In February this year we held our sixth Senior Management Team (SMT) retreat. This retreat is an annual event in which experienced educators from the schools that we work with come together to share in and continue to build strong teacher networks. We were proud to have 23 representatives from 8 schools in the Siyahluma Sisonke Sakhingomso (SSS) Network. We continued to explore what it means for schools to have strong “Essential Supports” . Based on requests from schools the theme for the year was Supportive Environments: establishing productive rhythms and routines.
Thuli kick-starting the weekend with an energizer to get us moving and dancing
Creating teacher-driven supportive environments at our schools is no easy task. Some of the bigger issues include: communities living in deep poverty; dilapidated school infrastructure; long commutes for teachers and students; little professional support for teachers; limited exposure to English for the learners; disrupted and shortened school days and years; and little in the way of educational support from the home. It is impossible to separate schools from their social context, something which regularly results in significant pressure for teachers and principals. Our aim is to continue to build a community of practice that provides some tools and support to help lessen this pressure.
Axium co-founder Craig Paxton explained, “None of us are experts on your school, but what we hope to do is provide things to think about and discuss. This weekend is about you, the teachers, to leave equipped to go back to your schools with new energy and ideas. The real learning happens across schools and through continued conversations.”
Joanna Reynolds led an insightful session on Productive Routines. She challenged school leadership teams to think intentionally about defining their school culture through routines. She asked: “what is your vision for your school’s culture and what values do you want your school’s routines to act out?” The teachers chose some routines (assembly, register, meal times, transitioning to classes) that are important to their school rhythm and set in place a road map to improve these. The goal of this session was to think intentionally about the values school leaders want to prioritize and how this can contribute towards a supportive school environment.
Thuliswa Nodada focused on High Expectations: creating a school culture that cultivates students’ dreams. “You need to understand the language of the world your learners are going to, and be able to speak it”. Thuli challenged us all to reflect on what we believe about our learners, their dreams, and what our role is in helping them achieve. She also gave some practical tips and resources for tertiary applications, which were greatly appreciated.
In the session on Planning for Supportive Environments, we turned goals into action plans! Schools divided into their leadership teams and began drafting School Improvement Plans. Craig explained, “We don’t want things discussed here to stay here; we can plan and commit to each other but we also need to go back and make this happen”. Each SMT chose several focus areas to commit to and prioritize for 2019. Acknowledging the profound potential of teachers and school leaders as influencers of social change, Mpako principal, Ms Mzinyathi ended off the weekend with an encouraging take-away: “If we work together we can change the situation by producing learners who are the leaders of tomorrow.”
 Over the last few SMTs we have been exploring the 5 Essential Supports -the five pillars that make schools effective: Effective leaders, Involved families, Collaborative teaching, Supportive Environments and Ambitious teachers – see https://consortium.uchicago.edu/content/5essentials-school-reports
Our 2019 representatives from the SSS Network