What a day some difference makes

All together now: Teachers must encourage and celebrate difference in the classroom. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

All together now: Teachers must encourage and celebrate difference in the classroom. (Madelene Cronjé, MG)

In a world in which people are killed because they draw satir­ical cartoons and where security forces are brought in to quell disagreements in Parliament, encouraging and celebrating diversity is becoming increasingly difficult.

Managing diversity is especially challenging for South Africa’s teachers, who not only work in complex circumstances and are expected to deal with a range of differences in their classrooms but are also required to ensure inclusion.

Last month’s Teachers Upfront seminar provided them with strategies for managing diversity and harvesting the opportunities it provides.

Professor Nazir Carrim, of the University of the Witwatersrand’s school of education, opened the dialogue by saying that “difference” is a more useful and more inclusive concept than “diversity”.

He called on teachers to see the complexity of humanity in each classroom and said: “While we have historically spoken of diversity in terms of race and cultural identity, it makes more sense to talk about difference to capture the plurality and complexity of people.
To homogenise people does not speak to the truth of the multiple identities in our networked society, where people are living complex lives.”

He advised teachers not to ignore differences. “We are all carrying multiplicities in ourselves, and when you look at [pupils] in the classroom you need to think about the extent to which you are fixing them in a single identity.

“You may, for example, see their race but not their sexual orientation, their gender or their religious belief, but if you unpack and acknowledge this range of identities, then the definitions and categories will start to evaporate.”

It was not only pupils who were diverse, he added, but teachers too. “The identity of the teacher is [also] at stake; teachers are not detached from the world and [pupils] call on their teachers’ identities and ask where they stand in relation to current affairs.” 

Confront their own identities
Carrim said teachers should first confront their own identities, prejudices and stances, and then put ways in place in which pupils could recognise they were not all the same and should learn to accept difference.

“In our classrooms, we need to place emphasis on tolerance and take a position against discriminatory, abusive and violent behaviour,” he said. Teachers should celebrate diversity, speak about it and equip pupils with the skills they need to tolerate differences.

Carmen Adams-Hoffman, a senior manager at the BHP Billiton Career Centre at the Sci-Bono Dis­covery Centre, gave teachers some techniques to manage diversity successfully.

“Teachers’ first opportunities are personal ones – to confront their own stereotypes and define their own stances so they can find growth points to develop as a manager of diversity,” she said.

The next opportunity was to establish support networks that would help the teacher to function. “The secret to working in a diverse group is to create a learning space where group members unlock each other’s potential.”

Adams-Hoffman outlined three simple principles that would help: “First, learning about different ideas, values and perspectives; then treating different people fairly, which may mean treating people differently; and finally practising inclusion and not exclusion in all forms of communication.” 

Periods of transition
It was “in periods of transition where most learning takes place, because these moments of uncertainty require new ways of operating. Times when pupils are changing schools or grades provide the best opportunity to develop new patterns of behaviour.”

She said teachers needed to have several ways of teaching, assessing and rewarding pupils, because different things drive different people. A good way to enhance an appreciation of diversity was to provide pupils with the chance to talk about how they were applying lessons and concepts learnt in their day-to-day lives. In this way,  pupils would avoid perceiving lessons as learning sessions that always had neat, resolved conclusions and, instead, would realise that learning remained open-ended.

But this was not up to teachers only, Adams-Hoffman said. “We also need committed leadership that develops strategic plans for inclusion, and we need, too, the support of school governing bodies that can engage at a community level.”

J ean Fourie, an educational psychologist and lecturer in the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education, addressed the issue of the recently gazetted government policy on “screening, identification, assessment and support”, and argued that “an inclusive education system creates opportunities for developing teachers, learners, schools and their communities”.

“The process of screening, identifying and supporting diverse learning encourages schools to embrace the rich opportunities in their learning communities.”

Fourie said the policy encouraged teachers to pay close attention to pupils going through transitions. “Screening should include all children, and schools must screen learners at the beginning of each phase and record vulnerable or at-risk learners in their learner profiles.”

This kind of evidence-based teaching led to tailor-made support, which was appropriate to the needs of the child and was brought to the child, rather than vice versa.

One education system
“We now have one education system that provides different levels of support,” she said. The new policy’s “process [is to] determine the level of the support that each child needs – from minimum-frequency, low support to high levels of support, where there is on-site therapeutic support with complex adaptations to the curriculum”.

Many teachers felt unable to support pupils because they did not have sufficient knowledge to do so. But, Fourie said, “teachers are already good at understanding which pupils are battling; and they do this as a matter of course all the time”.

“What’s needed is for teachers to be more proactive in following up and referring issues to their school-based support teams. Our responsibilities as educators are to be observant and to screen” – and, after that, we “can refer pupils to a range of support structures and personnel”.

Barbara Dale-Jones is the chief executive of the Bridge education network. The Teachers Upfront seminars are hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of Witwatersrand’s school of education and the University of Johannesburg’s faculty of education. The next seminar will be on Dealing with Bullying on March 18, from 4pm to 6pm, at Wits University’s school of education

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