A Recent, Short History of Forres School 1994 – 2017
TAKING THE 2ND STEP: AN EXERCISE IN BELONGINGNESS
“Thank you for including us, now how about making us feel like we belong!”)
Presentation by Kim van der Hoven at Western Cape Education Department Annual meeting with Independent Heads 2016
Schools have always played a role in the making and changing of a society. What you learn at school socially, emotionally, politically and economically you will perpetuate into society one day as an adult.
To quote Jonathan Jansen “to get South Africans to talk about difficult things, and to talk about our divided past, I want to start by saying that we are not going to get our country right if we don’t get our schools right. If we don’t get our schools right, everything else topples.”
Diversity is a subject that demands from us to go to places in ourselves and in our school communities that can be extremely painful and difficult to talk about. At the same time this challenge can present wonderful opportunities for developing relationships within our school community that are regenerative, restorative and healing.
No matter how enlightened or deeply sincere our intentions, because I do believe that absolutely, ‘almost’ no-one wants to think that their actions could be viewed as racist, we are still caught up in our countries history and in our own painful narratives of identity. Try as we may, we will from time to time get tripped up by our own lack of awareness and our own ignorance of what the experience of the ‘OTHER’ is in our school.
My journey started with Forres School 24 odd years ago, (the school was founded in 1948 and was already 46 yrs old), at the beginning of our democracy. I am sure for you, as it was for me, it was a truly great day and an enormous relief when we could open our school doors without impunity to all races and cultures.
Just like South Africa, which became the Rainbow Nation, we could ‘leave behind’ the unjust and unsettling laws of apartheid. Likewise, we as Independent Schools could finally realise what for many of us has also been part of our struggle, the dream of inclusion. And so, in the early 90’s, the first big step of “you are welcome’ and “we include you’ was taken. And then we all relaxed, as did the Rainbow Nation and thought ……. if we are all included the rest will take care of itself.
Of late, I think we have all come to realise that once we embrace diversity and the idea of an inclusive society, the real work has to start. And to be fair, we really aren’t trained or equipped at all, no matter how much we believe in it as a fair and just direction to take.
I have come to realise that once you do have a diverse school, it is not enough just to include, you have to manage it. And I have come to call the managing of it The Belongingness Project.
The Belongingness Project: How is it for the ‘other’?
When your environment is the status quo and you welcome children or staff into that space for whom it is not the norm, who come from an entirely different life experience, you will automatically escalate the risk of misunderstanding, discrimination and the resulting hurt. For the most part, all of this completely unintentional and unnoticed by those of us who enjoy the status quo.
For those who are adjusting to the new normal and enduring the hurt and well intentioned misinterpretations, there is often the inability to speak it up. There is the consequent loss of voice in a space where staff, children and parents feel ‘privileged’ to be have been included in the first place.
These may be for a multitude of reasons: consider language, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, culture, family structures, privilege, difference, learning abilities, disabilities, intellect, talents, etc. Every kind of difference imaginable, political affiliations, socio-economic differences too …the list goes on.
In addition, no matter who we are, we all carry our own internalised sense of oppression that sets us up to struggle inwardly against our own feelings around self-worth: who we are and how we fit in. How much more for the child or staff member for whom the environment is a new ‘normal’.
If opening our doors to all (for the most part) has been taken care of… now we have to take the 2nd step and that is to make members of our schools feel and know they belong.
We need to ask ourselves are we welcoming in a guest or a member of the family.
Every step we have taken in the Belongingness Project has been about challenging the status quo and therefore the very identity of our school community as we knew it at every level of the school. Which is why it has taken courage and openness to do this and keep with it over many years?
However, I have to say that almost without exception once we get through the initial discomfort and once we get over the initial fear or even pain of a conversation, the rewards are great. One pushes through the outside brittle layer of fear and ignorance to the softer places of acceptance, deep listening and new insights brought in through evolving relationships with full members of our school community.
The devil is in the smallest of details. The changes that need to take place to create belongingness are very often about the seemingly small things and may only occasionally challenge the overriding school history, ethos and values.
My experiences have taught me the following:
- Ensuring belongingness is about building community. Diversity is not only about importing programmes to teach children multiculturalism as a skill for the future, or rewriting policies and ensuring employment equity. Real diversity involves creating a sense of genuine belonging with every member of the school community at every level of context (including ground and service staff)
- You have to depart from the point of acknowledging that inclusion is just not enough and that ensuring belongingness is absolutely critical. There is no point in welcoming a child through the gates of your school but asking them to leave their culture, their language, their very identity on the pavement outside. One has to think of the message one is sending to a young mind that will be spending 7 to 12 years at your school. That child will become a future old boy or girl who will reflect back on what it meant to be at your school. It won’t matter they received the best education. The scars on a child’s vulnerable sense of self-worth and identity are long lasting and that is what they will remember most.
Narrative Practice Philosophy
- Key to our diversity journey is that we hold on to an orientation based on Narrative Practice ideas. This means that all staff are up-skilled and trained regularly and are expected to honour the narratives and the stories of children’s lives and identities that are developed in the context of our school. We adopt a position that children live their lives according to the stories they tell about themselves or we tell about them. Whether we like it or not, we as teachers and principals hold the power to develop stories about children that are grown and live in our school and beyond.
- There is an ethic of responsibility for all the narratives that are being developed at every level and we think about and discuss these things very clearly and carefully. Like-wise we are expected to apply the same standard to how we relate to every member of staff on the campus.
- We must learn to listen to the minorities in our school, staff, parents and pupils alike. Engage with everyone. These are the voices that give us the yardstick by which we can measure the level of belonging in our community.
- Finally, one needs to develop a new identity story. What it means to be a member of this school now, today! A school identity around which all current members of the school can unite whilst still preserving personal identity. This would also require taking a look at the school’s history and legacy. Celebrating the wonderful stories and contributions made to society but also acknowledging the role played, willingly or unwillingly in the exclusion of fellow South Africans from full participation in the life of our country and more specifically access to education.
In conclusion, this Belongingness Project is not just a school imperative but a national imperative! How do we as a South African society preserve our many rich religions, cultures and personal identities whilst uniting around a deep and common love and sense of belonging for our country?
Schools do play an integral role in the making and changing of a society. To expand on Jonathan Jansens previous quote, if school leaders can get this right in our schools the hope increases that our country will get it right living into the future.