Since probably about 2010, I’ve been toying with an idea that I consider very important. I can’t really remember the thing that sparked it initially, but I’m sure a lot of it had to do with my experiences in the world of adults – the world of employment – as well as my experiences at the various educational institutions I’ve attended.
That I think there are vast, fundamental problems with education systems, is no secret to anyone who knows me. Thus, what I started thinking about, was a school to teach children to focus on their creativity. Somewhere where kids can discover what their true passion is, and live it, so that they don’t end up the way most of us do – doing jobs we hate to get some money at the end of the month to simply survive.
I’ve gotten to a point in my life where I feel that, if that’s really all there is to life, I really don’t want any part of it.
I started thinking further about how utterly useless and misdirected half the stuff was that I’d learned in school. I started thinking things like, “If only I’d had computer science classes in school,” or “If only I’d had art classes in school.”
And then, I discovered this video, and all these random little thoughts solidified into one big idea:
See, one of my problems in school was that I was actually quite good at mathematics and science. Not only that – I enjoyed these subjects as well. As a result, everyone kept “guiding” (read: pushing) me in the direction of the sciences, engineering, etc. The trouble was that nobody bothered to look at the fact that I was also really good at art and music and loved writing. I’m not even going to say too much about that – if you watch Sir Ken Robinson’s talk up there, he expresses precisely what I experienced growing up.
And it’s nobody’s fault. Nobody did this with malicious intent – it’s simply the way of the world (it’s messed me up more than pretty much anything else in my life though). This cycle of fear we all get raised to respect.
So, as it normally goes with such ideas, they kept milling around in my head, cross-contaminating with other ideas and things that I’ve read, until finally, it got to a point where the idea was this: a free school focused on creativity for disadvantaged children who have the talent, but might never have the financial means to attend prestigious design and art schools. That’s a mouthful, but that’s really it in one sentence.
I spoke to a couple of people about it. I had my own ideas about funding it and getting it off the ground. But, as with so many other things, the fear kept creeping in and my own struggles with working life and balancing my own creative urges with the need for survival, eventually led to some more bouts of depression. And while I never gave up on the idea, it became clear that I was out of my depth. At least at that point.
Enter 2014 and my unplanned relocation to Bethulie. I’ve focused a lot on my creativity over the past few months. It’s been incredibly therapeutic – I’ve reached levels of satisfaction and happiness that I’ve not experience in more than a decade.
One of the first things that happened when I got back here, was that some of the locals found out about me, and the fact that I’m a “computer guy”. A random person or two brought their laptops to me to sort out some minor problems. I suppose they spoke to other people and more and more people came. Now, it’s a small town and not a very rich one either, so these repair and maintenance jobs have been scarce, although it’s been picking up a bit lately. It’s not the kind of thing I could really “make a living” off. But it does bring in a bit of pocket-money for me to buy a new game or two here and there, etc.
Then, just after returning home from my last visit to Gauteng, my mother asked me whether I’d be interested in helping out at the local high school (where she also works). The CAT teacher (Computer Applied Technologies) was having some health problems and couldn’t be at school. He was also due to go in for an operation shortly afterwards and would be unavailable for a while. So here’s strike 1 for the Department of Basic Education: the school had apparently tried to arrange a substitute teacher, but there was nobody available. Nobody. Not one person with the proper qualifications could be found to fill his position for a few weeks and just keep the kids on track. And, since I’m now the local “computer guy”, the school figured I could perhaps just be around to supervise the kids and make sure they’re at least working.
Immediately, the thoughts of the school I had in mind, came up again… I told my mom that I’d speak to the school principal, but that I’d probably do it.
After speaking to him, it became clear to me that he wanted me to do a bit more than just supervise – he actually wanted me to “interact” with the students, as he called it – basically, he wanted me to continue with the classes. I was worried about this at first – I’m not a qualified teacher. I’ve worked as an instructor in a couple of different capacities in places I’ve worked before – I’ve even taught a programming class – but this seemed rather different.
But I took on the challenge – and immediately loved it. I just came to realise again how important school teachers are in shaping the future of young minds – it’s an enormous responsibility. It’s actually quite daunting to imagine that what you do will have a profound impact – good or bad – on a child’s future.
Due to all sorts of circumstances, I’ve been at the school since early February now and have experienced things that might be hard to believe if someone simply told you about them.
Here then, is strike 2 for the DBE: high school is absurd. It’s really quite ridiculous. One of the classes that I inherited, has 42 children. 42! Not the answer to life, the universe and everything, but a recipe for pure chaos. (I can write an entire article on its own about the absurdities of this education system).
The Department of Basic Education is utterly failing children in the education system. While not every single thing is negative, on the whole, it’s a dismal failure. There are kids in the grade 9 class who don’t have the slightest idea how fractions work. They’re at least 15 years old. Some of them are 18 already… They’re unable to calculate a percentage of something (not even when using a calculator). And it’s not because they’re stupid – a lot of these kids are incredibly bright. I’ve found that in two of the classes, some of the kids who are denounced as “rebels”, “troublemakers” and simply miserable kids, are actually really intelligent. These kids are just completely unstimulated and it’s practically impossible for them to sit still and not cause trouble in classes apparently designed the bore the enamel off your very teeth. Again – see Sir Ken’s talk.
Why is there nobody evaluating these kids and providing the necessary stimulation? Why is there nobody who sees what their abilities and interests actually are and truly guiding them?
Also – what seriously worries me, is why there are no qualified psychologists at such government-funded schools. And I don’t just mean for the kids, but to evaluate the teachers on a regular basis as well. Since I’m now privy to the teachers’ inner circle, I’m quite shocked at what seemingly goes on in the minds of teachers. If it were up to me, I’d really have every single person who works with children submitted for intense psychiatric counselling. Yet again – a whole bunch of these kids who keep getting chased out of classrooms period after period – who are denounced as scum, stupid, malicious – are perfectly fine in my classes. And I’m not claiming to be some sort of miracle worker – the only thing I’ve done, is to treat them and talk to them like they are people. I’ve not patronised anyone, I’ve not shouted at anyone (although I did completely lose my cool with one of the classes once after they were so rowdy that it was quite impossible for anyone to hear anything that I was saying). I’ve not threatened violence.
I have no idea why there are teachers who think that employing these methods is a good way to get people to listen to you, respect you, and take anything you say seriously, much less learn anything from you.
Strike 3 for the DBE: the qualifications of people they employ. And I fall into this category too, I know. But there are people who actually have teacher’s qualifications and teach specific subjects, but then their students come to me to explain the stuff to them. Or just to help them. Why?
Guess what teachers? If your main tactic is to scare your students into submission, they’re not going to come to you with problems. Of any kind – school work related, or personal. And a lot of these kids also have some serious personal problems. And unless these issues are addressed, getting them to sit, concentrate and be interested in the layout of an aeroplane (which also none of them have ever even been near) and the procedures for international flying, is just absurd. It also means that some of these teachers are submitting these kids to even more subtle psychological abuse than many of them are already receiving at home (as well as physical abuse in some cases).
And then you wonder why they skip school, don’t do homework, don’t attend school sport days…
A drastic, dramatic change needs to be made to not only how we teach children, but also what we teach them. There are subjects in the current curriculum that are nothing more than a massive collection of general knowledge facts (and don’t get me wrong – general knowledge is great, but forcing kids to memorise and write exams about what is essentially a themed encyclopaedia, does not convey any skills to them. It won’t help them do a job, or even land one. It doesn’t teach you how to use your brain and it doesn’t teach you any critical thinking or reasoning skills).
But then, last week, a tiny little light came on. I grabbed onto a very small opportunity that presented itself. And while it was a small victory, I think it was an enormous success.
It would seem that I may just have taken the first concrete steps to making the school of my dreams a reality. I’ll tell you all about it next time. 😉