Meetings can be fun if your colleagues bring along their ideas andtheir zest for life

I always look forward to the reflection meeting with the four primary school principals - Lavinia Davis (Square Hill), Cassy Dick (Steenberg), Noel Isaacs (Floreat) and Lameez Rabbaney (Prince George). This foursome has been partners in this mentoring network that was established about three years ago. They have showed that professional learning networks can be a deep support network, IF you are prepared to invest in the partnership. In short, when you work with your peers, you have a pool of resources a phone call away.

And, if you have a Cassy in the network, be forewarned: you will be phoned, e-mailed or picked up so that you know the group cares and cannot function well without you and your gifts.

The comraderie that prevails and the mix of diverse personalities are part of the success of this professional learning network. Humour and sharp wit are also present in bucket loads here. Even I become the target of many a flippant comment. Like yesterday.

"When I informed the staff that I am meeting with Mrs Lewin today," said Noel, "one of the teachers said, " Oh, don't worry. We will read all about what happened at your meeting, on the blog."

Of course, the others laughed because they know my fixation with this blog and my stance on sharing knowledge. And, the teacher, Ms du Plessis who made the remark, is one of my facebook friends. It is good to know she reads the posts!

Lameez who is always fabulously late knows how to use her sharp wit and her storytelling gift to pacify Cassy and Lavinia.

"You know why I was late today? You see, our school is the magnet school in our belt. We are famous.The children of four of the rival gang lords attend our school. You can just imagine the power plays we have."

We were hooked and Lameez was in her element. So, off we went, to the office where the mediation took place between two girls, the daughters of rival gang leaders. These girls believe they can take on teachers and their peers because of their inherited status. We almost perfected the underground gangster lingo that was superbly demonstrated by our brilliant storyteller. By the time the story ended, punctuality was a non issue and Lameez had earned some sympathy.

Clockwise: Sharon, Cassy, Lameez, Noel and Lavinia
I gently  coaxed the group to focus on our main items on the agenda: reflecting on 2014 and the way forward as well as a recruitment drive to assign mentors to our three novice principals who were appointed recently. That was all I needed to do. I could continue having my meal while the desired conversations flowed freely, despite the weighty issues that were under review.

Deep worry was expressed about the exploitation of our vulnerabile children by the unscrupulous adults in the community. There were stories of the increasing number of young girls barely in puberty, who are being lured by the sugar daddies and the drug lords. Then there were anecdotes of dads and moms crying at the schools, begging the school to help them with their rebellious children and of sickly grannies who blamed the school for not doing enough.

There was an acknowledgement of the struggles at teaching level as well: the battle to find good, competent teachers to fill the vacancies schools have, the teachers who compromise good teaching and learning and the ever increasing pressures exerted by parents, the children, the education authorities and the curriculum changes.

We know these are the harsh realities that face schools in poor areas. There are many of us who speak about these crippling problems so simplistically, as if we can fix them like broken toys. However, these four principals are the voices of other heads and staffs like them, who can name these scourges and acknowledge their destructive powers. Parallel to this, from somewhere, deep inside of them, they will persistently and relentlessly seek creative ways to push back. They refuse to surrender for the children's sake. Lavinia summed up best why many school heads persevere against all odds.

"What drives me is the burning question: "What can I do to make a difference in the lives of the children? How can I make school a place where learning is fun?

Four hours later the group had shared a toolbox of ideas that will be introduced in 2015 at their schools.They had planned on how to embrace our new principals and have committed to an SMT conference for these schools early next year. I will share more of these ideas in later posts.

I thanked the group for the energising session. I remarked that they are also my source of inspiration and are definitely my mentors as well. They fill me with hope and compel me to raise my own game. I had barely finished the affirmation when the three ladies said in unison:

"That's what you say here now. But we must always hear how Noel is your mentor. Even at the last principals' meeting, Noel was publicly singled out again. We wonder how much truth is in this."
Three voices were finishing one another's sentences with enough ah-ha's and hums to form a chorus. Poor Noel just laughed shyly, trying to refute this perception, but he wasn't winning. And I wasn't even going to try to stop them; you can't beat a united force!

These are the joys of working with school principals who make life an interesting, meaningful journey.



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