Teachers and Teaching

The other day I was invited to the 20 year reunion of the 1997 class of St John’s College. It was fascinating to hear what they remembered and what I remembered. This started me thinking once again about the incredible privilege and responsibility it is to be a teacher.

My subject was mainly Biology.  As I have spoken to past pupils from the decades, there are a few who remember and who were inspired by the academic work done. Largely however, what is remembered are the words of encouragement, acts of compassion, and the time spent without expectation of reward.  Think of the teachers you remember fondly and you will agree, I am sure.

Would you encourage your daughter to become a teacher? 

The life of a teacher can be incredibly demanding, especially today. This is evident (world-wide) in the extent to which teachers move from the profession before five years is up.  Despite relatively low salaries compared to the private sector, money in itself is not the critical issue for most. The reason we choose teaching (or more accurately are called to teaching) is to make a difference to young people’s lives and to contribute to society. With a minimum of four years professional training, and some with many years of experience, the lack of respect for teachers by society in general and many parents in particular is astonishing.

In the past, I am talking perhaps 40 years ago, family structures were relatively intact, and belonging to community structures such as churches was normal. Today the school plays the role of parent, family, church and community, struggling to give individuals that critical sense of belonging that makes one feel whole and alive.  In the world of fractured family, it is the school which provides normality, constancy and a place of hope. These factors make the profession even more important than ever.

Would you encourage your daughter to become a teacher?

You must master your subject, and the pedagogy around it. You must cope with the increasing demands of assessment of every sort, and know how to set tests and assignments which challenge the clever, and encourage the weak. Your evenings and weekends, half terms and even holidays have been in training and learning, accompanying, and preparation, marking and more marking. You must be a consummate public relations expert as you deal with the entitlement, aspirations and ignorance of difficult parents (they are few, but always present.) You must offer more than just your subject, be an IT expert, never have a bad day, and hold yourself responsible for any set back, because today it is rarely the pupil’s fault.

Would you encourage your daughter to become a teacher?

You must watch as year by year matrics leave after being in your class for five years, without so much as a thank you, despite the tears you have shed for and with them, and the joy you have celebrated with them. You have encouraged them to be adults, while many have not been taught to respect adults. You have encouraged them to overcome obstacles when many parents have spent their life making sure their child does not encounter any opposition at all. You have reprimanded and praised, punished and rewarded, and then they simply walk away at the end of the year without even a “thank you.”

Would you encourage your daughter to become a teacher?

You have coached sports you had to learn and have been abused by parents who try to live their failed sport lives out in their children. You have spent late cold nights at plays and performances and then waited while parents finish their dinner before picking their child up. You have held lessons after school and on weekends and half terms without payment. You have had to deal with gossip and innuendo from the car park brigade, and shrugged  it off. You have raised your voice once in class and reprimanded an offender only to be accused within minutes by a mother of shouting at and belittling her child.

Would you encourage our daughter to become a teacher?

Please do.

For nothing can beat the exhilaration of knowing twenty years later that the hour spent with a recalcitrant adolescent was a turning point in his life; that the bird watching field trip inspired a man to become chairman of Bird Life South Africa, that a biology lesson sparked a love of conservation in a lecturer at St Andrew’s in Edinburgh.  Nothing can replace seeing a successful man or woman emerge, and knowing you played a part.

Please do.

For nothing can beat the feeling of the “aha” moment as a concept falls into place, or a student moves from one level to another, as shining eyes replace troubled faces. We are in it to make a difference. And we do.

Even if our beloved pupils only realise it 20 years later……that is reward enough.

There is no better job than being a teacher.



Dear St Mary’s DSG Community

In 2029 St Mary’s DSG will celebrate her 150th birthday. I will be 73 and I hope that I will receive an invitation to the festivities.

I wonder what I will find?

I know the day will start with a celebration of the Eucharist and that the form of service will be much the same as today. The subtle scent of incense will still symbolically bestow a sense of holiness and ascension to our worship. Some songs sung will be the same, but others will be more modern and I will probably cluck my tongue to myself about “these new songs!” An African rhythm will pulse the air as the Chapel choir sings for those present accompanied by a melodious set of marimbas. Hopefully the congregation will be moved to sway and dance as the Spirit of joy moves amongst us. The School Hymn will end the service with a transcendent descant bringing goose-bumps to us all.

The Bishop of Pretoria will have preached, and he will have said basically “Well, here we are. God is good, always. We made it! Now, what of the next 50?”

The University of Pretoria will be even more dominant in the area than it is now, and St Mary’s DSG will be an oasis of order amongst the bustle of a busy university suburb.

The campus will be much the same but a few multiple story buildings will have gone up, using up the only space that is available. I hope to see a fully-fledged theatre amongst those, perhaps even serving as an additional hub for the creativity of wider Pretoria. A Pre-school accepting girls from Grade 000 will have been started.

The school will still be relatively small in numbers creating the intimate space where girls are known. The uniform will be much the same, with the blue of the African skies and the brick red of the African ground still dominant.

The curriculum will be much changed and new subjects will be amongst the mix as the school desperately tries to keep in touch with the changing world. An “artist in residence” will be busy working in the Art Centre, and a “conductor in residence” will be working with the Music department.

A new aquatic centre will have been built and the existing pool will be an extension of the hall flowing into the squash courts.

Traffic will be horrendous. The Gautrain will have spread its network to provide a Hillcrest stop parallel with Lynwood road, and daygirls will largely arrive by train. Those who don’t will arrive in buses which will have left the school before dawn to pick up girls all over the town.

An integrated day will be in place, and all girls will spend all day at school. There will be no home-work done at home. Exams will have disappeared in their current format, and all assessments will be done on line, at the pace of each individual. Learning will be far more individualised. Traditional teaching and classrooms will have almost disappeared, and the curriculum will focused on High Velocity Learning through discovery and problem solving. Content will be delivered in bursts when needed. Virtual Reality will be a daily experience as girls find themselves immersed in a world of 3D in every subject.

Together, with a group of other “geriatric” educators, invited back for this auspicious day, I hope to be able to say “We did good! We enabled the school to move forward, but made sure it retained its heartbeat.”

As we do today.


Unsurprisingly, the focus of discussions at the conference I recently attended with 342 other Principals of Independent Schools has been around the events at universities and schools lately. They are intricately related. At this conference we listened to Vice-Chancellors of universities, as well as students and scholars involved in protest. We also listened to the shared experience of each other (in a huge diversity of schools.)

In addition I have been in discussion with Bishop Allan in my capacity as Canon Chancellor of the Diocese of Pretoria, and, of course as Head of School.

The Governing Body has agreed that it is important that I communicate some thoughts to you on this matter, as we cannot pretend that we are an island at this time.

Let me start with my personal starting point as the Head of St Mary’s DSG. Two things are important here: firstly I have acknowledged in front of the whole senior school that I cannot take my own past away, and that despite my own attempts and my protected, liberal and strongly Anglican upbringing, even now, I am scarred by apartheid South Africa. We all are! I must take this into account all the time as I interrogate how I relate and lead, and sometimes unwelcome thoughts, words and actions appear which remind me of this. Secondly, my own faith and that of this school, defines our relationship, one to another, in a way which gives us hope and purpose which society cannot give. We are all “made in the image of God”, and our relationship as “Daughters (and Sons!) of the King”, stands before all other criteria which may attempt to separate us. What an advantage we have!

I will move on to the universities next, not only because for many of our girls this is where they will go, but also because these current events form a prism through which they see new perspectives.  Despite all the negative attention in the press, before this current crisis, no teaching time had been lost, and for ALL our major universities the indicators of quality, such as results and research, improved in 2015. Our universities continue to offer superb value for money. From a social-political point of view the fees issue is real. As real state investment in tertiary institutions has decreased over the years and costs increased, the ability of poorer students to attend has reached a critical point, and has blown up in our faces. The VCs said that “in 10 days students achieved what they (the VCs) had been asking for, for 10 years!” As you know, no fee increases were introduced for 2016 and money was found to fund much of the gap. It has been learned through this that the State acts and can find money when pressed hard enough in this way. Where this money has come from has not been interrogated. At the time of writing, the Minister of Higher Education has announced a “not more than 8% increase” which has unleashed a predictable fury by what has been dubbed “the vociferous minority.” The way in which universities will individually apply this has not been given time to emerge, but money will have to be provided to subsidise the poor and those who can afford to will have to pay more.  While universities have contingencies to engage and to protect, there is, a nihilist/anarchist agenda attached to some of these acts which is difficult to act against.

What about the university students? The current movement lacks leadership and coherence, but this doesn’t mean that there are not real issues out there. If a few random tweets can galvanise huge protest, and even educated young folk, many from independent schools, can say that they understand wanton acts of destruction of property (even if they don’t condone it) , we need to take this subliminal rage seriously.

My understanding is that two major issues are at play: one is a lack of hope, and the other a deep social conviction that poverty has been forgotten. Our young people see the world we have left them, and they are not delighted with the mess they see. Then they see the vast majority of their compatriots who have been forgotten, amidst their own privilege together with  endless corruption and wastage. They are angry that they have been stuck in the middle to pick up the pieces; angry with their parents who achieved political liberation and then forgotten the poor; angry with the politicians who have simply “not got it!” They are also angry with the neo-liberal philosophy which underpins modern economies: if you work hard it will be alright, with the underlying flip side of “if you are poor you are not working hard enough.”  In this dispensation people have learned that if you want to be noticed, violence does the trick and as it seems other means have failed, “what are the alternatives?”

Those precious university years are times where real education begins, and our young people learn about the unprotected world, and are encouraged to debate and question the world order. Yet at the same time there is a narcissism about their actions. They want to “occupy space,” “to be noticed” and they want it now!

What about schools?

Schools are not universities! Learners from our schools are minor children and even when they turn 18 they remain bound by the Codes of Conduct and disciplines of their school and under their parents’ discipline. It would be grossly irresponsible to regard them as “mature minds.”  We presume that the acceptance of the Codes by the parents and the sacrifices they make to enable a St Mary’s DSG education underpins a resonance between them and the rules and values of the school.

Does that mean that our schools are places that remain static as society faces change and challenge? Of course not! Schools must be places where adolescents (and all children) feel safe. That means parameters and rules. Part of that means the safety to err, to learn how to question, to be respectful and show manners in good times and difficulty.  It is expected that as the girls approach matric that events at universities will inform their thinking and space must be made to listen. Anxiety as the unknown future beckons after the relative protection of school is inevitable. Part of our responsibility must be to prepare the girls for the environment they will encounter in the future.

It has become abundantly clear that the underlying currents of our young people, have been undetected, and that platforms need to be formed where they can express themselves and adults can listen. (This word “listen” is vital as it changes the power dynamic of a conversation.) We have started this transformational listening at St Mary’s DSG in earnest, and will continue to do so in order that all our girls will feel more abundantly at home, more abundantly loved and more abundantly understood.  I commend these thoughts for discussion at home as well.


I used to love exams. The change of routine and amount of free time suited me down to the ground. I knew that by and large I would do fine, and by that I mean get over 50%. I usually managed that, but not always. I also knew that my parents knew me, and had the patience to wait for me to spark which happened in the subjects I clicked with. I never felt under undue pressure, even if my siblings were by and large academic achievers.

The vast majority of this school are entering the exam period. My I remind parents that neither they nor their daughters are defined by the academic success. Success for one lass may mean something different to the success of another. Comparative analysis of results of your lass with others is simply destructive.

A story goes that a precocious young boy arrived home to find his dad looking disapprovingly at his report. “Explain these results!” demanded dad. “Heredity and environment,” replied the lad. There is no question that each person has a range of ability passed on by parents, with the position that he or she occupies in that range determined by environment (home and school.) Remember that always. The manner in which the genes re-assemble by no means guarantees familial traits are passed on in the manner in which they are assembled in parents and siblings!

Another story is told of the dad who asked his son how his exam went. The son replied “They asked me questions I didn’t know, so I gave them answers they would not know!”  Exams of today are not the exams we wrote as school kids. Knowledge, while important, is not the purpose. The skills acquired during the year are a major part of the assessment and exams are carefully set and moderated to cover many different skills. Studying facts is important, but the skills are much more important. Hours of studying and learning facts cannot suddenly compensate for skills not mastered.

What we know to be important during these periods are diet and sleep. “Comfort” eating and junk food must be avoided and sleep must be long. This is what science clearly tells us. Pizza and late nights are not what the doctor orders!

The jury on the value of exams as part of the educational process is still out, and is roughly split. At many universities students who have demonstrated mastery during the term are exempted exams. We have an increasing emphasis on the importance of SBA (School Based Assessment) which means that all work done at school has some bearing on the final result. The requirement for portfolio collections for matric, means that the mastery of skills acquired through the years can be demonstrated. While exams are the agreed marker points we must prepare our girls for them….and let’s face it….they do improve motivation!

Best wishes to all through this period.

To the moms and dads who feel more anxious about the exams than your daughter appears to be. You have done well.  Anxiety is not helpful at all.

To the staff who set, moderate and mark, this is a tough period. A holiday lies ahead. Thank you for your efforts this year.

To our girls…breath deep and slow…exams are show off time! You were made for goodness. All that is required is your best effort. No one can ask more.

Groen droogte..The illusion that all is OK?

Dear St Mary’s Community

January and February have flown!

As I sit and write this letter the skies are cloudy and blissfully cool. As always I am trying to think what needs to be said and what the community needs to hear.

Perhaps, in the context of the present drought, I can write about the message I gave the girls these last two weeks in assembly. Having returned from a few days in the bush over half term I was struck once again by the deception of “groen droogte,” that is having enough rain to keep the surface green but not enough to sustain real growth for feeding.

The analogy for us and St Mary’s DSG could not be clearer.  “Character” is about who you are, personality is how you behave.  If you do not have depth of character, those positive attributes of personality will not emerge and the negative attributes of personality will not be under control.

I read a great quote in this regard “if you are not careful you will be measured by what you do and not by who you are.”

Let me give an example. The great adult instruction “Do what I tell you to do not what you see me do” is wasted breath. Children will echo another quote “What you do speaks to me much more loudly than what you say.” Even more importantly is this famous quote “Who you are speaks so loud that I can’t hear a word you are saying.”

At St Mary’s DSG we are most interested in character; that is the moulding of girls of integrity whose values resonate with the needs of the world and her peoples.  We cannot preach a loving world if how we talk and act towards each other is not loving; we cannot preach a transformed society if our hearts are not transformed;  we cannot preach a common humanity if we do not act humanely towards all; we cannot preach understanding if we don’t make the effort to understand.

Our country is beset by problems resulting from exactly the issue I am raising. I am continually amazed at how little actual listening is done…listening from the context of the other. It seems that more and more people listen with their ears and not their hearts. That is not listening at all.

I am determined that St Mary’s DSG (with all its flaws) will make every effort to be a microcosm of how the world and this nation should and could be.

Under Pressure

Dear St Mary’s Community

Up at 05:30, shower and dress, yoghurt and fruit in the car on the way to work, coffee from the petrol station, arrive at school 06:30. Check up on homework, read through work for test, line up at 07:20. School until 13:50. Lunch. Extra lesson. Orchestra. Sport until 17:30. Home by 18:00. Relax, dinner, 19:30 start homework and if time allows revise. 11:00 (if lucky) sleep.

Day after day, week after week, day after day week after week.

Under pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Food prices up, petrol up, crime up, corruption up, inflation up, interest rates up, unemployment up, university acceptance requirements up, and the rand down.

Under pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It is June already. Pace up!

Under pressure!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It is not a case of losing the plot…it is very clear that we have lost the plot in this modern world.

We are unable to bear silence because of the loneliness of our hearts, missing out on the exquisite refreshment of solitude. Our need for constant stimulation means that we must talk, rather than enjoy the mystery of the simple presence of the ones we love. Our rush leads us to look ahead, frantically eliminating risk, missing the sacred that lies at our feet in the wonder of daily lives. The future occupies our every thought, while God is present in the here and now. We nurture our under-nourished souls with the false lure of immediate gratification like addicts searching for a next fix, when what we crave is real relationships and meaningful purpose. We look for answers to the cruel realities of life in man-made deities and quasi religion whilst missing the still small voice of love which talks to us continually. We plug into devices which pretend reality, but which lie profoundly, and eliminate the delight of everyday sounds behind the isolation of headphones.

Each of us knows the truth of these words, indeed we know what to do, but it seems that success in the eyes of the world is only available to those who subscribe to the “ways of the world.”

Breathe deeply beloved. Breathe deeply and slow down. Meet each other’s eyes and smile at the depth of love and divinity in each. Let your touch convey deep sacramental meaning of acceptance beyond achievement, and let your voice minister not just to the intellect but to the very purpose of life.

We are not destined to live “under pressure.” We do not have to. We live “under Grace.”

A succesful school?

Dear St Mary’s Community

I would love to tell you about my children.

But I won’t!

Don’t we love to boast about our offspring? Don’t we love it when they are successful, first of all in small things and then in big things. But aren’t we just a teeny bit competitive? “My child walked at nine months, when did yours?”  It is not just about our child shining, but that they should shine brighter than others.

I hear parents on the side of the sport field. Encouragement resonates but so also does the need to win. Is winning actually an important life skill?  What is success?

Speak to those whose lives are waning and we all know that what we will be told stands powerfully juxtaposed to how we live. Love more, buy less. Find happiness, not possessions. Build relationships. Be content with what you have. Live simply. Help others.

What success would a school have which stands deliberately apart from the driving need to be successful, the need to compete and to win, and actually teaches sacrificial service, humility, community and simplicity? I am sure that you and I want St Mary’s DSG to be these latter things, but we also want to be seen as the best, to win.

Marketing is essentially boasting about those things which attract customers, and exercising practices which will keep them. How does this fit in with humility? It is a difficult question. You and I, like we are with our children are not really content that St Mary’s DSG is just successful. We want to say that we are the best (and add hopefully that my daughter makes it the best!)

As we reach the winter half term, we are all aware of the long 9 weeks to reach this point, and I thought I would share these thoughts that I am wrestling with.

My other thoughts look back on the events of the half term: a new bishop, all the sporting activities, all the concerts, all the parent interaction, music Thursdays, assessments, marks and comments, chapel services and assemblies, meetings of the Governing Body and Sub Committees, pastoral concerns and interventions, management meetings, budgets, laughs and tears……it has been a rich half term, fully delivering the holistic education for which we are known.

My thoughts also dwell on the recent Tshwane unrest, the greed of tenderpreneurs, Brexit and economic uncertainty, nationalism and mass immigration, ISIS and suicide bombers, the homeless, poverty and corruption. It is not an easy world to be in. The solutions to thoughts that I am grappling with for the school must provide solutions in the future, and the girls who leave our school must take the solution out.

That then is a school involved in true education.