson, but also track arrival and departure times of learners and teachers plus the number of learners present.

  • Use morning devotions and assemblies or morning briefings as a monitoring tool for punctuality.

  • Improve accountability by sitting with teachers to plan how any time lost can be made up after school or on Saturdays.

  • Make use of policies and systems, a good example being registers.

  • Supervise lessons. SMTs noted, however, that there are often monitoring plans in place, but that these prove difficult to follow.

  • Share leadership to use the strengths of people in your team. Ensure people have clear roles, including at the grade and phase level.

  • Create a Disciplinary Committee that has a relationship with the police.

Mr Hlanganyana Mthuthuzeli of Dudumayo emphasised the importance of reporting and transparency to try action these strategies after the retreat. “The advice and skills that we got here, we take and go exercise in our schools in order to empower ourselves. We need to ensure there’s more action,” he said.

Mr Bayanda Mziba of Tyelinzima spoke through the process his school follows after one of these retreats, explaining that the SMT will first discuss what they feel is best for their school and consider how ready they are for implementation. Ideas are then taken to teachers, acknowledging that introducing new approaches on top of an already intense workload is sometimes challenging.

The second set of strategies SMTs will take back to their teachers concerned involving families and communities more meaningfully. Ideas, some of which have been tried successfully by schools already, included to:

  • Draw in important local figures such as traditional authorities, ward councillors, and the police.

  • Have teachers attend the ward councillor and chief’s meetings to bring the school’s agenda forward in that space.

  • Attend community events such as weddings and funerals to build relationships.

  • Share the school’s benefits equally, particularly when it comes to employment opportunities.

  • Call parents to grade meetings, especially for the Grade 12s.

  • Go the extra mile to ensure attendance: phone and write to parents.

  • If necessary, send children to fetch their parents if they do not arrive for meetings.

  • Do home visits, especially when learners drop out. Go talk to the family to try find a solution.

  • Maintain transparency so families and communities know what goes on at the school.

  • Have refreshments and limit the duration of meetings to encourage attendance and respect parent’s time.

  • Create a culture of “high expectations” where parents understand that participation is expected of them when they enrol their child and realise their will be consequences if this is not followed.

  • Show appreciation when parents or community members contribute.

For Axium, foregrounding local solutions is key to these strategies. “What I like about this is it’s not us coming and telling them what should happen, it’s using teacher voices who have told us what happens in their schools,” Craig said.

It is now for schools to implement what they are able to. “The best approach is to put it to teachers and let them discuss the ideas, but don’t impose,” Mr Mziba said, encouraging a democratic process that lets teachers adapt ideas to suit their environment and capacities.

He explained that an idea may not be accepted in its entirety, but said it is important for SMTs to understand why teachers might reject certain things. In his view, there is never a one-size-fits-all solution given how different schools can be. “The teachers know best,” he said.

District Officials for the Department of Basic Education – who attended our retreat for the first time this year – said their role is to support and monitor implementation. “Ours is to take this up after the programme to ensure that what is learnt is sustained,” Circuit Manager Mr Ayanda Matiso commented.

It was not all seriousness at the Retreat, though. One great moment was when Axium’s Thuliswa Nodada got the whole room up, signing and dancing to ice-breaker “Bananas of the World, Unite!” – a very appropriate start to a weekend that highlighted the strength of solidarity and sharing.

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