The Library of Alexandria in 48BC, The Ahmed Baba Institute of Timbuktu in 2013 and now the Special Collections housed in the Jagger Reading Room at UCT – all that knowledge and heritage destroyed by fire!
Whether such collections are lost through the power of nature, arson or a Kristallnacht type of book burning, the loss of scholarship is tragic. I went down a Google rabbit hole when looking up dates of the these fires and was horrified to realize just how many such fires have destroyed archives of learning over the centuries around the world, most maliciously done.
This photograph of people standing helplessly by as the Jagger Building burned is etched in my mind – It sums up the impotence so many Ikeys felt as part of our alma mater was ripped away by Nature and we were forced to watch it on Instagram or YouTube.
It seems as though some of the collection at UCT may have been protected by fireproof roller doors which were activated timeously but countless pieces were lost, and the Reading Room is gone. Herbert Baker’s grand pillars seem to have survived though – read into that what you will!
My mother was a librarian. For her, books and the worlds embodied in them were sacrosanct: God help one of us who was caught writing in a book – If it was in pen, not even God would help you – such an act of sheer blasphemy was likely to damn us to hell (but not always heeded by herself as I was to discover recently on opening her copy of the Combined Works of Shakespeare. However, we’ll forgive her brief hypocrisy because it was a treat to see her writing again after 26 years without her in my life.)
She is the one who taught me to read when I was five and the magic of stories, with their worlds of excitement. I remember asking her if she regretted never having been able to travel the world, and she replied that she had been to all the ends of the earth and under it, in her precious books.
She was offered the position of setting up the first library at the new Koeberg Nuclear Plant in the seventies and was really excited at the prospect of being the guardian of research and scholarship there. However, she turned them down in the end. It was only as a parent myself, that I realized the incredible sacrifice she made for my sister and I in accepting a lowly clerical job in a bank (but which paid more) so we could attend the school of her choice, a prestigious girls’ school in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town, closer to where we lived. She would have beggared herself in order to ensure we achieved the private school education she had never had.
It was the same when the time came for me to go to university. If I had not been fortunate to be offered a bursary to study at the University of Cape Town, she would have made a plan – she told me she had already contacted the bank manager about it, when my funding came through.
So, for me to see the Jagger building and its African Studies collections so easily obliterated, I can imagine Sylvia Markey groaning in despair and my own soul echoes her moans.
I remember my time in the eighties there: the burgeoning political awareness I experienced immersed in studying isiXhosa and Sesotho; realizing my own privilege and the power entrusted in me to make a difference in our nation; of standing alongside my friend, Xoliswa on Jammy steps as she declared, ‘Look! Bonteheuwel is burning’; of teargas and riot police swaggering along the freeway; of Xoliswa’s rich alto over the megaphone, as she stood outside the Jagger Library as it was known then, singing the haunting struggle songs. ‘We shall Overcome.’
And we did…
… until perhaps we didn’t.
If this fire has jolted anything from my middle-aged heart, it’s a need to do a Mister Chips (I know that’s really dating myself, but I like to think I am in the ‘noontime, not the evening of myself) type of reflection of how I’m doing on changing the world. As I grieve the loss of the writing treasures in Jagger, and the library there that nourished me, as well as the lecturers like Sam Mbiza across the road who educated me and inspired in me a love of the beauty of isiXhosa, and a respect for its cadences, I must ask myself whether I have done enough to promote the study of African literature across my teaching career, which ended up being mainly sharing my own mother tongue with others. Have I filled the world with love – of reading; have I filled the world with hope through education?
It is my hope that another such reckoning closer to the end of my life (a long time away of course, because I still plan to live long enough to be a problem to my own children) will allow me to rejoice in the scholarly works of those whose studies in African Languages started in schools where I have introduced the language to study; that someone I have taught will translate nuclear physics textbooks into isiXhosa; that someone I have taught will win a Nobel prize for literature, and that someone I have inspired is the guardian of the African Studies books at UCT… or the library at Koeberg. I must try harder.
Humans find it impossible to avoid close contact and touching. We are just not wired to stay far apart from each other. As much as I wished, in pre-lockdown days, that I could insist that shoppers behind me in the line would stand behind floor decals 2 metres away from me, or imagined ramming my trolley back onto the toes of halitotic queue creepers, such violent fantasies are no longer necessary. And we are struggling without the contact now.
The Maestro and I enjoyed a breakfast at Mugg &Bean this morning and while he enjoyed tasteless and tediously titivating TikTok after his sausages and eggs, I people-watched:
Besides the responsible types who remain masked and greeted their friends from across the wasteland of a coffee shop table (amazing how clean the tables are mind you – sprayed and wiped between each sitting) with an elbow bump, the majority of patrons meeting family and acquaintances, could not resist a hug of greeting. I witnessed hand-patting, arm-stroking and kissing. Shocking.
So much for social distancing.
But it’s not their fault. We humans need touch. According to Professor Robin Dunbar who is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, primates are reliant on the endorphins and oxtytocins (the good hormones, not the street drugs) that are released when we touch each other. It’s part of being ‘social.’ That’s why, when you add ‘distant,’ it seems so impossible for us to maintain.
It’s one of the things so hard to control at school, or any workplace. It’s why it is so concerning that the nation’s children were sent ‘home’ from school to avoid contracting the virus; yet have been roaming the malls and streets, in packs, unprotected by masks and hanging onto each other. Expect a spike in the stats when they return to school and infect each other and their teachers some more.And it must be really hard for those who live alone or are confined to care homes during the pandemic.
“The effects of touch are physiological, bioelectrical and biochemical,” agrees Tiffany Field, founder of the Touch Research Institute at Miami Medical School. “Moving the skin (as, for example, in hugging, massaging and exercise) stimulates pressure receptors which are transmitted to the vagus nerve, the largest cranial nerve that has many branches in the body. Increased vagal activity calms the nervous system (e.g. slows heart rate and leads to EEG patterns that accompany relaxation). It also reduces cortisol – the culprit stress hormone – that then saves natural killer cells that kill viral, bacterial and cancer cells.”
Helen Coffey, quoted in The Independent
So, tactile stimulation heals us; losing it can reduce our ability to fight disease.
Except with COVID-19.
Prof Dunbar reckons we’ll be ok in the long run, but in the meantime, many of us are struggling to stay connected… laughter is apparently good for producing the happy hormones as does visual stimulus, so keep those video calls going with family members in old age homes or those who live alone.
Perhaps there is method in my husband’s weird social media tastes after all.
Several people I know have lost loved ones during the Age of Corona to both the virus and other causes. Our particular lockdown levels have strict limits on mourning though: funerals are limited to fifty persons, wakes and night vigils are prohibited even under Level 3. You can’t hug the bereaved or cross provincial borders unless you are close family. I have not attended funerals of a few people I might otherwise have gone to to pay my respects.
It is bad enough to face the sudden or even expected death of someone you have loved, but not to be able to celebrate their lives and be comforted is especially hard.
Two deaths of famous people this week brought home to me how difficult it must be to grieve in the middle of a pandemic, as well as how sad it is that the lives of two people who spent their whole lives dedicated to our country should not be commemorated with appropriate ceremony at their passing.
Both Zindziswa Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni have passed away this month and I am moved by the fact that both have lost out on the kind of farewell that would be fitting – because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote about them in this week’s school newsletter:
I have often wondered about the childhood Zindzi endured as her parents sacrificed so much for the freedom of the nation. Yet she proved her mettle time and time again, missing out on her schooling in the struggle, advocating for her mother to the United Nations (when she was just 12!) and boldly defying PW Botha on her father’s behalf.
Mr Mlangeni stood at Madiba’s side at the Rivonia trial and suffered with him on Robben Island for over twenty years. Our flags at school are flying at half-mast until Wednesday to honour his quiet strength and life of sacrifice for us all. But it doesn’t seem enough.
Our children can learn so much from his wisdom:
“One of the biggest prisons we were afraid of being locked up in though, was the jail of ignorance.”
Andrew Mlangeni, ‘The Backroom Boy: Andrew Mlangeni’s Story’
What power there is in learning from the great people who gave up so much for freedom. To our learners I say, respect the education that comes so easily to you now. Those who made it possible studied sporadically, far from home and, in many cases, in prison.
How small these deaths (and their lives) make me feel about moaning about corona-stress; and how sad I am that neither of these two leaders who fought for us with such courage and wisdom can be publicly celebrated as they deserve because of the enemy-virus.
But I take from their lives the knowledge that a life relinquishing selfish goals and focused on the greater good will make a difference; will have an impact and will change the world.
“We need to live in a world that is ego-free and humble ourselves to talent, wisdom, and courage, when it reveals itself.”
Mourners have only the comfort that Cicero referred to when he said that the life of a person is implanted in the memory of those left behind, and the knowledge that their passing changes us and becomes part of us too.
10 Points to Consider when Reference Checking in Schools
Most schools have a process for selecting staff that includes checking references for very good reasons: interviews are false situations in which sometimes people present themselves as way better than they are (especially if they are very confident); or they can tank the whole thing because they are too anxious, no matter how much the interviewer puts them at ease. Sometime people hide things, or avoid certain topics.
I have been interviewing staff for almost 20 years and have made both good and poor decisions afterwards, however I have been saved from one or two disasters, as well as made sure we did not miss out on good ones.
Here’s what I have learned:
1. Always do a reference check.
Besides being good business practice, it’s just sensible. No matter how certain you are about a candidate. Check the person out. You’re not psychic, so you can’t know everything there is to know about a candidate. (And even if you do own a crystal ball and beaded curtains, no ways are you omnisciently foresighted.)
It seems like a no-brainer that someone seeking to employ a teacher would do this, but I have realized that some people couldn’t be bothered or perhaps are so rushed that because they perhaps know the previous institution or trust the former school’s head.
In at least three instances, I know heads who have employed former staff of mine, all of whom, caused us to breathe a sigh of relief when they left; yet none of my colleagues called me to check on the teachers’ time with us. I would have told the headmasters not to touch them with the proverbial barge pole. In all instances, they didn’t last long, but I could have saved my colleagues some pain and suffering (and money).
2. Do the reference check after the interview
I don’t like to prejudge the interview and prefer to check information and queries I have after meeting the prospective employee. A reference check is a confirmation of what you have decided after the interview, not a shortlisting technique.
3. Ask difficult questions
Remember to follow your instincts about certain areas in the interview that perhaps you weren’t so sure about. I have a reference form which has standard questions on it, but there is a section for the ones I want to check with a referee. If my probing in an interview still leaves me with question marks, I make a note and ask the questions outright of those offering a testimonial.
4. If you can’t reach a referee, contact the previous school
You’ll be surprised at what you learn. Sometimes all they can do is confirm that a teacher worked there (and the fact that they only have minimal info on the educator also tells you something); sometimes you learn a whole lot more, that a personal referee perhaps won’t tell you, especially if you suspect a disciplinary issue that might have existed. Listen for what they are NOT saying.
Be leery of staff who haven’t informed their current employer they are looking – this is not a deal breaker though.
5. Watch out for Euphemisms and Hesitations
That pregnant pause when you ask about how the educator relates to her charges or whether there have been disciplinary instances can tell you more than words. You have to be a voice sleuth. Listen for the nuances and delays – they are telling.
6. Always do a criminal check
The group of schools mine belongs to has a tight background checking procedure for this reason. We check a person’s references and we do a criminal check that involves a computer search, a police clearance and sexual offenders register check.
My team once interviewed a person called Michael Engelhart (not his real name of course, and not quite the one he gave us.)
His criminal check came back with convictions to do with the Suppression of Witchcraft Act. It made sense when I realized how many questions he’d asked about the Christian ethos of the school I was at. And then I looked at his name – which was an alias…look again…) Clearly a nutter!
7. Check their Social Media Sites
Look at groups they belong to and read their personal posts. People reveal so much more on Facebook and Twitter than whether they are a cat person or football fan. Look at the jokes they post; their friends pages and the groups they belong to. Even young people are careless about privacy. And if you are doubtful, Instagram is worth a thousand words.
8. Sometimes get a second opinion
Once a superb teacher who impressed us no end in the interview received a damning reference from a headmaster who described her as a troublemaker, which seemed just a bit overdone. We did a second reference and took a chance on her. And she was a remarkable educator.
People lie – even heads of schools can be venal.
9. Be suspicious of Applicants who list a colleague, not the head of the institution, as a referee
Almost every poor appointment I have made has been based on the affirmation of a peer, not the boss. Go to the top.
10. Trust your gut
Ultimately all interviews are a bit of a crap shoot. As much as you must do your homework, eventually you have to trust your gut and make a decision.
My school has just had a week’s holiday (well 9 days with the two weekends), when normally we would have had three weeks.
I joke about every holiday being one week too short, no matter the length of the vacation and I stand by that, but the truth is I divide every break into 3 parts: for the first third, I sleep – all day and night if necessary, but essentially if my body tells me ‘nap,’ I head for my cosy bed and nod off happily. In the middle week or section of the holiday, I sleep and do all those jobs you put off for your leave, like having a haircut, visiting the traffic department, taking the next child to get an ID or apply for a driver’s licence or university. In the final part, I aim to do only self-indulgent fun things, like motoring in the country with The Maestro, clothes shopping, special time with my children, reading…and sleeping of course.
This mid-year break I have had to divide the time into three days for each of my holiday divisions: so, I have had 3 days for each. I’m into the final third tomorrow and still feel I need to be sleeping 24-7.
But I can just tuck into some cheese with this whine, because at least I have had a break. The teachers I really feel for are those in the public sector who are not getting a holiday at all, not to mention their students.
You see, they haven’t had a holiday since December. Do not believe officials who say that they were off during lockdown. They were not. They may not have been able to reach all their learners digitally, but they supplied them with work before and during lockdown, many hand-delivering tasks and textbooks to their children’s homes. And in many schools, they did just keep on teaching.
Teachers are going to burn out.
How are they going to reboot, and ‘sharpen their swords,’ as Stephen Covey speaks about, when they are exhausted; they need to rest. Every teacher grinds her teeth when the ignorant masses who believe that they know how to be teachers because they once went to school, say that teachers have half-day jobs and too much holiday time. (One deputy I knew once said that’s a bit like someone who drives a Mercedes thinking they have shares in Daimler-Chrysler, but we won’t go there.) Teachers don’t have half-day jobs and fyi most work through their vacations, both marking and prepping ordinarily. Generally they have worked the hours of a holiday before they get there.)
In April, educators were frantically reinventing themselves as IT gurus and restructuring their teaching programmes. State school teachers are not getting any holiday now. And they, and all independent school teachers, will be working right through to December with a couple of long weekends to break it up. We need to find ways to look after their health, both mental and physical.
In the Department of Basic Education’s commitment to completing the school year, I don’t know that they have considered the teachers (who are dying at their desks btw – just look at the country’s COVID statistics: as at 30 June 2020, 775 state schools across the nation are affected by the virus, and 1169 teachers have been infected – more than twice the number of children who have contracted the disease – 523; but in the Western Cape in the last week we have laid to rest 2 teachers, as has Gauteng; in the Eastern Cape the count is 18 – that is eighteen – who have died. And that is only 3/9 of the provinces.)
We are concerned about the frontline health workers who are at risk from this virus, and rightly so, but teachers are at risk of becoming the latest, silent group of victims. Many educators suffer from so much stress simply from being in the classroom, let alone all the other attendant pressures like socio-economic crises in their communities. How many are walking around with undiagnosed, stress-related co-morbidities like hypertension, putting them at greater risk, without them even being aware of it?
And tired teachers get sick. Our educators catch every virus around in an ordinary year, especially in winter. This year they are bone weary. With no real holiday in April, nothing in June, and no break of any significance before 15 December, the government is stretching one of its greatest human resources to breaking point.
Even in the independent school sector, where I work, where many schools have at least had a small break, we have identified this as a problem for us. I think we need to think about it more, before we either break our teachers, lose them to other professions or attend their funerals.
This is the biggest challenge facing schools in the next 6 months. How we address it will determine how we keep our teachers (alive).
My job in the next months is going to be focussed on my staff.
The Maestro and I had a delightful over-fifties (his comment) stroll along the beachfront today. (Well, he ambled, while I jogged to keep up – it sucks to be short.)
What we noticed on our route march was how many good citizens of Bloubergstrand are not wearing masks in public at all. (And I’m not talking about just pulling it down to defog your Armani Sunglasses, or when you are dying of heat behind it, when no one is close) It’s a bit scary especially with the wave of new infections washing over our country. Beds are filling up around the country’s field hospitals and ministers are whispering about reversing lockdown levels. Yet ordinary Joe Soaps are tired of it all, perhaps because the invisible virus doesn’t seem realistic to most folks, or we’re just bored of the regimentation caused by COVID regulations.
Yet anyone who has been to a doctor’s room recently will have noticed how different everything is. My son, Michael, suffers from regular, intense migraines and last week had to be rushed to the emergency room at our local hospital. He arrived while the migraine aura was just starting, normally plenty of time to get heavy painkillers and sleep it off. This time though, in the middle of a work day, the queue to be triaged was out the door. So, poor Michael, while not dying, certainly suffered a great deal standing outside in the sun, and reached the vomit stage of his attack before being allowed in, fortunately making it to the loo and not the flowerbed.
The problem is not just corona cases, it’s the protocols requiring complete decontamination of every emergency room cubicle before the next patient can be taken. But what Michael said afterwards, resonated with me: He said he didn’t mind having to wait, even though it was horrible for him) because at least two people bypassing the queue were a small child who couldn’t breathe and a cyanotic, old man … (or 2 COVID-19 patients?) neither of whom could have their family in with them, because of the new rules…and the nature of the disease.
The World Health Organisation says this pandemic is still in its infancy. Yesterday marked 6 months since the WHO was first alerted to a cluster of COVID-19 cases in China and now, with over 10 million cases worldwide and 500 000 deaths, they are saying it is far from over.
I’m just not sure that the good people of the Blouberg quite get it. It’s insulting that people don’t wear their masks to protect other individuals. My mask protects you; your mask protects me. So will you please flippin’ protect me!
My sister says that people are crazy to go to restaurants during this time – I didn’t dare tell her that we visited our home-away-from-home, News Café after our beachfront dash. But they are being conscientious about hygiene that’s for sure: Patrons are screened, tables are sterilized and marked as such, and staff are masked and gloved. Eateries the world over are trying creative ways of controlling social distancing like this Parisian restaurant which is using giant teddy bears to occupy banned seats:
This German establishment also decided to have some fun to remind people to keep apart:
A Dutch diner is using robots to do screening checks and serve customers:
This restaurant, also in the Netherlands designed little cabanas for each table:
And clever masks are also being designed: Gotta love this one which allows you to open it when you want to eat:
It seems that restaurants are really trying to protect patrons as they begin their post-lockdown life.
The question is: what are Jo and Jozi Public doing to protect themselves?
According to health officials, this virus is quite a wuss when it comes to Jik and sanitizers. And masks work. But the WHO reminds us that the pandemic is speeding up. It is not even close to being over, so we need to get over our boredom with the rules, suck it up and think about each other. Because next time it could be one of us in the queue at the hospital.
In our home, we have had four generations under one roof: a Baby Boomer, a Gen Xer, Generation Ys (millennials) and three Generation Zs. One reckless Gen Z kamikaze-child (who shall remain anonymous, but is my 20 year-old daughter, named Shannon who lives at…) with uncharacteristically scant concern for her immediate environment, dared to say to me tonight how ‘awful’ it must be to be a boomer nowadays because ‘you have to scroll so far down when you are looking for your birth year on electronic forms.’
Sadly, she is not wrong. And that’s not all. Last night I played one of those stupid Facebook games in which you had to put in your birth year and see what was hot on the charts back then. So, I tested the fun on my own wall by putting in my birth year (1964). But damn, it made me feel old. There were all my FB friends with their disco songs appearing on their posts. Not me…
I got The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night – in black and white. Not even a grainy, colour album! I have never even been a Beatles fan.
It made me feel old and I guess I’ve been feeling that unconsciously for a while lately. Just this week I went down a FB wormhole about what to wear, what make up to use and what hairstyles to choose to make a woman look younger. What a waste of 30 minutes of my ever-shortening life!
But today I went off to the lovely Aruna and had my hair trimmed… actually, I asked her to lob off about 15 centimetres of fading lockdown golden locks. And I love it!
I do actually look younger, but my new coiffure hasn’t magicked away the post-lockdown belly blubber or smoothed away the mid-fifties wrinkles, more’s the pity.
Truth is, my mom passed away at 56 and I have 3 short months to reach that ceiling before I have to enter unknown territory. It’s a scary thing; hence my over-focus on age.
Growing older does have its benefits though because now that I am …. um of mature years… I have the confidence to be more myself even though I realize that I only have a few more years in the workplace before I get put out to pasture. (Mind you, if my children had it their way, they’d have taken my car away and relegated me to the cottage in the garden already). But I have reached the age that I finally like myself, warts (or should I say liver spots) and all. And actually believe I have something to offer the universe.
I wish I had had this self-belief 20 years ago, but life had kind of beaten me down into self-doubt at one stage. I used to be terrified of public speaking for example, and having all the eyes in a room on me. There have been moments when I have entered a room of my peers and heard that song from Prince of Egypt thumping in my head, ‘You’re playing with the big boys now…’ But I like to think I’ve held my own. I even once forced myself to speak at an International Conference I was invited to present at (on educational technology nogal!).
Whatever I may have done in my own life though, I have realised is the truth of that old saying, that it is your children who are your life’s work. I can certainly say that my best achievements have been my children. It is exhilarating to see how they are changing the world in their own unique fashion: in film, in commerce, in football, in art and in full-on passion.
‘Sometimes, your greatest contribution to the universe may not be something you do, but someone you raise’
So, you know the longer your Memory Lane, the richer it is with moments of growth and triumph. I may have been born in the year the Beatles sang about working your guts out and coming home to the joy of loved ones (I was born on a Saturday and ‘Saturday’s child works hard for a living,’ the old rhyme said too, so what chance did I have in life?), but the joy IS in the coming home. It’s in the laughter at the dinner table; the sparkle in his eye; the feelings of pride that bubble up in my chest so often when I watch my children (and I include my schoolchildren in this); and the knowledge that there is still some life left in this old ‘dog’ of which the Fab Four spake.
I have been thinking a great deal about my mother lately. I suppose because I shall soon bypass her in age. I hope she would have been proud of me. She’d not be impressed by my liberal use of Anglo Saxon words, of course, nor my still too-loud voice, but I like to think she’d love the way her grandchildren have turned out – not too many obvious tics on display, and young people with compassion and commitment.
I used to feel horribly jealous when I saw women with their mothers out and about and still wish I could have had that for longer with my beloved mother. I wish we could still discuss literature and howl with laughter until our stomachs ache. She had an amazing laugh which belied her serene facade. She was a gifted writer, who put my sister and me before everything else. She showed her love by feeding people and had an inner goodness that I permanently aspire to.
I could live to twice her age and never be the woman she was.
She used to joke that only the good die young. And then she did.
She did say I’d get my comeuppance one day, so no doubt she fell off her cloud laughing when Shannon commented on my age tonight, especially because I am almost hers!
But if only the good die young, I have many years left to live – long enough to watch Shannon get her just deserts when her daughter laughs at her. (I’m not vindictive or anything…) My mother may have been a member of the Silent Generation, but her legacy of fun lives on. Just much louder.
… and my new haircut makes me look younger. So this is 56th-anniversary-restoration-album time…
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you do Will make me feel alright
You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things And it’s worth it just to hear you say you’re going to give me everything So why on earth should I moan, ’cause when I get you alone You know I feel ok
When I’m home everything seems to be right When I’m home feeling you holding me tight, tight, yeah
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log But when I get home to you I’ll find the things that you do Will make me feel alright, oww
B-L-A-S-T: 5 Steps to building instead of breaking relationships
A colleague’s young daughter once told her mother that the principal just sits in her office waiting for trouble. It can feel like that sometimes (except we don’t have to wait…)
In a customer-centric world, it’s hard to negotiate the displeasure of those we intend to serve, especially when they may even be mistaken, wrong, or downright unfair in their complaints.
Albert Barneto is an entrepreneur who started in the restaurant business and makes his money now ‘Creating online tools for entrepreneurs and small business owners to reach, grow, and cultivate their customer base,’ according to his bio. In English, that means he knows how to work with clients and serve them well. We can certainly learn from him in the education space, which more and more needs to become more ‘customer’ focussed.
His manner of addressing customer complaints in the business world (using the acronym BLAST) is effective in dealing with both parent complaints, staff grievances and learner conflicts in schools.
BLAST stands for:
B – elieve
L – isten
A – pologise
S – atisfy
T – hank
When that parent storms into your office, or a staff member cracks up in front of you, or a student brings a complaint to you, it’s never a convenient time and often you don’t necessarily have reason to entertain the matter they raise with you because you may consider it somehow lacking in legitimacy.
And yet, the first thing you must do is believe them. Someone who is angry enough to raise a concern believes there is cause enough, whether they are flat out wrong, or not, and has a right to be there. Other conflict management processes use the LAST concept, but most exclude the ‘B’ which is sad, because it excludes the reason behind why one would do the rest.
People speak about attributes like empathy as ‘soft skills,’ but ensuring you believe the complainant actually leads to the rest. You see if you have enough appreciation for how the other feels, then half the job is done, because they will know you understand them. Believe the emotions: believe the anger; and attempt to see what lies beneath it and then you will see the matter from their point of view. That’s a strength – no ‘soft’ involved
Back in the day, in an old episode of Suits (before Meghan Markle dropped them for her real prince) Donna, the actual star of that show (because she is redhead-fabulous), tells the IT guy that the ‘key to having empathy is making people feel supported in their feelings, not just trying to solve their problems.’ ‘Platitudes,’ she said, just won’t do. Believing someone involves really seeing them.
And you can’t know and understand them, unless you have truly listened to their story. Often, I know what’s coming in a complaint because someone else may have alerted me already to the problem, but it’s important to hear it from the person who is actually affected. The temptation to form a conclusion before they have aired their views must be overcome if I am to truly listen.
I worked once for a headmaster who took the side of the first person who approached him with a problem, and that became his viewpoint. You can imagine how that lead balloon went down with people with genuine grievances.
Part of listening is waiting out the venting, (sometimes) swearing, and even personal attacks, and not defending or justifying whatever the school is accused of doing/not doing. At this point in the conversation, it is not a good idea to share your own problems, or make excuses. ‘What can I do for you?’ is the only approach to take.
Don’t ever rush such a meeting. In order to get to the heart of the problem (and yes, there is a problem if someone is upset) you have to take time to hear them out. I usually warn parents that I am taking notes so that I can fully understand them; otherwise I face them, make eye contact and generally make sure my body language is not conveying that I am closed to their concerns (no crossed arms). Ask questions (not loaded ones) for clarification; otherwise just let them speak.
One way of really listening is to re-state what you are hearing until the person acknowledges the statement with a ‘yes.’ (after you have listened without interrupting of course.) Sometimes that is all it takes. Sometimes a person just wants you to acknowledge what they are feeling. And you can’t know what that is unless you suspend disbelief in ‘your side’ of whatever is at issue.
And sometimes when you repeat their opinions to them, you’ll find you got it wrong, because perhaps you haven’t properly heard them. Don’t stop until they agree that you understand. That ‘yes’ is a magic point in the conflict – it is a signal they know have been heard.
I have a saying with my staff that ‘sometimes only grovel will do.’ Because sometimes things do go wrong, and people are human. We mess up. Lawyers will caution against apologising in certain circumstances, because that can be an admission of liability, but I must say that a sincere apology goes a long way compared to a refusal to take ownership of the issue. Sometimes an apology is simply an acknowledgement that we didn’t know.
Apologising is another way in which we acknowledge the reality of the other’s experience, even when (and especially when) they may have the facts wrong. I do not want anyone walking away from my school feeling let down.
There are times when that is not enough for some complainants, but at the very least, they can never say that ‘the school did not even apologise.’
I think it is important that we apologise to students when we let them down too. To me, modelling regret teaches young people that they are worthy as human beings to be treated well, and should also encourage them to practise penitence in their own lives. I have made a point of apologising to my own children when I have been in the wrong, especially when I have lost my %^$# with them (and there have been some choice moments with my beloved offspring, some even justified).
Some outdated thinking has apologising as a particularly loathsome form of losing face. I disagree. An apology restores dignity to the other, of course, but it does not reduce yours at all, not if you are a person who is genuinely humble.
If you have established enough of a rapport with your parents, staff or learners via the first few steps above, the next step, while possibly most difficult, should at least be easy to identify.
‘How would you like to see this resolved?’ or ‘What can we do to fix this?’ are good questions to ask of the disappointed party in front of you. If you have carefully addressed the emotions of the person, they should not be demanding unreasonable public-hanging sort of solutions, and you should be able to generate a way forward together.
If they do insist on something that is not possible, they should be receptive to an alternative solution. If the problem is a systemic one, inviting them onboard to partner with the school in addressing the matter is also a way forward.
With youngsters, as with adults, the solution needs to address the emotion that has been generated as much as it responds to the crisis that caused it. A child upset over a low mark may express anger at an educator, but the underlying emotion of fear of failure for example must also be unpacked so that another critical moment does not occur later on.
Sometimes you can’t solve the problem, but note that this stage of conflict resolution is not called ‘solve.’ It is called ‘satisfy’ so that you can reach a mutually satisfactory resolution, because it may be that the problem is a consequence of an event or law that is beyond your control, or something caused by external forces, or could be an historical event which may even predate your presence in the institution. The way forward should be the focus of this step.
It is important to indicate clearly what you may be unable to fix in order to prevent further conflict down the line when expectations are not met. For example, you cannot allow parent presence in a disciplinary action against an employee or someone else’s child; nor can you expel or fire someone at the mere say-so of an aggrieved parent. Various acts of parliament preclude such actions, as well as information sharing. You can promise that the matter will be investigated and limited feedback given following the investigation. This is especially important if bullying of any kind is alleged.
Manoeuvring around in this legal space requires a delicate touch because all sorts of rights come into play, but don’t shy away from explaining clearly what you can and can’t do. And then ensure that you follow up regularly so that they do not feel as if the matter has been swept under the carpet. Often when a parent’s complaint results in disciplinary action of some kind, the focus automatically shifts onto the alleged perpetrator and is no longer directed at the alleged victim. Both sides need to be looked after throughout what can be a long process. It can be like walking on eggshells, but one must never forget the original, aggrieved person. Otherwise, you may feel the matter was dealt with, especially when there are extreme outcomes for the accused, but you could end up losing the whistle blower as well because of lack of appropriate feedback.
Sometimes the incident being brought to your attention is in fact not the real issue at all. It may be something deeper or even unconnected. (That’s why you have to listen for what lies at the heart of their disenchantment).
I shall never forget engaging with a learner who was repeatedly late for school and had been giving those on late duty a hard time about this being recorded. In the course of unpacking his fury at the matric learner recording his tardiness, I discovered that there was a special needs child in the home who frequently held up the family departure with unavoidable tantrums. His defiance was a projection of his frustration with his young brother. Not only could we engage in other ways to address the latecoming, we were able to get him the emotional support he needed as a sibling of a child with a disability. And that was actually way more important.
Always end an encounter with annoyed stakeholders by thanking them (in fact when I present this method to staff, I sometimes call it T-BLAST: start and end with thanks. Thank the disgruntled before you do anything. ‘Thanks for coming’ shows you welcome the concern and communicates your openness to consult.)
Thanking the person for raising the issue, even after it is resolved, shows you value their contribution. And you should…. Even if they are dead wrong or really irritating, they have had the confidence in you to come to you, and in these days of Social Media Complaints Departments, that is a mark of faith in you. Thank them for that.
Then ensure you keep your word. That way you will earn their trust again.
And make sure you have a good way to let off your own steam safely. Absorbing other people’s stress can suck the spirit out of you.
A tribute to the staff of my school and all teachers around the globe:
A few weeks ago, I started a post called, ‘A Fly on the wall in a Lockdown Classroom.’ It was a reboot of an article entitled, ‘A Fly on the wall of a 21st Century Classroom,’ which I had started just a week before we shut the schools due to COVID-19.
Now the buzz word being flown around by that pesky flying insect is ‘hybrid education’ and the ones swatting it like Novak Djokovic on steroids (before he messed up and infected a bunch of people at a poorly screened tournament) are the neglected heroes: teachers.
You know, even when I studied (one hundred years ago) lecturers were warning us that ours was the ‘Cinderella’ profession. Yet the problem is educators don’t seem to even have a chance to dance with a prince these days. And I think the attractively-challenged siblings of the fairy tale are all the more set to spoil their day; yet our pedagogues are cleaning more chimneys and firesides than ever as they put the shine on the nation’s youth.
Let’s recap: in March this year, before the world locked itself away, 21st century skills consisted of technology in (some) classrooms, depending on the status of the school in this unequal world, and an effort to develop the 6 C’s of education.
We were toying with the concept of allowing students to tune in from home if they were sick, because we had the infrastructure at our school, but it was more like a well-fed house-cat toys with a beetle, than an alley cat going after a dozing bird. There was no real need; no hunger. Sure, we thought it was a good idea, but there were problems – other more pressing needs; no data on how parents would respond; educators’ core beliefs that we function best in person (and by ‘we’ I mean teachers and learners – I still believe that btw); teacher reluctance to ‘perform’ live online; additional technologies needed; teachers’ online skills; data costs; learner connectivity (The digital divide is still a major impediment: in India, for example, only 8% of schoolchildren have internet and a device at home; it’s not much better in South Africa at 11%) …the list goes on. Factor into this, that educators, as low-end income professionals themselves, do not necessarily have uncapped internet or data at home.
But there was a trend towards online learning and homeschooling among the middle class because of the increased focus on the individual and scorn for mass education. And independent schools were starting to see that exodus, a trickle sure, but it was there.
Then COVID-19 happened.
And global Lockdown.
And all hesitations were swept off the table like the victims of an angry politician.
And ‘Cinderellas’ all over the world stepped up to the new job. Our teachers spent the April holidays cramming remote learning strategies; necessity being a far better IT peer coach than any school or corporate programme to upskill staff. They did it on their own (unless they were lucky enough to be a part of a larger organization, like the group of schools we belong to), in their own time and in some schools, or countries, at their own expense. And they didn’t go to the ball with a handsome prince; they sat at their laptops and studied and then delivered, at times rewarded merely by the criticism of parents who saw only the tip of the work-iceberg and thought the live online hours were ‘all teachers were doing’; spending hours playing IT techie to get children connected and as usual going above and beyond. They shed the Cinders’ rags, suited up and cloaked themselves like the heroes they are. No need for a saviour prince swooping in to the rescue. They went from fireside to frontline IT gurus in a few days.
And they stayed on track with the curriculum, like models on the catwalk, who maintain their sashay, despite losing a heel.
Some schools in our group even turned into factories using 3D printing to produce shields for healthcare workers and for our own staff.
Then the presidents and health authorities unlocked our front doors and school gates and we came back to school. Now that ‘fly on the wall’ sits there watching half a class of masked teens and small children while teachers go back to their natural environment without the physical structures 21st century skills flourish in. No more learning hubs with groups huddled together to problem solve. Our youngsters sit in rows now to ensure social distancing like a throwback to old fashioned, industrial revolution-style regimentation. We do have fun wriggling eyebrows to communicate, trying to be heard via accents, masks and shields like medieval fighters. But we can’t hug them or see them properly so teachers develop robot systems to gauge comfort levels and wellness. We’re using sign language to communicate.
Imagine being able to look over a doctor’s shoulder or peer into a lawyer’s inner sanctum while she works? Or hang onto an accountant’s every telephone call? That’s how teachers work in the hybrid environment: live on TV with all their vulnerability and privacy on display to every parent (some even interrupt their lessons (I kid you not). A few years ago educators would have been up in arms about having cameras in their classes for this reason. Now we’ve put them live on TV and they’ve adapted. What heroes! It gives ‘a fly on the wall’ a whole new meaning.
A note of concern here is the vulnerability of learners as well in this exposed environment where any parent in the class could theoretically be watching from their work or home computer. We may need to consider only posting recorded videos of lessons, even though it would mean that those at home with health concerns would not be able to connect live. If we regulate anything after the COVID crisis abates, we should consider this carefully. Classrooms are safe places where an element of intimacy and trust needs to exist between teacher and learner. There is something voyeuristic about the possibility of this unseen audience at home. As much as we can continue to teach like this ad infinitum and it will be of great benefit going forward for housebound learners to connect remotely, this should be judiciously used in the long term in order to preserve the sanctity of that classroom relationship.
The remote and online spaces have blurred the boundaries even further for teachers who battle to say no at the best of times and educators are finding themselves assisting learners late into the early hours of the morning, especially in cases where children only have access to data during off-peak hours (read; middle of the night). And they do that because they care. It’s that simple.
And as the online-classroom-hybrid term draws to a close, for those whose schools are lucky enough to be taking a breather, our study superheroes are tired. Deep, in-your-spirit exhausted – so that forcing yourself out of bed is an act of sheer courage.
And they still arrive at school this week to motivate their equally stressed and fatigued students with smiles of greeting, with a Monty Pythonish ‘expect the unexpected’ mindset as they adapt… because teachers refuse to be beaten by a wee virus.
So when you see such a masked and caped classroom hero, do not even dare to breathe a critique that they are taking 5 days off (instead of the usual 15 at this time of year). They worked every single day of lockdown even though the schools were closed. Salute them – they have prevailed and will live to fight another term soon, armed with so much knowledge and experience gained, they could write a book… if they had the time!. Because of them the next generation will not be found lacking. Respect is due.
Forget the glass slippers of Cinderella – just bring them fluffy slippers to match their gossamer capes (They are elegant still, despite their paralysing tiredness) …and chocolate and wine…Teachers like wine.
I have been enthralled by the series Billions over the last week or so. For those who haven’t seen it on DSTV or Showmax, it’s a series in which a ruthlessly flawed hedge fund manager is pitched against an equally determined and unrelenting US States Attorney.
Now, far be it for me as a liberal arts major to fully understand the intricacies of the stock markets and the algorithms and economic sleights of hand that go with it. But I have certainly been learning about shorting stocks and going long on information both in the public domain and info obtained via devious means.
This series though, like all shows about people in professional positions like lawyers, doctors, the press and politicians, is about people. It reveals the nuanced protagonists as both heroic and venal; yet their decisions and maneuvering are motivated by personal interest before all else.
What has struck me, with this production, is that it suggests that once you have suspended your faith and desire for honest justice, situational ethics, guilt and desire and the balancing of favours seem to operate in this society as a more powerful currency than the ‘mighty dollar.’
How true is that in the ‘real’ world, I wonder. Well, I have certainly seen what one of the Billions characters, Brian Connerty, calls ‘political fluidity’ in operation in life, sometimes in places you’d least expect it. That’s one of the reasons I like the group of schools I work in. I respect the person in charge as one of integrity. And that makes all the difference.
The characters in this series are in so many ways morally bankrupt, despite their billions. Their honour is as fake as John Malkovitch’s Russian accent. As much as everyone on the planet ultimately sees themselves as the hero in their own story, moral turpitude is all too often downplayed when people’s personal interests collide with doing the right thing.
And it’s so simple to choose expedience before integrity. Because it’s easier. How tempting it is to give a glowing reference to a person one wants to encourage to leave; how easy to overlook malfeasance in someone one feels sorry for, or bend the rules for someone you like. It’s jolly hard to be fair to everyone. I have sleepless nights sometimes trying to decide the fairest way to treat people. But, I have to live with the choices I make and face myself in the mirror.
Billions explores loyalty and betrayal and assumes everyone is guilty of something. And that is certainly true. All people are flawed in some way. The characters in the show leverage the peccadillos of the players, even those close to them, to wield power. And I guess that’s what it comes down to, far more than money: power.
I am glad I don’t live and work in that sort of wild west, but every institution has the potential to be run like that: using and trading on secrets and inside information and pitting people against each other and the worst of moral ambiguity: rationalizing it as being ‘for the best,’ the end justifying the means. It’s hard to be a straight arrow, but I think it’s important to be honest, especially to myself.
Like the traders and lawyers on Billions, the temptations remain in any institution, because when you have authority over people there is always the possibility for corruption and pursuing self-interest above what is right.
So, we must guard against it. Transparency and honesty are essential. Knowing what is right is important. A moral compass and careful adherence to the core of an organisation’s ethos keeps you on the straight and narrow. In some faith-based schools, there is a position dedicated to such oversight. In many cases it doesn’t have enough teeth, but it is one way of keeping a school on course.
A leadership team that is allowed, and in fact encouraged, to challenge the leader on matters of moral direction is also important. Good advisors are invaluable. I am lucky. I have such a team.
And I’ll keep rooting for those with a conscience, even on television shows, if I can find them.
Besides, no one can actually spend billions and there is no price on peace of mind.
“Moral authority comes from following universal and timeless principles like honesty, integrity, and treating people with respect.”