Monday, 8 September 2014


Contrition (noun) -the state of feeling remorseful and penitent.

synonyms:remorse, remorsefulness, repentance, penitence, sorrow, sorrowfulness, regret, contriteness, ruefulness, pangs of conscience, prickings of conscience;

I am in a permanent state of contrition. 

To all those who have appreciated the posts of this blog, I have to make a declaration that I have been too long holding back. I have held it back because I have not made peace with it. 

By the middle of last year, during the gargantuan rollercoaster that was the attempt at building a new school, I realised that I was completely burnt out. Not a little burnt out. Not showing signs of burnt out. Burn-out started in about April. By July, there was not much left really of my health, my personal life, my sleep cycle. I was on a cocktail of drugs to manage the deep depression that had taken hold of each of my waking hours: SSRIs to boost my mood combined with lithium to stop me going manic (which also happened). 

The drugs made me flat line. Students would do things to me, in front of me, in my classroom that were completely inappropriate and instead of being filled with the indignant "that's not ok" feeling, I just felt nothing. Nothing. 

Each trip to school was in tears. I'd leave before sunrise and drive a very dark, unlit winding mountain pass with a pretty sheer drop off (often in sheets of rain). Many a time I thought of jerking the steering wheel to the left and just going over. It was really quite appealing at the time. Most trips home were in the dark too. After getting home and eating something provided by my supportive and caring partner (who was also taking strain at his wife being replaced by a tearful angry zombie--does that make sense anyway?) I would then work some more: lesson plans, marking, records on student behaviour. 

By July I realised a few really important things. 

1) drugging yourself to be able to do your job is no way to live

2) I was not being the teacher I believe I can be. I was turning into a snappy, angry, teary monster who could not see perspective for the chalkboard and who was taking her extreme stress out on her students

3) I was trying to build a school: but it was not the school I believed in. I believed in the pastoral care we provided. I believed in my own convictions about how rubbish the intended curriculum is and how much more important cultivating deep, conscientious and caring thinking was in my students. And while I was trying to do all these things, I found myself playing the amapolisi (Xhosa for 'police') role that I feel is so regulative and unethical about western schooling. "Take those earrings out, tuck that shirt in, no you may not go to the toilet, report back for detention". I found myself replicating the very teaching practices I vowed to resist. Between students who had virtually no intrinsic motivation or discipline for lack of structure in their lives, and being absolutely and utterly EXHAUSTED, I fell back onto strict disciplinarian measures to try and control my environment. This is not what I believe in. This is not why I became a teacher. 

I decided I had to leave. 

At the time, I thought the drugs indicated my own intrinsic mental inability to cope as a teacher. I convinced myself that I didn't have what it takes: that I couldn't cut it in a Quintile 1 school and I just had to accept that. I didn't think it was the environment: I thought it was me. 

I have subsequently come to a different conclusion. I am off drugs now, and have been since the end of the school year. My depression has rectified itself with good diet, exercise and some time off (please let it be noted here that I am not suggesting all depression can be rectified thus). I'm really not the manic-depressive suicidal black hole I'd convinced myself I was. 

Then what was it? Was it this school? Was it every school? Was it a mix? Why did I feel this way? Why did I have to go?

While some of my overworked madness may be attributed to the circumstances of this specific school, it really does warrant consideration of how typical or atypical my experience was. 

My experience was atypical in the following manner: as a person privileged with a wide variety of skills coupled with a rather pathological work ethic, I found myself shouldering a massive portion of the workload. Besides being on the Senior Management Team, I often got the vibe that I was 'to keep an eye on things' when the principal was out (Deputy job? Debatable, but it felt like that to me, with the concomitant stress of it. Many students thought I was the Deputy Principal). I was the social worker liaison. I was the head of mathematics: the subject that was the deciding factor between passing and failing for 80% of the school: as a result I was teaching an extra 20% a week in after school lessons, including Saturdays. I was a hands on mentor. I was a choir-group leader. I was the Secretary of the School Governing Body. I was on the SGB Interview Sub Committee: the team tasked with shortlisting and interviewing for almost every post in the school, as a new school hires temps on contract and these each need to be formalised and made permanent (each position taking up to 100 man hours across 5 committee members). I had to lead the role of interviewing the Principal to get him into his post permanently. And I had the highest teaching load on the timetable, with the fewest frees (despite some colleagues thinking I had 'fixed' the timetable to benefit myself--a quick lesson count showed this to be the farthest from the truth). 

Normally these roles would be spread across at least 3 people, if not more. Of course I burnt out doing all these. Any human being would. Partly I ended up with these because when one of these roles is not done--when a gap is left unfilled--everyone (including me) suffers and I hate that: I hate sitting by when someone is asked to step up to a plate and there is tjoep silence in the staff meeting. But there can be no doubt: some of us stood up to the plate and some of us just didn't. And in some instances I said "not me" and the Principal said, "um, yes you."

Perhaps my colleagues were endowed with a far healthier sense of self-preservation? I'm not sure. The basic job of teaching is tough as it is. Many of them also had families, which I did not. Many of them lived considerably further away than I did and travelling was a serious time consumer for them. In some regards, some of them would've willingly taken the role if they'd had the skills. For example, the school timetable. Most teachers cannot do one (frankly why should they? It's not a specific teaching skill, and is rather maths oriented). But in some cases, I became resentful at what I perceived to be attributable to nothing else but self-centred behaviour.

In many sense my experience last year in our school was, however, quite typical. It was quite typical of a new school. It was the beginning of the story, with later chapters to be seen in established schools across the country. Our funding woes were the same (if not better than most average township schools: we secured private donations). The department's ridiculous expectations were the same. Our staff-student shortages were the same (if not better!). Our infrastructure was leaky and didn't shield us from extreme hot or freezing cold (although, again, we managed to get wi-fi through our school: so, in this case, better!). But despite our better circumstances in some respects, we found ourselves gaping into the same abyss. To look at our fellow schools was to look into our own future and it was bleak. We were desperately trying not to fall to the same fate. I'm not sure anything we did would've saved us from it.

I have come to the following conclusion. In our SA schooling system, teachers are expected to work miracles. We are expected to be the police, the surrogate parents, the health care workers, the psychologists and trauma counsellors, because most of these other social services around us have failed. "Don't do it--it's not your job" was the advice from the education department. Completely useless thing to say, because if these things are not in place I can not do my job. Without these more basic needs being met, a child can not learn. So how am I supposed to ensure they learn while these massive gaps exist in their lives? As the social services and structures in these spaces fail and collapse, the burden of addressing the services they are intended to provide falls to schools. And yet schools are not given any additional resources to fulfill these roles. They are expected to produce the same output with menial input, their functions outside of teaching ignored.

So those teachers who try to fill these gaps experience what I experience: they burn out. I think many teachers try this in their early years, efforts born of naive optimism. They soon learn it is not possible alone. Then one of two things happens:

If they can leave, they do. 
If they can't, they find ways of surviving in their jobs without being actually able to do their job. 

One of these ways of surviving is to become hardened. To train yourself to 'not care' because frankly, caring in the face of such systemic misery and abuse is to condemn yourself to madness. There are, I know, those few exceptional human beings who have managed to face these circumstances and still retain their human capacity for caring--a capacity that I think leads most teachers to chose their job in the first place, a capacity we all started with. But we cannot build a system on exceptions: we cannot develop a teaching corp where the requirement of the job is some kind of innate super-humanness. That's just folly. 

Another way of surviving is to cut corners where you can. Frankly, I don't think my extra maths lessons after school made one blind bit of difference to our students' results (there is some interesting research emanating from Wits University that substantiates this instinct). So why break myself for it? So out the window go the extra lessons. Students want to bunk extra murals? Why break myself for it? I'm struggling to survive already! So out the window go the extra murals. The kids have wasted 40% of my lesson with poor behaviour: why break myself for it? Is fetching the cup of tea I have not had a chance to sip since 6am going to make a difference? Not really. And so you see teachers popping out of lessons to go fetch a cup of tea.

When you find that trying to 'do your job' even in the most basic sense against these circumstances, without all the added extras I took on, results in you looking pregnant your bladder is so full; when you don't have a chance to have a sip of water or go to the toilet from 7am until 4pm; when you find yourself counting the moons, the hours, the days, the minutes to the next holiday to try and get through the term; when daily you fear knife wielding gangsters coming to search for your students, or--worse--you; when your own students throw objects at you or push you to the floor; when you are riding on 6 hours of sleep a night and pulling 80 hour weeks of work; when you are constantly pulling as hard as you can and nothing seems to make a difference but everyone blames you anyway... well, people become dejected, defensive, indifferent and passive aggressive, especially if they have no exit strategy, if they have no choice. I did have a choice. And I was already well on that track.

And that is what we see left in our schools today. Not bad teachers. Not nasty people. Well-intentioned people who have been so dehumanized by their work and the odds they face that they have become bitter and jaded over the years. Teachers who feel so under attack and forced to deliver without resources or recognition they hide under the skirts of the union that feeds on their insecurity, even if that union doesn't represent what they truly think and feel. I really believe this. I honestly do. It took a mere 8 months for me to look in the mirror and ask myself "what have I become?" I can't imagine what it would be like if I was trapped in that job with no options, dependant on that income to feed my family and without transferable skills. I just can't imagine. 

So dear readers: it is with enormous contrition I have to say I left my school. I still feel it is my school. I still struggle daily with my decision: 9 months later, I still wish I didn't have to leave. This event has completely shaken my foundations of my identity. I am not who I thought I was. But in doing so, I'm hoping it has made me a better person. 

I admire my colleagues who stayed on when I couldn't. And I will endeavour to use every aspect of my experience last year to improve the working conditions of teachers and help find ways towards finding long lasting and meaningful solutions to our education problems. I now work at a university here in Cape Town teaching trainee teachers: this is the closest I can come to my final goal. 

I will write, advocate, petition and lobby in every way I can for people to really understand what it is like inside our poorest schools. The public perception in this country of what schooling is and who our teachers are is severely distorted and frankly cruel. We teachers are blamed and vilified, called stupid and lazy. We are not. Society can't just ignore our teachers and label us as 'the problem': we are not. Even if we were, you cannot ignore us anyway. We must be a part of the solution.

To sum up, a quote from a dear friend.

"Attributing negative, destructive behaviour to solely laziness is a lazy way out of understanding the problem."

If you take anything away from the blog post, please take away this. What you see teachers doing in our schools today is the long, protracted result of what I suffered and did not survive last year. Those teachers who have survived have done so by adapting to their circumstances. You can judge how they have adapted as much as you like from your comfy armchair: but you have not walked in their shoes. Take a little time out to understand teachers' circumstances and challenges before you condemn us.


  1. I know the kind of teacher you can be; you've made me believe in myself and today I feel I want to change the system. If I fly high and crash and burn, which I will do because just statistically speaking how likely am I to do that, I will fall grateful to you for giving me hope to try in the first place. Perhaps this reflects my naive hopes, but how much of life would we understand if we didn't have the hope that makes us approach issues in the first place?

  2. Very well written, obviously as the Administrator of this school my thoughts echo yours but with some added struggle has been all the same as yours but with the added burden of being looked down on by teachers who treat me as stupid thinking that they are better than me because they are "highly qualified" They say they don't but trust me they do! The way they constantly ignore requests to do things as I ask is proof of their complete disregard for structure and systems. I don't get any help until our school reaches 1000 students, unless that can be paid for by SGB.

    I don't get free periods but then it so different to teaching because you need a break from students, well usually my office is a flow of constant students and usually those whom teachers just cant deal with! I have to deal with teachers who have no regard for the fact that I might be on the phone when they barge in screaming at a student. Teachers who think their wish is my command. And well last year if I forgot to get up an ring the bell....well I won't go there!

    To give you an idea of little things that matter: I am grateful this year for a bell ringer, he has revolutionized my job! I never get angry teachers reminding me that I have forgotten the bell. Such a simple thing but so worth the small change we made. And I have gotten to know someone on a more personal level and have grown to love this boy.

    You are sorely missed and I took on that SGB secretary role so I understand first hand how much work that is and the funny part is it was only until someone else was elected (haha) that ain't gonna happen anytime soon.

    I am glad though that you had the courage to put yourself first. It is true that we need to look after ourselves first or we will be no good to anyone. I am glad that you are back in a happier space. You have a brilliant mind and have a lot to offer so keep doing what you are doing, and one day when you have your own family you will realize that actually if ever your job is taking preference over your family then no matter where you are you will have to step back and realize that that that must never happen.

    If we have good functioning families we will build a strong nation. Charity always begins at home, if we build strong families, children with healthy minds and good values we will have a good foundation for a beautiful nation. Because in the end it is true. children are the future now! I love that our school name reflects that!

  3. Spot on!

    I am still amazed you made the year with everything that was put on your plate. Its the curse of a start up school with a small staff. Teachers end up taking on more responcibilities that would normally be spread over a large staff compliment. The mistake was giving the responcibilities to the most competent/genius/multitalented teacher all the time, because you were that teacher and ended up with an impossible workload. I self preserved last year because I fell into the same trap at my last school and had to leave as a result. Even though you were usually the best person for the job, sometimes the 2nd, 3rd or 4th best person should have been giving the job instead. They may have floundered or even shirked their duties, but then they would be held accountable for their mistakes, and we may still have Cape Town's best maths teacher with us.

    I have always believed in the saying "pick your battles". We started a school with multiple barriers and tried to tackle all at once. When you try enforce a hundred new rules, you end up shouting and nagging all day , and children shut down and stop listening. Now that I finally have a usuable amount of respect from my learners, I have tried to introduce 2 or 3 rules at a time, which I can punish/reward consistently until its engrained. Its the only way I managed this year. I think we can joke about it now, but its safe to say earings will one of the last rules on my enforcement list. That being said, I am currently feeling like a nag at the moment because I am really pushing hard for major attitude/work ethic adjustments from my learners. It has resulted in having a lot more control over my classes, but I can also see some of the children becomming more distant towards me. Its a difficult balance that I am still trying to get right.

    Don't feel guilty about walking away, because it was the right thing to do at the time. You would end up with regrets either way. I stayed, and still have hope for our schools bright future, but it has come at a huge personal cost. I have no social life, family life or hobbies. I finally decided to give up on my masters, which has left me feeling like the world's biggest loser and wimp...and after all that I still don't know if I made the right choice. If I can survive the transition period between crazy make shift start up to incredible school, it will be worth it, but the interim is getting longer and longer (building the proper school seems to be getting pushed back all the time). If I burn out before then, then I will regret the sacrifices I made.

    On a brighter note, I no longer feel like drowning in the bathtub before work anymore. I have IQMS tomorrow, which was meant to be later this week, so I wouldnt mind getting sucked down the drain pipe in the morning.


    1. Really nice response Cristi. Your observation about trying to tackle everything at once is pretty critical: I feel like this describes our approach to our entire education system at the moment. The 'crisis' mentality goes nowhere as a result.

      This 'crisis' mentality also has selective memory--this problem is 400 years in the making and can be traced back to the first Dutch and British missionary schools. Thinking about 'fixing it' within our lifetime is pretty ludicrous against that back drop. We've got to play a long game.

      Identifying those two or three key things that matter most and focusing on them is hard when it feels the web of interacting variables is so dense. What really gets me is that researchers don't seem to be asking the people who know those variables and their interactions best: teachers. We've no voice in the media, at the policy table, in the academic halls. This can't be right.

      Thank you for the kind words and for keeping it up: I seriously respect those of you who hung in there. -S