A shepherd's heart
I have watched this video of Meneer many times and each time I do I am struck by his concern for this one boy. I can just imagine him lying awake at night worrying about that white boy at his school. “Does he have friends?” “Is he fitting in?” “Is he coping with his environment?” “Does he feel like he belongs?”
Why does it worry him so much that this white boy has a sense of belonging? Because Meneer realises, and he is backed up by research, that unless a learner has a sense of belonging, that learner will not be able to engage successfully with the academic requirements of the school. In other words, academic excellence cannot be achieved without this safe, yet challenging environment where the learner can be who she truly is. This then frees her to engage in meaningful academic activity.
Another thing demonstrated by Meneer is that a good teacher judges herself, not on the averages, but on individual relationships and individual achievements. Meneer’s focus is not on the majority of boys at his school who have a natural place to belong, but on the one boy who may be feeling like he doesn’t belong. A good teacher is less concerned with her overall class average than with the one child who is failing even though he seems to be trying his best. A good teacher plans lessons that will engage learners and is then concerned when two learners in the class seems disengaged. Because for the good teacher, it’s not good enough that 98% are engaged.
In other words, a good teacher has what I call a ‘shepherd’s heart”. A heart that plans for everyone to be engaged and is relentless in her pursuit of the one learner who is disengaged or whom they fear may not have a safe place, a place where they belong. Why? So that the learner can achieve her potential in those other areas that are more tangible – academics, sport, culture, etc.
If you were part of the whole conversation with Meneer, you would also hear that his concern did not just remain in his mind and heart. It translated into plans and then into action. His concern caused him to step out of his routine and the important things that a principal has to do to find a way of engaging with that single white boy. To look at his school and ask himself the question: “What in this environment makes this boy feel excluded?” The answer to this question caused him to address these issues in his school. While at the same time he acknowledged and strengthened the answer to this question: “What in the school makes this boy feel included?”
It seems reasonable then when Meneer asks that teachers in other schools in South Africa make sure that their black learners in their predominantly white environment be given the same consideration. That the same questions about what excludes them and what includes them is asked.
Imagine we had teachers throughout South African schools with a heart like Meneer’s – a ‘shepherd’s heart’. The good news is that we do not have to imagine this. They exist in schools all over South Africa. All that is necessary is for us to call these teachers to action - to follow their shepherd’s heart, create classrooms and through these classrooms, schools where all South African children have a sense of belonging.