“I ate worms, my son ate worms, and by God, no namby-pamby, city pen-pusher is going to stop my grandson eating worms!”
A visibly angry old man swore the above declaration when he stormed a community school in South Africa to protest a recent ban on one of the school’s age-old rituals.
The Jewish parents and community of King David High School in Linksfield, Johannesburg, so cherished the practice that they could not countenance anyone stopping it, worse so a non-Jew. The early morning ritual on opening day that could as well have been an initiation rite, entailed taking new students out to the field to dig up warms like early birds and eat them.
This, the community reasoned, would help the students ‘connect with the earth’ and anchor them on the school’s social and cultural values.
However, a new headteacher posted to the school sees no sense in the long-held tradition and abolishes it promptly, prompting the livid elder to totter up to his office stamping his arthritic foot and rickety walking stick along. How dare the teacher break the school’s and, therefore, the community’s revered symbol of culture?
This is one of the interesting twists and turns that spiced up Marc Falconer’s career as a teacher and headmaster in a Jewish school in South Africa. He tells it in his new book Notes from a Headmaster’s Desk.
The book analyses the various challenges that teachers and parents face in nurturing and rearing teenage children. It offers an insightful peek into the social, physical and psychological forces that drive their thoughts and actions.
The old man’s remonstration above demonstrates just how difficult it can be to institute changes in a learning institution, especially those that have the potential to upset a community’s traditions.
Notes from a Headmaster’s Desk is not your vintage headmaster speak at parade grounds on a Monday morning with patronising decrees and admonitions. Rather, it is the author’s unassuming observation of our teaching and parenting habits in a rapidly changing world.
Heck, in Kenya we have even abolished the term headmaster. I have seen some KICD reports on curriculum materials that certify the word as ‘dated,’ meaning obsolete. Instead we exult our heads of secondary schools as ‘Principals’ and address them politely as headteachers. Have you heard CS Fred Matiang’i refer teachers as my colleagues?
Though the word may be dated, Notes from the Headmaster’s Desk is an updated appraisal of contemporary issues in the education sector.
With a discerning eye and from his vantage position and desk, Falconer has watched events and circumstances unfold in the school environment. He says that he gained enough ‘cinematic experience’ to understand and deal with the different characters in the school. Falconer examines the everyday challenges of being a teacher and parent of teenage children, not just in South Africa but in Africa and the world as well.
A number of the questions confronted in the book are universal and could easily resonate with most conversations in Kenya. For instance, the merits and demerits of the education system, the role and mode of examinations, community partnership, the (im)balance between academic success and success in life, peer pressure among teenagers, technology and social media in our homes and school.
How does one deal, for instance with a child whose father has warned them not to heed his teacher’s advice on success because teachers are generally poor and can’t advise on success in life? Right now, parents are worried about how to keep their children busy and safe at home for the unusually long holiday. They are also tense over the KCSE examinations. Falconer observes that in examination periods, parents are more anxious than their children and need to be soothed and consoled to feel assured that all will be well.
Yet the author does not present them in the dreary tone and formality of an academic textbook. He serves them in simple and easy morsels that psychologist Dorianne Cara Weil describes in the Foreword as ‘unprecedented depth of understanding and sensitivity of the profound responsibility of being a parent or teacher in today’s minefield of a world.’
The author, who claims to have gained enough ‘cinematic experience’ calls for an overhaul of school leadership appointment systems across the world. He says running a school requires substantial business acumen and ability to deal with intricate and complex (social, psychological and educational) issues that go beyond