Despite the delay in the start to the school year, the principal of the University of Johannesburg Metropolitan Academy, Rehana Jardine, wanted to begin with the most important thing that needed addressing — the expected trepidations, fear and anxieties of her teachers as they embarked on an uncertain year ahead. As the second and a possible third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic amplifies fears that accrued learning losses could be exacerbated among learners, Jardine and I created a play-based session to provide a safe space for acknowledging emotional and well-being concerns that her teachers had for themselves and for the learners in their care.
In keeping with a pedagogy of care that is a strong feature of school culture at the academy, Jardine began by sharing a letter in a blog by Diane Ravitch sent out to educators by retired Voorheesville central school district superintendent Dr Teresa Thayer Snyder in upstate New York. The critical element of this letter was the shift from default position of how to “catch up” and make up for time lost to a more humane and responsive acknowledgement of what learners have lived through during the time that they had been away from school.
The following quote provided a powerful moment of reflection because educators were being asked to contemplate something intended for learners that they themselves would need from school leaders.
“When children return to school … their brains did not go into hibernation … [It has] been focused on where the next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with a missing grandma, or how it feels to have surrendered a beloved pet, or how to deal with death … Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history … Resist the pressure from whatever powers that be who are in a hurry to fix kids and make up for lost time … The time was not lost, it was invested in surviving a historic period of time in their lives — in our lives.”
Such an introduction provided a perfect prelude to my part of the session, which began with a play exercise. As teachers created mirror movement gestures depicting how they were feeling, there was a noticeable change in the energy of the room. A formal session became one of jovial engagement, laughter, and imaginative body movement. This change was noticed by one of the teachers, Erika Engelbrecht-Aldworth, as something she could use in her classroom. She said, “I could see how playing made me feel. I’m thinking about fun Friday and how it could be the thing that gets my learners to de-stress.”
Jardine and I wanted teachers to relive a moment that could help them move away from the traditional determination to catch up towards a process with learners that might take into account feelings and possibilities through pedagogical strategies that removed the stress. In this way learners would catch up, but in a warmer, more inviting environment where their primal basic human needs (as determined by American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow) could be met before their cognitive needs (according to Benjamin Bloom).
Next was a pair-share listening exercise. Teachers acknowledged how difficult it was to listen to a colleague with presence and attention for a mere five minutes. “We listen to respond,” they said, “not to hear.” This exercise was of relevance to teachers because they now understood the difficulty of spending many hours listening as learners are expected to do during a school day. They realised that they needed to revisit conceptions of input both for online and off-line learning. Sarah Prinsloo, an Afrikaans teacher, spoke of how she used voice notes to record each short story she was meant to teach her learners, and how valuable that had been to them as something that “soothed” them and something they could listen to again. It created a shift in reading and developed a deeper connection with her learners than she might have ordinarily had during an online engagement.
Ms Mishka Khotu, a younger teacher, mentioned being so relieved that her more experienced colleague is experiencing the same challenges that she had been experiencing, and that she “did not feel alone”. A few teachers spoke of the “fear of uncertain times” and how they needed to “develop multiple plans to deliver lessons”.
Perhaps more profound was Yandisa Tshutshani, who said, “I’m grappling with how I can create the same learning experience for a learner who does not have digital access as I do for one who does have access to technology, so that they feel like they are not missing out.” Aadila Dhoda echoed this concern and many teachers agreed that this would be a school-wide project that teachers at the academy would invest in collectively.
Towards the end a moment of truth arrived, from Blessing Shabangu, who opened a conversation around vulnerability. He asked, “When someone asks, how are you? How honest are we when we give a response?” He reflected on the trust one needs to genuinely express one’s feelings and to acknowledge that “we are not okay at this time of the pandemic and that we need to be there for each other”.
When the session was over, Jardine and I were left with a sense that something had shifted, — that these educators were ready to help learners write their history, as they themselves work on rewriting their own histories of teaching during a pandemic. Cemented in all their work in 2021 and beyond is “Maslow before Bloom” for their learners and for each other.