To research….or not to research

Matric pupils from Zwelihle High School in uMlazi stayed behind after their daily holiday classes to help others. Motshwari Mofokeng African News Agency (ANA)

Working in the research space for an NGO has a lot of niceties. We get to travel throughout the nine provinces and explore our beautiful country for “free”, extra spending money for travelling and food as well as staying in very nice and sometimes fancy accommodation places, but most of all, we get to witness and experience the different states that our schools are in and the quality of teaching our future leaders are receiving. 

The new dispensation that came in in 1994 did NOT do too badly with the rainbow feeling. What did not do too well was the transformation by the state of some of our government schools.  ‘Urban, peri-urban and rural’ are terms we use to differentiate between different areas and the state thereof. I wonder if we can’t also attach that term for the state of the government schools in South Africa?

Schools in urban areas often are seen as well-performing schools in terms of results, securing finances and sponsorships for their activities and the best personnel that are needed to achieve these good results.  One can then say there is hope for peri-urban schools that have a fighting chance to succeed and then we have rural schools that are at the back-end of the spectrum. For now, I want to concentrate on the last group… rural schools. You get two types of rural schools also. Those with resources and those without resources. Done!  

I once walked into an extreme rural school where the SA flag was looking a piece of chuck that didn’t have it good. Tattered and torn. Clearly an indication of what I was to expect in the school, right? Wrong!! Their resources were extremely limited, infrastructure basically waiting to fall apart and space for extra-mural activities such as sports were non-existent…BUT…the calibre of teachers who was working at the school was of high quality. There even was a blind teacher who made his way around the school and believe you me, I was in doubt about this teacher, but he was teaching Maths and Natural Sciences and those learners were fully equipped with the necessary knowledge. 

On another occasion, I was at another very rural and hidden school. Infrastructure and space was not a problem, but alas, no teaching could take place as there was a shortage of teachers. My gripe is this, why is there such a big divide when it comes to rural schools because rural is rural right? Again, WRONG! It all depends on the leadership of the school.  I place the quality of schooling squarely on the shoulders of the School Management Team (SMT). Sometimes it is a case of “out of sight, out of mind” where the SMT lets the water fall off the proverbial duck. In other cases SMT members fight for what they believe the learners deserve notwithstanding their reputation or friendship with colleagues or officials. Those are the SMT members I side with and salute. German Chancellor Engela Merkel asked a group of “experts” complaining about why teachers are highly paid: “The very degree or expert opinion you have is thanks to the teachers who taught you to reach that level. So how can you complain and ask why teachers are highly paid?” I wish it was the case in the South African context.

In most of the rural areas that I have been, children are left with Gogo or Aunties and Uncles whilst the parents are in the urban areas. Some parents don’t even send money home to maintain their children who stay with relatives in these remote areas, but depend on the grants of Gogos to help raise their children. Is this an indication of the teachers’ commitment to the learners too? A resounding NO.  

In my humble opinion, rural schools are mostly overlooked when it comes to first contact with Education Districts, but they produce learners that are statesmen, successful businessmen/-women and also individuals ploughing back in the communities.  Yes, they have to leave the rural areas to make money, but they never forget their roots. Unfortunately, this does not happen more often than not. But there is a glimmer of hope. Sometimes you see a learner that has a sense of belonging, an urge to learn and a desire to ‘break out’ and that makes the research visits worthwhile. And you do your bit to elevate the state our education system is in at the moment.

Why do we do research in the rural areas of the Eastern Cape, North West, Limpopo, Mpumalanga or Northern Cape and even the Free State?  Because each learner matters. Where would you and I be if our teachers did the absolute minimum? What would have happened with you and I if we received sub-standard education? Rural kids matter too so why not? In fact, each learner matters. When we, as researchers, walk into a school, we don’t treat learners as data or subjects or respondents, we treat them as shift shapers, as one of us. 

As a piece of the bigger puzzle. A lot of the times learners are as eager and inquisitive to see why we are there. Reminiscing about our own schooling, you sometimes also break down when seeing the state of some of the environments that these learners have to grow up in. There was one school where learners only had a dry mud area to play their sports or play during break. Some come to school in winter with shoes that don’t have soles intact. 

Some only get fed at school as there is no food at home. Electricity is a luxury and running water inside the house is only for the fortunate. Circumstances we often take for granted, but there are lighter moments. One very silly moment I had with learners was they wanted to take a picture with me as I was seen as a ‘mlungu’ (don’t know why??). I said they must take out their cell-phones knowing fully well they could not have one. 

It was at this point that one learner brought a stick with a spoon attached to the end and that acted as our “cell-phone”. All I could do was laugh! And because they still had an excellent sense of humour despite their circumstances, I could only get them lollipops. Learners truly make it worthwhile to be in this research space. I was blessed with a gift to get information out of people and make them comfortable in my presence and this is my little bit I do to make their day better. 

Once I am done with my research work, I go out and play with learners, I talk to them, I sit with them even if I get dirty and I acknowledge their existence because this is extremely important not just for research, but for excellence.  Once someone acknowledges your existence, you give more of what you should. And once you really pay attention to a learner and come down to their level, they accept you and treat you as an important person.

So when we ask to do research in your school, it is not to intimidate or question your abilities to teach, no, it is to help where we can to make things better, to try and inform policy for the greater good and to help better our leaders in training. When you refuse, we automatically think you have something to hide. So let researchers into your school. Not just to disrupt your day, but to help YOU as the teachers too. We are all part of the greater good and working together to help our leaders in training can only work for the betterment of our beautiful nation. Rainbow or no rainbow.

Ashley Manuels has more than 20 years’ experience in both the corporate and public spaces. He writes in his personal capacity.