There are 1080 learners at the school, but less than 20% of the parents and caregivers are involved in the education of their children. This lack of parental involvement places additional pressure on teachers and school leaders alike, which compounds what is already an extremely challenging learning environment. The Edufundi team partnered with the school in January 2015 to offer support and solutions, and the relationship has flourished.
Judging by their outstanding results in the 2018 systemic assessments, the learners and teachers of Xolani Primary are going from strength to strength. Edufundi is proud to be part of their journey. What has made the relationship between Edufundi and Xolani Primary so successful? A million little things have contributed to the development of the school’s teachers and learners, but chief among them has been the fostering of a shared vision and a well-aligned set of values. Since joining the Edufundi Programme in 2015, Principal Bongiwe Sakasa and her team of dedicated educators have worked closely with their mentors to unlock the potential of the school’s learners.
“Being a principal is very tough, but one thing that makes me sleep at night is to see my learners achieve beyond their circumstances – and to be part of that achievement gives me joy,” says Principal Sakasa. “As a principal I have to make sure that we develop the strategies and systems that will allow our learners to excel in what they are doing.”
Almost 95% of the learners at Xolani come from informal settlements. Most of the parents do not work and very few participate in the life of the school, but Principal Sakasa holds onto a powerful mantra: “In the words of Thabo Mbeki, ‘Your upbringing does not determine your future.’ As you have seen, our results prove that these learners have the potential to excel. That’s what makes me sleep at night.”
Like many South African schools, Xolani receives very little support from the parent body, so it falls upon the educators to make the most of all available teaching and learning opportunities and to instil in learners the values and behaviours they need to develop in order to be successful. Principal Sakasa readily boasts about her committed, hardworking team: “Our results show that we can do it – even if we come from a location, we can do it. It proves that everything lies with the teacher.”
Her words speak a great truth, as everything required for learners to thrive at school rests with their teachers, and this is a core belief that underpins the Edufundi programme. Teacher effectiveness is essential, but to achieve such high levels of excellence requires intentional practice and refinement. Over the last four years the Edufundi mentors have been supporting the teachers at Xolani on their journey to excellence, and the transformation has been significant.
“Our biggest challenge was discipline,” says Principal Sakasa. “Teachers were having trouble managing their classrooms because learners were disruptive.”
Grade 1 educator Ms Nwabisa Sonamzi agrees: “Before, I was shouting at my learners because they didn’t listen to me. It was very hard. When I went home I was exhausted and stressed – I wasted a lot of my time trying to keep them quiet.” Lesson planning was also a major concern for Principal Sakasa: “Teachers did not take planning very seriously. Before Edufundi came they were struggling with curriculum coverage.”
SO HOW DID EDUFUNDI HELP?
“We cannot do this alone – we need support to ensure our learners achieve,” admits Principal Sakasa. “I’m obsessed with Edufundi! With the strategies we have now, teachers are not stressing about disciplining the learners so they are focusing on the curriculum. It is now 100% curriculum coverage.”
Ms Athi Mntuyedwa, a novice Grade 4 educator, emphasises the role her mentor has played in her own development: “I was fortunate when I started here to be mentored by Sylvie. At first I was nervous of this lady who was coming to ‘crit’ me. At university they focused on content, not really on classroom management – nothing was done practically. I didn’t want my mentor to come to my class because I knew I was struggling. But as time went on I realised she was here to help and develop me. She encouraged me to be myself, not put on an act for her. Soon everything became much easier and by the end of the year I thought, ‘Okay, now I feel like I am a teacher!’ My mentor really helped me. I love her – she is gold!”
One of the great strengths of the Edufundi Programme is that everyone can benefit, including highly experienced educators. Having spent over a decade in the classroom, Ms Nwabisa Sonamzi was at first not eager to have a personal mentor. “When I heard I was going to be mentored I got so stressed. I thought, ‘I want to look for another job because I can’t stand to have somebody in my class.’ But when she came I realised I was just scared of something I didn’t know,” recalls Ms Sonamzi.
“Now our relationship is perfect. She has helped me with my journey of teaching and in my personal life. Using the mentoring and techniques has freed me up to spend my time teaching instead of shouting. Everything changed! Of course, nothing can change overnight, which is why my mentor gave me just one thing to work on at a time, because you can’t be good straight away – it takes time and practice.”
Towards the end of the year she was able to see a marked difference in her learners, who had improved in terms of the curriculum as well as classroom discipline. “Now every time I go to school I am happy to see a new challenge and share new techniques with my learners. I am enjoying my work!” she says.
Mrs Sylvie Moodley, the Intermediate Phase mentor at the school, shares Ms Sonamzi’s insights, and she recalls that when they first started working with the school she had been impressed with the principal’s attitude and how she has been consistent in keeping her main focus on the core business of teaching and learning.
“There are many challenges, but she sticks to the core business. Most teachers are using the basic techniques, so the culture has really grown,” says Mrs Moodley. “The teachers are fantastic! They are humble, they take us in and take on the recommendations. The children also really enjoy this whole process because they feel part of it.”
Mrs Moodley also highlighted the fact that mentoring is a gentle process and that, when working with teachers, the mentors take great pains not to pressure or force them in any way. Instead, they take the approach of inviting teachers to try things out, for instance by asking questions to build confidence and create a sense of ownership.
“Emotionally, teachers are in a bad space. They carry a lot of baggage and it can be difficult to relate to what learners are going through,” says Mrs Moodley. “I feel their wellbeing is also important; we must boost their morale and make them feel they are doing a very important job. They also need to feel empathy for learners. With both teachers and learners there is more focus on reflecting on feelings; we are helping the teachers and they are helping the learners. This is having a great ripple effect. I love my job. I know this is my purpose. It is difficult at times, but it is also very powerful.”
Another important development at the school was the introduction of the Edufundi Lead Like a Champion Programme, the primary focus of which has been to support School Management Teams (SMTs) in their role as instructional leaders.
“We started with our vision and mission. Edufundi reminded us that these are not just for decoration – we have to align them with the curriculum and with our school programmes,” recalls principal Sakasa. “As an SMT we asked, ‘What are we here for? What is our assignment, exactly?’ Once the answer was clear we said, ‘How are we going to do that?’ We needed to do strategic planning and come up with systems and programmes that ensure our learners achieve their best. And we did, with Edufundi supporting us in that regard, reminding us of things that are there for a purpose, not just compliance. Our vision is to strive for excellence, and that’s what we do.”
As the Teach Like a Champion and Lead Like a Champion programmes come together in 2019, even greater improvements are expected for educators and learners at Xolani Primary. Having built a solid foundation, the mentors will be assisting the School Management Team as they take over the role of supporting and developing the educators themselves. Edufundi’s ultimate aim is to leave the school with a comprehensive, sustainable system for achieving that vision of excellence in teaching and learning, which means that we are embarking on an extremely exciting part of our journey with Xolani!