Our first school term: From wobbling steps to confidence on the dance floor

Three months ago we sat around a table on the Bjala Square rooftop, myself and our team of teaching staff, writing and preparing our first curriculum calendar and unit plans in eight different subjects as we tried to foresee how our school would turn out. Downstairs, in the school, project managers, volunteers and construction workers were demolishing, building, painting and preparing classrooms and facilities for the very first school day on the 13th of January. We were so excited!

Despite all the work and planning, we were all aware that we actually knew so little of how our real and everyday life in the school would be. It is all about the children and what kind of starting point they come with: where they come from, what social and cultural luggage they bring, whether they have been exposed to reading and writing before, if they are school ready. How will their presence affect our planning and expectations for what we want to achieve? There were so many questions – and we were very much looking forward to experiencing the answers.

On opening day, we welcomed almost 60 children, divided between one Grade R and three Grade 1 classes. We planned for the first week to be purely introductory, for us to get to know the children and for them to become familiar with us, the school and each other. Teachers and assistants had organized fun activities related to the different subjects such as reading, writing, maths, art and physical education. With observation criteria and forms at hand we learned so much from these beginning days and gained valuable information about our learners: whether they had previous knowledge and skills we could build upon, whether they were ready for a structured school day, whether they were motivated for learning or a little bit anxious.

And they were all of it! We soon realized that our learners are far from a homogeneous group but include just as many personalised characters—variations of school readiness and motivation, abilities to learn and socialize as they were numbered on the registration list. This knowledge led us to go for two main focuses during our first months: 1.) to establish a positive and inclusive learning environment and 2.)to create a safe and predictable school structure for the learners. Our strategy can be summed up in two words: Reason and Love.

The idea is simple: we recognize that our learners are small children and that they need to be guided and taught how to relate to and internalize the different expectations you will find in a school system. The best way to that is through dialogue and conversations where expectations are described and explained. Love is the basis for every relationship, for inclusiveness and recognition – and patience.

Both learners and parents were no doubt surprised by our behavioural strategy and we have heard too often that “you have to beat them in order to make them do as you want.” No, you don’t. Half way through our first term our school is filled with smiling children who are motivated to learn. Some are still a bit uncertain when they realize that we want to talk instead of punish; we recognize that conversation is a skill that needs be learned and nourished. It is wonderful, though, to see how so many of our learners have gained confidence to be and act as children and, at the same time, adjust to a school culture where learning and sharing has become their core focus.

To be honest, neither I nor the teachers had high expectations related to academic achievements in the first term. We were told, and we knew, that too many of our learners are coming from homes and family backgrounds where stimuli and resources for learning are poor. Our first days of observations also told us that we had so many learners that had never seen books before, had never learned any letters in the alphabet, needed to learn how to hold a pencil and how to learn and play constructively with others. We knew we had quite a challenge ahead of us. But I decided early that we had to take this challenge step-by-step. I anticipated that we would need two to three terms to get to the academic standard that we want to achieve.

I was so mistaken! In the last three weeks of term 1 we conducted assessments in all our subjects in order to have proper knowledge of how to proceed in term 2 as well as collect information for our first term reviews. One teacher after the other came and showed me results that told us that half of our learners can now read on a basic level, show high motivation for reading, can write their names and basic words, know how to add and subtract, know how to play pedagogical games on the computer, follow instructions in physical game activities and do activities that require fine motor skills such as colouring, tracing and cutting. According to our experienced teachers we are already well on track to reach the benchmarks for literacy and numeracy, not related to CAPS – but to Common Core (US academic standards).

This was an amazing surprise and we deserved to celebrate thoroughly! For our students, we threw an end of term/Easter party with egg hunting, bunny ears, home-made muffins and a dance show. A blast! For us: well, we really didn’t have much energy left.. and headed home for a well-deserved break.

The first term has really been an amazing journey—incredibly hectic and intense, and a steep learning process. But most importantly it has shown us that we will succeed! Our mission is to offer children and families in Jeppestown a low cost and high quality education where our learners are ensured a child- and learning-friendly environment. Yes, we can! On the other hand, we still have so many tasks to improve and adjust, to implement and develop before we have the whole school structure and resources in place. But we have achieved so much already despite all the challenges that come with starting a brand new school!

All thanks to an amazing team of teachers and tutors, interns and volunteers, secretary and cleaner, our school counselor, after school facilitators – and the most loving and charming group of learners. Term 2 – bring it on!

-Heidi Lindberg Augestad, Jeppe Park Primary School Leader