To change mind-set that conforms with one norm start with teachers

It is so disheartening to witness the relentless display of racism and sexism in our educational institutions.

From the display of Nazi symbolism in posters on the campus of the University of Stellenbosch to the student posters depicting women as sexual objects at the University of Pretoria, there is no shame on the part of these young men.

It is the same people who feign surprise when they are called out on their bigotry and for whom religious piety and outright prejudice exist in happy harmony.

I know from experience how difficult it is to change the minds of young men for whom the humiliation of black people or of women is so routine to their experiences at home and in society. Yet I have also learnt that early intervention matters, ideally in the home but more effectively in the schools.

That is why I am so excited about a new project to transform education called Building Inclusive Schools. Two experienced educators are about to embark on a nation-wide project with teachers to transform their schools and classrooms.

The very public protests against regulations governing young women’s hair – and cultural prejudice in general – at former white schools in Pretoria and Cape Town were a wake-up call. Such an intervention is long overdue. But where to start?

For this intervention to work requires teachers to acknowledge there is a problem. But my guess is that many South African teachers do not believe there is a problem. They are likely to claim they do not discriminate among the children under their charge.

Some teachers will no doubt be incensed by the very suggestion that they might distinguish among their students. This sense of innocence is so deeply ingrained in well-meaning and committed teachers that such an intervention will encounter uphill from the start.

This is where the project depends, in the first place, on leadership. School principals that can persuade their fellow professionals about the danger of pretending that all is well and bring skeptical teachers into the project. A good principal will warn of the dangers of innocence and point to precedent – schools like Pretoria Girls and Sans Souci really did think they were doing the right things, until the lid came off a boiling pot. The reputational harm to these outstanding schools was incalculable.

But the project also depends on the skill and experience of the project leaders.

Dylan Wray has led the highly successful project called Facing the past – transforming our future, which empowers teachers and students to deal with our divided history. Roy Hellenberg is an astute teacher leader, history teacher and school head who is widely respected among educators. Both men are compassionate and competent professionals who know how to win the trust of teachers on sensitive topics.

They will begin with everyday stories of teachers and students about inclusion and inclusion. Nothing works better than the real-life experiences of those who teach and learn as the starting point for change.

They will draw attention to unconscious bias (UB) in the everyday decisions that teachers make. Fortunately there is now a mountain of research evidence on UB from how boys are expected to do better in science than girls or how teachers hold lower expectations of poor students or how white students are more likely to be called on than black students. The most important observation that can be made of educational research on UB is its consistency across multicultural societies.

Still, it will not be easy. A teacher might genuinely believe that there must be a standard for how girls present their hair in schools every day. That in itself is not an issue. The problem is when there is one standard and that the preferred standard is one that privileges white, middle class notions of what accepted headdress is.

To convince teachers that standards are not universal and that historical standards – of a former white school, for example – should respond to the norms and values of a democratic society, is no easy feat.

The good news is that in every school there are likely to be teachers who are open to new learning on this difficult subject. They form the critical mass in any organisation pushing innovation and change. Such professionals know that it is better to confront difficult problems in peace time than to react in a crisis.

My appeal to all schools is therefore simple – the past two years of upheaval in education teach us one critical lesson. We can no longer postpone having these difficult conversations. We ignore the warning signs at our peril.

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