Monday, 13 November 2017

Safety first

Every few weeks we read about some individual, who for some reason, decided to take a gun and mow down a few people in a public place. Often that public place is a school somewhere in the world....people minding their own business, children learning in a place that is supposed to keep them safe during the day while they aren't with their parents.
Few of these episodes have happened in South Africa so far, but we all know that every school is by nature a place where these things can happen tomorrow!
During enrolment interviews, parents often ask me about safety at our school. I laughingly tell them that the fence was put up to protect the copper piping in the school! Although that is the truth, the other truth is that schools are open to the public and any 'public' is not necessarily a good public. Every time we press the remote to open the front gate while all other school gates are locked during the day, we allow a person who could be masquerading as a parent, access to the school. Who determines what a parent looks like? And are all parents, just because they are parents, safe for all children?
Pinelands North has a safety plan, we take all precautions we can to protect our school community, we conduct drills every term, we care for the emotions of our people and we have put safety devices like cameras all over the school. Will this keep us safe?
Safety is our joint responsibility. If every adult who passes through the school, and every child who has access to the school daily, is vigilant about who is around them and what those people are doing, maybe we will stay safer than most schools not too far from us. The reality is though, that schools are not safe places, no matter how much time and effort we put into trying to protect the people therein.   

Monday, 30 October 2017

Managing a school while managing renovations! Almost an impossible task!

Since early July 2017, Pinelands North has had a company employed by the WCED to do scheduled maintenance in their schools, on our premises. First let it be known that we are thrilled that this has happened! I have been principal for more than twenty years at this school, and during this time we have never had this happen before. So, we are not complaining!
However, I have been reflecting on the journey we have taken together, and are still journeying together, and probably will still do into the new year! I would like to place on record, first and foremost, that the Governing Body of Pinelands North made an amazing decision in 2008. We decided to appoint a Business Manager to assist the school principal, after realizing that the principal's job was changing so rapidly that there was no way on earth a principal could manage all the business processes of the school too. We have never regretted making this decision! Our finances have completely turned around and, as principal, I have assistance in all the day-to-day facets of management that an educationalist doesn't need to worry about.
This renovation project is a perfect example! Our Business Manager is able to focus on who is doing what, and when, and how will we move smoothly onto the next phase, while the principal has been able to focus on the staff and pupil needs. We have been asked to ponder on paint colours, on the measurements of windows, on how the new toilets will look but also on how we will manage a school returning after the holiday, with only 2 'boys' toilets still functioning!
And yes, we have had a plan for every day from July until 16 December! The reality though is that in a school that has had superficial maintenance done on it, windows don't close if you paint them for the twentieth time, and paint does start peeling off doors if you put another coat on top of twenty others! Each time this happens, it sets the whole plan back a few days, no matter how much planning preceded the problem!
And then we have parents who become unnecessarily concerned about smells in classrooms which have been closed for a weekend......Heath and safety has been our prime concern at all times. The most 'unsafe' renovations have happened over weekends and holidays, while the school community isn't around.
The workmen have now become our friends, and their supervisors our confidantes. Between us we are managing a building site on which we have 450 pupils daily, and many staff. And yes, in the European Union countries they would have closed the school so that the renovations could be done. At Pinelands North we carry on with teaching, assessments, break time play and sports events. The Business Manager manages the renovation plan and the principal manages the usual school plan - together achieving more than could be achieved in countries just over the waters!

Monday, 9 October 2017

Raising children positively

Melissa and Leigh
When I was young and gave my parents a hard time, I was given a hiding. Most adults my age remember getting hit at school too. Disciplining children today is very different, and particularly at our school. Parents have asked me how best to support the school’s positive discipline strategies, and so here are a few of my thoughts after doing some reading on the matter:

Focus on the value you want to teach, not the behaviour that is worrying you. Only make family rules that are based on the values you want to teach. If your child lies to you about not having homework, don’t focus on the homework that hasn’t been done, but rather on the value of being honest.

The better your relationship with your child, the easier it will be to discipline. When a child does something wrong, focus on the behaviour, but make sure that they know you will always love them, regardless of the behaviour. Children who are anxious will immediately think that you will stop loving them and that aren’t good enough.

Acknowledge when you make mistakes so that children know it is normal to make mistakes. Children must see adults getting things wrong so that they don’t feel the need to be perfect.

Separate a child’s emotions from their behaviour. Tell them you understand that they might be angry or frustrated, but that throwing things at people is not the way to deal with the feeling. If they are very overwhelmed, acknowledge their feelings at that point and deal with the issue later when they are calmer. At times of high emotion, no-one can think clearly.

Don’t do emotional blackmail, threaten or lecture. Make sure that you tell the truth, and you are able to carry out the ‘threat’.

Wendy and Kieran
Routines create safety. Children love routines as boundaries make them feel safe. When things are unpredictable, children want home to be as predictable and safe as possible. Be predictable yourself too – children want the adults in their lives to act predictably. Ensure that the adults who live in your home react in the same manner to all ‘rules’. Children are very clever at manipulating situations if they perceive that the adults in the home think differently.

Give children choices whenever possible. If two things are given as options children still feel as if they have some ‘power’ over their responses. Giving warnings of time also work like this – when you want your children to tidy up, warn them 5 minutes before so that they have some measure of accountability over how the action is carried out.

React appropriately and don’t over react to small things. Save your energy for the important ‘fights’ and let the others go.

Don’t over or under estimate your children. Over estimating children can make them feel like a failure and add to their stress, and underestimating children kills their confidence.

And finally, remember that humans aren’t perfect. Life wouldn’t be worth ‘doing’ if we were perfect when we were born. Mistakes help us learn and grow, and a gentle ‘leader’ helps us still believe in ourselves when we make mistakes. Be gentle on your children and on yourself, and if you are overwhelmed by the ‘disciplining’ job, ask for help – there is plenty around. Contact for the details of some courses you could attend.   

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Good Principal Wanted

Having been the principal of Pinelands North for more than twenty years this year, and realizing that I only have about seven years to retirement, has made me reflect on my appointment and on the teaching fraternity’s view of principalship as a whole.
Few teachers aspire to be principals in the current education climate in South Africa. The wide area of responsibility, little support from education officials and the low salaries compared with other positions in education means that most people who have reached deputy principal level would prefer to stay in that position rather than move up.
They say that a principal’s job is a lonely one. It certainly is as principals often fall into the middle ground between the pupils and the teachers, the parents and education officials, and between the education department and the school community.
The requirements of the job at a school like ours currently means that the principal needs to still be a teacher, but must also be a counsellor of children and adults, a finance and debt collecting whizzkid, a negotiator, a maintenance advisor and project manager, and a human resource manager. Most of those skills are not taught! Certainly not taught while the future principal is a deputy principal and ‘principal in waiting’!
I have also been reflecting on the confidence the Governing Body of this school put in me when they appointed me! I was a woman and very few women had been principals of co-ed schools in 1997, and Pinelands North had had four men over the forty something years up until then. I was also only thirty-seven years of age, had only officially been a deputy for eighteen months, and I wore short skirts and had spiky hair!  
Principals who will lead schools into the future will need even more skill than I currently need. They will lead the school to a destination that is currently not known, using skills that are currently not available and they will still need to walk into the future, bravely and confidently!
Apparently in Finland currently, those people who become principals are usually History or Maths teachers, or they teach Physical Education! In his book “Top Class” Ari Pokka suggests reasons for this: organizing timetables requires logical mathematical thinking, managing, analyzing and interpreting is an historical skill, and organizing large groups of people is often done by physical education teachers!
So, while I am still fit and agile (and not yet 65), we should grow our own ‘timber’- we have seven years to recruit an amazing human being who can lead this wonderful school towards it’s hundredth birthday!   

Monday, 30 January 2017

New Standards for children and screen time

Matt uses his iPad during class every day

In Time magazine of 7 November 2016, there was an interesting parenting article that confronts our current knowledge about the positive and negative affects of young children using technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics used to warn that any amount of time spent on technology, even educational apps, would lead to poor reading, or bad language skills. They have recently changed their stance against screen time, and instead published some pointers to help parents. The article really made sense so I decided to share some of their thoughts on how to help your children have a better relationship with technology.
Firstly, Dr David Hill, spokesperson for the AAP’s Council on Communications and Media, says that babies as young as 18 months get great pleasure from technology that connects them to people. Therefore when one parent is away on business, or grandparents live far away, a good idea is to use videochat for them to connect with the absent family. Not mentioned in the article but something I have seen used very effectively for a similar reason, is to load family photographs onto an unused cellphone and give it to the young child. Particularly when photographs include those of the child themselves, this entertains the child for a long while, reinforces family bonds and memories.
Ethan and mom, Rose, working on the library computer
The second suggestion Dr Hill has is that parents should watch good programmes with their children between the ages of 2 and 5. If the parent engages with the child while watching good content on a podcast, the learning, which results from this, can be used everywhere else.
Thirdly he warns parents that they should make sure they know what their older children are watching. He reminds us again that we need to ensure that programmes with violence or explicit sex are not available to children of any age because they learn from what they see.
Finn researching for a school project
‘Be a good example yourself’, he reminds us! So, turn off your phone at certain times, don't leave the television on continually and watch good content. He also reminds us to lead by example when operating on social media – if our children see us insulting someone online they will think that that’s acceptable behaviour. This point reminds me that we should also ensure that we show our children that we can manage without technology while on holiday for instance. Read your own paper novels as well as literature found on your Kindle, too.

Finally he asks that we keep open minds and be sensible about limiting screen time, and allowing children to engage with the right content. If these points are born in mind, no technology will damage your child in their formative years.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Developing spiritual intelligence in our school community

My reading lately has been around developing intelligence in people, and I have been particularly interested in the recent focus on Spiritual Intelligence. Cindy Wigglesworth, the President of Deep Change, Inc, has written an article on the history of ‘intelligence’, which culminates in her sharing her definition of spiritual intelligence and why she thinks the world today is in desperate need of this intelligence being developed.

How high can you go?
When we adults were at school, intelligence tests only told our teachers and parents about whether we were mathematically and linguistically intelligent. Those who struggled to read or compute were considered not to be ready to succeed in the world. In reality, we know that this is not true as many really successful people were not great at school!

In 1983, Howard Gardner wrote a book which had us new teachers really excited – he declared that actually people had 7 intelligences and that we as teachers should be encouraging children to develop in all 7. Later he reviewed his idea by joining ‘interpersonal’ and ‘intrapersonal’ intelligences together into emotional intelligence. He was also one of the first ‘thinkers’ to suggest that there was also a ‘philosophical intelligence’.

Team building at its best!
Daniel Goleman then continued the intelligence discussion with his book in 1985. He said that ‘star performers had significantly stronger relationship and personal networks than average performers’. He joined Richard Boyatzis to declare later that EQ was made up of skills in 4 quadrants: self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills and ‘other’ awareness. After research Goleman and Boyatzis found that self-awareness needed to be grown before any of the others as a person couldn’t do any of the others if they weren’t aware of their feelings etc.  

Cindy defines spiritual intelligence as ‘ the innate human need to connect with something larger than ourselves’. She says this has 2 components: a horizontal and a vertical component. The vertical component is obvious – the connection to a higher being, and the horizontal component is ‘service to our fellow human beings and to the planet at large’.

Pinelands North Primary has always developed spiritual intelligence in our pupils. Leadership activities like LEAP, which was put together for grade 4 to 7 pupils in the first week of our 2017 school year, encourage children to reflect on their own growth in kindness, persistence, generosity of spirit and that of others. These activities also encourage children to be relentless in their pursuit of life. Children learn to reflect on how they can be more courageous in tackling life’s issues themselves, and then help others battling in life too.

As part of this programme we have developed a pathway of thought in the quiet quad alongside the hall. Children are encouraged to go there if they are struggling with the ‘boulders’ in their lives, to reflect, have some quiet time or just to sit and think. We are also currently building a labyrinth in another quad, Beck se Plek, and will be changing the ‘flooring’ to various different textures.

Creating thinking stones for the Quiet Quad
The animals at our school create beautiful opportunities for empathy development - duckling dying after being attacked by a crow IS sad, but is also necessary as food for the crow. Not chasing our animals is another thing we insist on – questions are asked which allow children to reflect on their feelings about being chased, and so we help them understand how animals feel.

Creating 'flags' for our Quiet Quad
Cindy ends her article by explaining why she thinks spiritual intelligence is so important in our current world. She correctly notes that most wars are caused by diverse religious beliefs, so if we teach children to ‘behave with compassion and wisdom, while maintaining inner and outer peace, regardless of the circumstances’, we will be creating adults for the world who can become empathetic presidents of countries who will think twice and negotiate in faith before considering invading another country.

Family dinner times are perfect times for families to share thoughts that help children learn about spiritual intelligence. While having supper, ponder some of these questions as a family:
What did you do today that showed your friends you can be generous?
How were you courageous this weekend?
Tell me one wise thing your teacher told you today? Why was it ‘wise”?
What will you do the next time you have a fight with your siblings, that shows that you can be forgiving?

Obviously the adults that children come into contact with need to model these spiritual intelligent behaviours too. They have a very important role to play in showing children how to be respectful of other religions and peoples, how to reconcile family arguments, and how important it is for people to have some time in their week when they are mindful, meditate or practice their beliefs. By doing this, you are creating spiritually intelligent adults for 2030!

Additional reading: Google ‘spiritual intelligence’ or go to

Friday, 6 January 2017

What's the fuss about hair?

The Anderson family wearing the same sports' uniform
The fuss in the press lately about hair, uniforms and other possibly discriminatory policies at schools, has had me confused. I had just presumed that all schools had been changing over the years in the same way as Pinelands North has done. When the SA Constitution and the UN Convention of the Rights of Children, declared that everybody, including children, have rights to many freedoms, we took that literally and so have changed the wording in our policies that might have caused distress and unease over the years. This isn’t because we feel ‘generous’ to children, it is actually about giving children what is owed to them.

Changing our uniform in 2003 was the first step. After discussions with all role players, our very colonial boys' uniform of tie, blazer, long sleeve white shirts, grey shorts or trousers, and red checked dresses or maroon gym slip, white shirt and tie for girls, changed to an all season, unisex uniform of navy shorts or trousers, golf shirt and maroon fleece. This change was radical at the time, and we received lots of flack for the change – some more conservative families actually chose not to send their children to the school because our uniform 'was not smart enough' any longer.

The Bohms family wearing the same school uniform 
In about 2008 the hair regulations also changed, so since then the policy has read:  If hair touches the collar, it should be tied up. So far only two boys have chosen to wear their hair longer and so have had it tied up too. No boy has yet tested the earring 'rule'. This part of the dress code reads: Only a pair of small gold or silver studs may be worn.   

Transgender children have also found a home at our school. Because we have a unisex uniform, the transition is easier. After being at our school for 3 years, Angela (not her real name), came out to the school this year. After her mom told her peers' parents, she told her grade. She is exceptionally proud of the fact that she 'changed' our swimming costume 'rule' - she asked us to allow children to wear their maroon shorts over their swimming costumes, to protect children who wanted more covering over their bodies when swimming.

Other changes over the years have happened whenever we have realised that, with another small change, we can become even more inclusive. Next year our Red-a-Fair in March will be raising much needed funds to convert all our school bathrooms to single toilets which are accessed directly from the passage. This year we completed our new ablution block on the fields and these are unisex toilets. Why so much money was expended on creating school toilets with ante-rooms in front of the toilets, is mind boggling.

Pinelands North continues on the inclusive journey…..every time we make accommodations for one group in the school, the whole school benefits. For us it is not about getting media attention because we generously choose to listen to our children – we listen to our children, our parents and our staff and try, as far as possible and as often as is necessary, to create a better society for us all to inhabit. After all, isn’t that what education should be about?