On first acquaintance Gillian Wilkinson seems rather vague – dreamy perhaps. But she has the ability to approach things without preconceptions, to see the needs of the moment.
In 1990 the government gave permission to certain white schools in South Africa to enrol children of other races. Some parents in Soweto approached ASHA (African Self Help Association), which had established a number of créches there, to request that their children be taught English at pre-primary level.
Jenny Clowes, then the director of ASHA, approached Gillian Wilkinson for help. At the time Wilkinson was deputy head at Kingsmead Junior School, an independent school in Johannesburg. Clowes asked Wilkinson to initiate a pilot project at Ipopeng Day Care Centre in Soweto. As a result of this, a group of teachers was invited to meet with Wilkinson every week.
She found the first meeting discouraging. “They seemed so down, so dispirited. I became aware that Bantu Education had destroyed their sense of self – they didn’t know who they were. Any creativity had been stifled and they had come to see their learners as the enemy; an unruly bunch of children who had to be kept in order at all costs. This resulted in an authoritarian approach that made them and the children unhappy.
“It came to me that the teachers had to learn to believe in themselves – to see themselves as the capable and creative human beings that they are. I decided to spend half of the Thursday afternoon meetings on teaching methods, and half on their own enrichment.
“I could only offer them the best. I decided to start with Homer’s Odyssey, Shakespeare and Plato.”
Zinto Dhlamini, a teacher at Jabavu East Primary, says of these groups: “We were very enriched and empowered as teachers and as women. My wish is that everybody can have the opportunity to get this.”
As the teachers began to feel good about themselves, the children too became happier and more confident. The teachers learnt valuable practical teaching methods, but also learnt to enjoy one another’s company and share ideas. They felt less stressed and began to enjoy their teaching more.
Theresa Ncube, principal of Ipopeng, says, “These children were wild and unsettled before Gillian came to us. They were living in a violent society and they reflected the unrest in Soweto at the time. Gillian reminded us that essentially there was no difference between us and the children – we are all human beings who need love and affirmation.
“When I began to really look at the children in this way rather than blindly following the syllabus, I began to love them. I watched them become more confident – they could sing and act out dramas. When the parents came to the school they were amazed. I saw the changes in myself, in the teachers and the children. There was light and peace at the school.”
Clowes says of Gillian and her contribution, “She brought back the gaiety into the teachers’ lives – they began to sparkle. Gillian is a remarkable woman.”
Gillian Wilkinson is currently Director of Community Services at Kingsmead College.