When schools reopen, teachers will need to bring with them more than their files, books and sandwiches. They will need to bring an attitude and frame of mind that equips them to manage schools that will be fundamentally different.
They will need to support learners and families through the uncertainty of the weeks and months ahead. It’s going to take empathy, agency, resilience and a willingness to evolve through change and uncertainty. It’s going to take can-do teachers to make things work.
Before lockdown, I visited 16 teachers across the length and breadth of South Africa to characterise the makeup of a can-do teacher as described in my book Where Light Shines Through: Tales of Can-do Teachers in South Africa’s No-fee Public Schools.
More than anything can-do teachers care; they harness their resilience and willingness to evolve to make things happen despite the circumstances. This agency drives them to do the best for those in their care as they guide children to imagine and realise their greatest possible selves.
I spoke to some of these teachers again to hear how they are preparing for going back to school during the lockdown.
Olga Motshwanedi-Marimo is the recently appointed principal of Kitsong School, a low-fee private school in Rustenburg under the administration of the Royal Bafokeng.
“Going back to school is a good thing,” she says. “Our life has to work around the virus — the virus is not going to go back anytime soon.”
She believes that before she can begin to think about academic catch-up, she will need to invest in understanding the emotional state of learners and teachers and providing support where needed.
“When you have a learner or a teacher who is traumatised or who has anxiety, it becomes difficult to reach the person,” she says.
Motshwanedi-Marimo is aware that, over and above the anxiety about health and wellbeing, many learners will return to schools with their economic circumstances changed, given the closing down of businesses and the job losses that have been reported during lockdown.
“It is important to ground people so that they can be equipped to meet the challenges ahead,” she says. “When we start teaching it will not be easy. It will be fast paced and learners will be under pressure. We will need to motivate them to catch up and pass matric this year.”
Azhar Rajah, a life sciences teacher at Ahmed Timol Secondary School in Azaadville near Krugersdorp, agrees that schools will need to offer psychosocial support. Teachers will also need to rely on their sense of agency to educate themselves about the disease and to teach learners about health and safety practices before they can even think about returning to the curriculum.
“There is a lot of wrong information out there and conspiracy theories,” Rajah says. “There are people who strongly believe in them. We need people who will learn the scientific facts. We need to educate the learners to do the right thing.”
Tracey Naidoo, lead grade 6 social sciences and maths teacher at Brenthurst Primary in Brakpan, is anxious about returning to school but she believes that teachers with agency and resilience will make it work.
“A lot of pressure has been placed on SMTs [school management teams],” she says. “We have to come up with a concrete plan. It’s a bit scary having all these decisions to make and people’s lives in your hands. But the minute those kids walk in, teacher mode will kick in for us. If we don’t stress, if we give them the practical steps, our kids will follow the example,” she says.
Ameera Khan, English home language teacher at Promosa Primary on the outskirts of Potchefstroom, believes that teachers should not fall victim to negativity and should be strong for themselves and their learners.
“We need to make the new normal for these kids. We need to encourage a new way of life around hygiene practices and so on and show kids that we can beat this virus,” Khan says. “We need to be the pillar of strength once again. It’s going to take resilience.”
Many educators — like Freddy Marubini, the head of mathematics at Thengwe High in Tshandama, Limpopo — set ambitious academic targets this year and have been working through lockdown to achieve them. He is in a hurry to get back into the classroom and is driven to make things work.
“One thing I have learned in this life is that there are some people who are happy to have an apology for not doing the work. But if we get educators who are committed, who feel the need to teach their learners, I think we will make it,” he says.
This is a list of resources that will help schools with planning and the development of Covid-19 protocols.
Schools can access Covid-19 guidelines and protocol templates from the Department of Basic Education and other sources on the Section 27 website.
Supporting Learners at Home: A Guide for Caregivers.
A Covid-19 research bootcamp hosted by JET Education Services offers valuable insights for school management teams and policy makers.
Kimon Phitidis is a director of Social Innovations, a social investment agency that delivers academic support programmes into public schools