A learning experience: Jonathan Jansen at a workshop at Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Cape Town. Jansen says schools operate in society and therefore reflect racism, sexism and classism in their daily routines. Picture: SUPPLIED
A learning experience: Jonathan Jansen at a workshop at Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Cape Town. Jansen says schools operate in society and therefore reflect racism, sexism and classism in their daily routines. Picture: SUPPLIED

Schools, the only institutions that every citizen is obliged to attend, are the perfect places to extend democracy by building diversity and inclusivity, say three top educationists.

They have been using classrooms as petri dishes and are about to publish their findings and tips for building cohesion in a book, A School Where I Belong: Creating Inclusive and Transformed South African Schools.

Roy Hellenberg, Dylan Wray and Prof Jonathan Jansen say they have six tips — with a specific focus on race — to help teachers create equitable and democratic classrooms where all learners will feel they belong.

"Our review of international research and practice, as well as our extensive experience in working with schools nationally and internationally, has led us to conclude that there are six things schools should be doing as they transform to become more diverse and inclusive. The book is an opportunity for us to share those six things," Hellenberg says.

The three men, all born and raised in Cape Town, have a long history in education and have worked across the country in various capacities and institutions. Jansen is a distinguished professor in the faculty of education at Stellenbosch University and a former vice-chancellor at the University of the Free State. Hellenberg taught at Durban Boys’ High School and Silverstream High School, among others and Wray taught at Wynberg Girls’ High School and Westerford High School.

They devised a programme, A School Where I Belong, which organises workshops to help teachers create inclusive and tolerant environments in their classrooms. The workshops are primarily held at private and former model C schools.

They hosted their first learner dialogue at Rustenburg Girls’ High School in Cape Town in May.

"The work we’ve been doing for the past two years is an extension of that very basic work of building a democracy — or democratic citizens — in SA, and helping to equip teachers to do that because teaching and teaching institutions are the only places in the whole of this country every single South African will need to go through," Hellenberg says.

Following the #FeesMustFall university protests — which critiqued and fought against several systemic oppressions including access, sexism and racism — Pretoria Girls’ High and San Souci Girls’ High erupted in protest in 2016.

Learners questioned institutional culture and racism, with the policing of black students’ hair a major theme. That was spark for Hellenberg, Wray and Jansen to formalise the work they had been doing for decades.

Model C and private schools remain, for the most part, institutions with a population that is majority white, and where racism and identity erosion are concerns for black learners. A School Where I Belong is working to ensure that black pupils are no longer othered at these schools.

"After Pretoria Girls’ High made their voices heard, it was clear that former model C and private schools were not necessarily living in a bubble but instead with the belief that they were doing things right and that there are no problems in their schools," says Wray.

"What Pretoria Girls’ High showed was that at the vast majority of schools where integration happens — and we know that happens in a minority of schools in SA — there has been an overarching bias towards assimilation." Being a minority in a predominantly white school brings into question who gets celebrated and, more importantly, what it takes to become celebrated.

A School Where I Belong questions the interest that principals, headmasters and headmistresses have in transforming schools into more inclusive spaces — and how it benefits them, or doesn’t.

In challenging the white normativity of exclusive schools, the programme addresses unconscious bias. While using racial slurs or otherwise overtly racist language or behaviour is abhorrent, the education trifecta of Hellenberg, Wray and Jansen contend that smaller moments create more lasting damage.

"Unconscious bias is the most debilitating and destructive issue that we’ve had to contend with in our work. I believe that making people aware of it and how it plays out in schools has been the biggest impact that we’ve had to this point," says Hellenberg.

"Most teachers have never thought about their actions as being biased against other racial groups. And of course that would be true because it’s implicit — it’s in the tone of voice, it’s in the smiles or lack of smiles you give to students, the proximity that you stand close to a person, how many times you ask them questions, all of those things.

"You’re not even aware of that bias, so why would you deal with something that doesn’t exist?"

Schools normalise exclusive behaviour by fostering or encouraging it, which makes classrooms the places to begin to create active, empathetic and conscious citizens. In their lives and work, the three educators encourage active citizenry: doing the things that need to be done without waiting for the state. However, when tackling an issue as immense as racism at schools, SA’s much maligned government does very little.

"Nobody is doing enough," Jansen says. "Schools operate in society and therefore reflect, as much as they project, forms of oppression like racism, sexism and classism in their daily routines. All stakeholders matter in recognising racism and dealing with racism. But you need the leadership of the school to open up those spaces for dialogue."

A School Where I Belong is attempting to set a good example for how to deal with one of SA’s rawest wounds, and how to treat it early so that it may heal.

While jailing people for using racist slurs has become a necessary attempt to eradicate racism, the teachers have opted for dialogue and engaging with young people.

Their programme collaborates with the Holocaust and Genocide Centres in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town; the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town, the University of Pretoria’s faculty of education and US-based organisation Facing History and Ourselves.

Jansen says the book that the programme is supporting, A School Where I Belong: Creating Inclusive and Transformed South African Schools, is the first of its kind.

"This is the first book that takes on issues of race, identity and difference head-on in former white schools using the voices of students, teachers and leaders," he explains.