September 6, 2015

A "Family" View of the School Community

The more time we spend at A.V. Bukani, the more we become part of the fabric of the school and the community. Children call out to us across the school yard with phrases from the books we’ve read in their classrooms or songs we’ve sung with them.  Mothers welcome us as Nosango and Tando, names they gave us in 2009.  Teachers enjoy photos of Sara’s children, remembering that on her last visit here in 2010, she was pregnant with her older child Maxine. We wear the traditional dress that was given to us in 2008 on formal occasions like the farewell for Randi and Steve, and the teachers and families hug us and want to take pictures with us. We are part of them, and they are part of us.

But just as we see the wonderful aspects of life here, we also see the challenges more clearly because we are no longer treated as guests, but as family.  Life is hard here. We are reminded on a daily basis, on an hourly basis, just how easy life is for a white middle-class person in the U.S.  Our life here is certainly different than home, but still…

Muddy streets from overbearing, cold rain--
For us: We scrape mud off our shoes and put on dry ones.
For them: Children in shoes a size too small, with no socks, and threadbare clothes shiver or don’t come to school at all.

Municipal water that is unreliable--
For us: We drink from the bottled water we always carry.
For them: An hour, a day, a week with no clean water for all your needs.

Illness and death--
For us: We mourn the teacher friend that we lost.
For them: Weekends are filled with funerals for family, friends and colleagues of every age. This week, one teacher lost two young cousins from illness, another lost a sister-in-law from an accident slipping in the mud, and the mother of the president of the SGB (a parent board with governing rights in the school) died on Thursday. That’s just the ones we know about.

Eye glasses-
For us: A postponed eye exam because of our time here.
For them: A school of 1000 learners with only a handful wearing glasses. Others squint at the board or put their faces ½ inch from the page of the book. How much could they be learning if they could see the words?

While on our first trip to South Africa, on a 2006 tour with multi-cultural educators, we heard great optimism about the “new South Africa.” Today, there is tremendous frustration with the lack of services provided by the government. Fraud and embezzlement at every level are rampant, starting with the president Jacob Zuma, whom a watchdog group found used nearly $18,000,000 of taxpayers' money to turn his private home into a display of "opulence on a grand scale." He just took on his 5th wife, which appalls people of every culture we spoke with.

Yet Zuma is with the ANC – the African National Congress – the party of Nelson Mandela. And the majority feel they cannot leave that party or they will dishonor Mandela’s legacy.  But they don’t know how their children will feel when it is their turn to vote…

There is a consistent disappointment in the services provided through the Ministry of Basic Education. The Minister Angie Motshekga has admitted the problems herself, issuing an open letter apologizing to grade 12 pupils in 2012. She wrote: "I know 2012 has not been an easy year for you. I also understand that you may feel I ... have let you down. I apologise unreservedly for all you have been through as a pupil." Not much has changed. Just a few days ago, Motshekga stated at a public forum, “Things are quite bad, I’m sorry to say.”

American-born filmmaker Molly Blank, who now creates compelling documentaries about South African education wrote that Motshekga’s apology “devastated me, not because of what she said but because of the fact that the government's neglect of pupils compelled her to say it.”

But Molly went on to document high schools that work, despite the odds of incredible poverty and few resources .  Her book and videos, ‘How to Fix South Africa’s Schools: Lessons from Schools that Work” ( sends an important message, particularly about the power of school leadership.  As in the United States, the power of a principal cannot be denied. And the “hidden curriculum” of the “emotions and attitude” of the teachers is as critical as the “formal curriculum,” a teacher at one highly successful school stated. Her project was commissioned by Jonathan Jansen, Vice Chancellor at the University of the Free State, an education champion in South Africa.

The educators and the families at Bukani teach us to take the long view. Not everything can be done now, but progress can be made bit by bit. We do see progress at A.V. Bukani.  We do see a strong leadership team of Prinicipal Zilindile Thambo and Deputy Principal Ace Lamani. We continue to have hope this school will build on successes, despite challenges and set-backs.  

We come to recognize that we, steeped in our privilege, don’t have the right to get frustrated when committed teachers come to school, despite illness and loss, to better the lives of their children; and students come to school through the mud and the rocks and who-knows-what, eager to learn.


Larry has been working with several teachers that he had not worked with before.  Their commitment is impressive.  One teacher buried two young cousins within the past week, but still came to school, sat right next to Larry, took notes on the guided reading process as she watched, and then planned and did two introductory lessons herself. Another was sick all week but dragged herself to school each day to make sure she was in class when Larry was demonstrating.

Larry did professional development three days this past week. He presented information about beginning reading development and guided reading. After a full day of teaching under challenging conditions, the teachers came and listened intently and were engaged in the session. They asked some thought provoking questions, and only when their sole means of transportation was departing did some of them leave.

Lumka , a grade-four teacher Larry has worked with since our first visit, looked around the room of her peers and stated that they needed to continue meeting like this, discussing teaching practices, sharing their successes and challenges, and improving as professionals. No one disagreed.  Heads nodded in agreement.

After another session on Thursday that ended with no comments or questions after Larry’s presentation (maybe Larry wasn’t the only one who was tired), one of the grade R (kindergarten) teachers, Yolanda, came to talk to him. She wanted him to know that what he was sharing with them was “powerful," even for the foundation phase.

At our weekly debriefing with Paul from Calabash, the organization that organizes volunteers for Bukani and other township schools, the teachers Larry works with spoke of the progress, although slow, they see in the struggling learners Larry asked to work with. They see hope and so does Larry, both for their learners and for the teachers. It will take time, but here in South Africa, in the eastern Cape, in Nomatansanqa, at A. V. Bukani Primary School, they are taking the long view and so are we.

Parents Trek Through the Mud

Eileen’s parent programs continue to build, as parents trek through the rain and the mud to make sure they are part of these. The mothers and grandmothers share some drawings their children made with accompanying letters, words, or stories.

This coming week, the weather looks good on meeting days. The principal sent a note home to all the families about the meetings, highlighting that “parents are the child’s first teacher.” The orange picking season is slowing down a bit so more parents may be available.  Who knows who we will see this week…

Excitement at both ends of the scale

Randi’s work with writing at the upper grades showed there are some solid skills being developed in the language arts. This week we also saw evidence of other areas of knowledge.

Principal Thambo teaches Natural Sciences to the older learners and he came in beaming on Thursday. He gave the students the assignment of building an electric circuit, with the project due on Monday. One group completed the assignment two days early.

At the other end, there is much excitement surrounding new classrooms and play areas for Grade R next year. Three spacious double-classrooms are under construction with three additional covered play areas. They are already painted bright primary colors with built-in cubbies. The Grade R teachers at Bukani are loving and full of life. We can only imagine the learning that will blossom at what South African educators rightly call “the foundation phase.”

So how do we feel as we enter our fourth and final week here?  Life here is engaging, rewarding, hopeful, frustrating, fascinating, inspiring, devastating, enriching, joyful, depressing, emotional … and exhausting. On Friday we packed up for the weekend in the nearby city, thinking we are worn out and ready to leave next week. And on Friday, we sang with the learners and tearfully wondered how we could leave next week.

Eileen and Larry a/k/a
Nosango and Thando