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Excellence awakened – teachers sing praises of Columba Leadership’s mission to transform schools

Excellence awakened – teachers sing praises of Columba Leadership’s mission to transform schools
The activities that take place at the Columba residency are centred on one of their six values; awareness, focus, creativity, integrity, perseverance and service. (Photo: Supplied)

The Department of Education, district officials, together with principals and educators play a key role in enabling and sustaining youth engagement in schools. Last week, Columba Leadership hosted a gathering and panel discussion with educators and principals outside Johannesburg.

Columba Leadership is an organisation that gives school staff and pupils the skills and vision to tackle a range of issues. Last week, it hosted a gathering and panel discussion with educators and principals outside Johannesburg. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: How Columba is transforming the lives of learners and teachers across the country 

They discussed how Columba’s values had created a positive culture shift at their respective schools. 

Mpho Lephalo, the principal of Ntumediseng Secondary School in the Free State, said schools and teachers have a responsibility to transform a community. The mission and vision of the school should be the mission or vision that addresses the challenges in the community.

“It is our responsibility as a school to make sure that the product that we produce, even though we might have received a learner in the form of raw materials with certain deficiencies, it is the responsivity of the school to make sure that we produce the best product, that will go back and change the community,” she said. 

Often children came into schools with social or psychosocial stains such as teenage pregnancy, absent parents or substance abuse. “It is our task as educators to ensure that we remove such stains, and through Columba we have realised that the only stain remover is love,” she said. 

It was like a 360-degree turnaround for my life. It awakened me, the real me, the teacher in me.

Lephalo credits Columba for providing the educators at her school with skills and empowering them to tackle some of the challenges their pupils faced. “As a school that had the highest rate of gangsterism, we were able to remove that stain because we were empowered and led by Columba to go through the process of assisting those learners,” she said. “Today we can proudly say we have two products and more that we have taken back into the community and they are now acting as the agents of change,” she said.

Watch more here. 

Awakening leaders in educators

Tinyiko Bvuma, a former deputy principal who is now a subject specialist at the district office in Gauteng, said Columba’s vision statement to “awaken the leader” does not only apply to learners but also educators. “I am a walking example; for the better part of my life I thought I knew myself but I did not. I was fortunate to get the opportunity to get to Columba because that is where I found myself,” she said. 

Bvuma, who previously worked at Ahmed Timol Secondary School in West Gauteng, said the impact Columba had on her former colleagues was evident instantly. “The first group that went, when they came back, immediately requested that during the staff briefing we should have a special meeting where they want to encourage people to go to the academy because this is something that we cannot afford to miss,” she said. 

Two particular educators had been greatly influenced and improved after their Columba experience, starting initiatives and projects to better the school and community. “They will reach out to the community, reach out to the school, and they will stand and they will push so much so that it will be a success.” 

Columba Leadership

Following Columba academies, projects and initiatives are no longer a one-and-done occurrence at Ahmed Timol Secondary School in West Gauteng, but are continuous. (Photo: Supplied)

The school has experienced a complete turnaround and has a special way of handling the impossibilities, said Bvuma. Projects and initiatives are no longer a one-and-done occurrence but are continuous as the school is still running an initiative to help those affected by the KwaZulu-Natal floods. “The fire is there and nothing can extinguish it,” she said.  

Unlocking the real Bvuma

Bvuma said that if she had not experienced Columba and engaged with their programmes, she would not have discovered her true potential and abilities. “It was like a 360-degree turnaround for my life. It awakened me, the real me, the teacher in me,” she said. Her experience with Columba had also helped her branch out and help other people. “You are not restricted to your school, you are not even restricted to the community, you serve the world.” 

Witnessing the Columba mentality in students

Bvuma said the influence Columba has on learners is visible. “The influence of Columba is so contagious that you have one learner in a particular class who attended Columba, that learner will rub in that positivity, power and hope,” she said. 

Youngsters who had long since matriculated still kept in touch, asking how they could help the learners and the school. “The outcome is seen, it grows and it is passed from one generation to another, there is no way that you can break this. It is moving and it is moving like a veld fire.”

Siboniso Khomo, a former principal who is now the chief education specialist for teacher development in KwaZulu-Natal, has also seen a change in mentality. “In terms of the impact when Columba came in, a new chapter dawned for our school, to say you can now begin to have the excellence that is driven by learners,” he said. 

Khomo said that although his school was doing well academically, they were not able to mobilise the community for excellence, but that is now possible. “We now began to have learners who wanted to know more about themselves and the role that they can play to improve their own lives, and in the process improve the lives of the lot back home.” 

The impact of Columba was far-reaching. It “goes beyond the class, it goes beyond the school, it begins to repair the community”. 

Mobilising the community for excellence 

The Columba recipe is to activate learners to realise their potential and take that mentality home, said Khomo. “Immediately when that happens, whatever it is that you do at the level of the school, there is an immediate buy-in from the community, from the parents, because of what learners are saying in terms of what they see themselves become.” 

This mentality also made it possible to mobilise the community to embrace excellence. 

Khomo was the principal of Sibusisiwe Comp-Tech High School in Umbumbulu, KwaZulu-Natal and turned it into a seven-day school, teaching from Monday to Sunday. 

“If you say you want to keep learners at school for seven days you need buy-in from parents. It was easy for us to get immediate buy-in, from the community and from the parents, because already these learners were realising that being in school non-stop was going to open up opportunities for them to excel in their studies.” 

The seven-day school had yielded results – it was the only one in the Umbumbulu region to have students obtain eight out of eight distinctions.  

“That began to reinforce what we were saying about having learners and allowing them to participate in the learning journey – your learners have the potential to become great,” Khomo said. 

Changing the academic landscape

In his role as chief education specialist for teacher development, Khomo is trying to find ways to change the academic landscape in his district. He encourages officials to go to schools and engage with educators in terms of how much learning has happened so that the cycle of teaching can be better understood. 

“We should not be going into schools and asking teachers how far they have gone with the teaching programme, because teachers can complete that programme with no learning taking place,” he said.

When teachers are doing well in a particular school, the very same teachers must be given a platform to support other teachers.

Traditionally, curriculum monitoring is done from the perspective of the teacher, something he wished to change. When teachers said they had taught, that did not necessarily translate to learners having learnt. “We now want to change and say let us monitor curriculum coverage and curriculum implementation from the perspective of the learners; the learners must say we are now able to achieve the learning outcomes.” 

The Columba mentality had influenced him to suggest that schools should have a platform where learners teach other learners. “I am now ensuring that all officials are focusing more on achievement of learning outcomes, rather than the teacher saying I have covered my teaching. Going forward now, we have created a policy to say that each and every school must have an hour of peer tutoring.”

Khomo said that, as a district, they are trying to find ways to establish a platform where teachers are a shared resource. “I fail to understand why you would have one area with two schools performing at the opposite end, because the bottom line is learners are the same all over – the difference is what teachers do with those learners.” 

A possible solution to this was allowing teachers to learn from other teachers. “When teachers are doing well in a particular school, the very same teachers must be given a platform to support other teachers,” he said. “If we can allow learners to learn from each other, we must also allow teachers to learn from each other. That is the angle that I am now trying to push.” 

Columba going forward 

Targeting the district levels would be beneficial since these are the backbone of schools, said Bvuma. The district level operates as a middleman between the head office and schools, but it is often challenging. “It is dry bones; people are there and they are alive, but they are not living.” 

“It is so isolated and dry. We don’t move the ligaments. There are no tendons. There is no blood flowing. It is just the dry bones,” she said.   

From left: Siboniso Khomo, an education specialist for teacher development in KwaZulu-Natal, Tinyiko Bvuma, a subject specialist at the district office in Gauteng, and Mpho Lephalo, principal of Ntumediseng Secondary School in the Free State. (Photo: Supplied)

Bvuma added that people at the district office should not be perceived as not working. “People are working, trust me, people are doing what needs to be attained, we are pushing, improvements are happening and at the end, passing is going to happen.” 

However, it was still these officials with “dry bones” who engaged with schools and head offices, creating a cycle. “It is broken district to broken schools to broken learners, and that becomes a vicious cycle and those learners don’t make it in life.” 

Khomo voiced similar sentiments, saying he hopes in time Columba will not only focus on schools but also begin activating leadership in district officials.

“I want it [Columba] to be extended beyond the school because what Columba has been doing is to confine the problem at a school level. I am now challenging them to say they are limiting themselves if they confine the problem at the school level.” 

Awakening the leadership potential of officials would allow for systemic change in the education sector. “My mantra in life is that rural and township learners have dreams. It is a chasm of justice that you will have schools in your townships and rural areas that are not performing. But for these schools to perform we must awaken the leadership character in all of us as officials.” DM

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