I have always been the first delegate to sign up for conferences. They inspire me. They fill me with hope and I leave feeling energised and inspired to return to school, ready to make that difference, make those changes and put the world right again! With the pandemic having halted the National Heads’ Conference for the past 2 years, the promise of collegiality and thought leadership lined up for us at Conference 2022 put that spring right back in my step.
The aptly chosen theme of the Conference 2022 was “Flourish” which set the tone for all the presentations, workshops and discussion groups. How do school leaders create spaces in which the staff, children and parents can flourish? What are the issues which prevent this from happening and how to address this? The quest for helpful answers to these questions, especially in the aftermath of a worldwide pandemic was the key business of Conference 2022.
Some of the many highlights of my learnings include the input from Dr Undine Whande from UCT who reminded us that within every conflict and crisis lies the opportunity for growth and change. She unpacked the core drivers of trusting relationships and made space for Heads to reflect on the impact COVID-19 had on all aspects of school life. Building a sense of identity and belonging within schools is another core driver which Dr John Eliastam explored in his presentation, highlighting the power of creating sacred spaces to which everyone is invited.
Dr Michael Thompson, a clinical psychologist and renowned author who has worked in predominantly boys’ schools for 50 years presented to us online from the USA. He reflected on the Perfect Storm that the USA Independent Schools and their heads were navigating during 2020-21. Unpacking issues within the following 4 key areas:
- The Pandemic: Protecting the Health of the School Community.
- The “Racial Reckoning” after the murder of George Floyd in June of 2020 3. Political Divisiveness Coming Through the School Door
- Emotional toll on Heads of School
Much of what he shared was in keeping with our experiences here in South Africa, particularly within the school communities. He spoke to the emotional toll on Heads of Schools as well as the desperate need for a return to normality, especially for children who thrive on a sense of order and predictability. His closing message rang true: “In a time of crisis, like we are in now, with people feeling frightened and uncertain, leadership doesn’t just matter more. It matters exponentially more.
The complex gender spectrum issue was addressed by Ron Addinall, a social worker who stressed that children flourish when they experience a sense of belonging and significance. A sense that they matter and have a part to play. His excellent presentation helped to create a greater understanding of the emerging trends across society regarding the gender spectrum and the impact this has on children and their families.
In closing, some uplifting lessons from the wild provided us with significant learning opportunities. In Alex van den Heever & Renias Mhlongo’s co-presentation, they celebrated the power of their relationship. Being game rangers and trackers from very different South African cultures and languages at Londolosi, they worked hard and took courageous steps to get to know each other at a personal level and by choosing to visit and understand the community context of each other. Trust, honesty, understanding and the will to unlock the potential of diverse working relationships was the key to their success and these opportunities abound in South Africa, if we are willing to embrace them. Alex and Renais have recently co-founded the Tracker Academy, an NGO that trains professional wildlife trackers all over Africa and published two bestselling wildlife books.
Dr William Fowlds is a renowned wildlife veterinarian who gave an insightful look into the plight of the rhino and other key strategic conservation issues including wildlife habitat restoration, committed climate change and the education of the next generation about conserving the planet. His key message: “Give nature a chance” was clear and the call to educate, educate and educate our children about the Sustainable Development Goals which were adopted by the United Nations in 2015 as a call-to-action for people worldwide. These goals are to address five critical areas of importance by 2030: People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace, and Partnership.
His closing message “We have to give our children a better world” was a powerful reminder that the power lies in our hands as educators, playing our part to ensure we all Flourish on this beautiful planet.
The power of connecting with colleagues in the flesh was the biggest joy for us all and the many breakaway sessions enabled us to off-load, catch our breath and share solutions. Spending time catching up over an early morning walk/run on the beachfront, meals taken together and enjoying that sundowner after a long day was uplifting to say the least.
The final gala dinner was an appropriate way to honour our colleagues who were retiring after a lifetime of dedication to the teaching profession. I was reminded afresh of the incredible work that is done in our schools and I am grateful to have chosen a profession which has enriched my life in so many ways.