We have come through the Covid crisis relatively well

We asked the headmaster, Mr Jackson, how he felt the school has handled the extraordinary circumstances brought about by Covid-19 and the closure, and re-opening of the school. Here is his response:

Keeping Jeppe High School for Boys going and providing a meaningful educational experience for the boys has been a major challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic and its school closures, but there have been many valuable lessons learnt and the school is emerging from the crisis stronger, and improved in many ways.

That’s the view of Mr Dale Jackson, the headmaster, who believes he personally has received three years of experiential leadership lessons in six months and the school as a whole has made years’ worth of changes to the way it does things in the same period.

“Schools like ours have been operating in much the same way, academically and in the classroom, for the past 20 to 30 years, often unquestioningly,” he said. “Having to deal with the challenges of the lockdown has made us critically evaluate our offering and I think we have enhanced our brand and in some ways are offering our boys and parents a better schooling than before.”

It was decided by the school executive, early on, to be entirely transparent about Jeppe’s response to the lockdown. “We realised that we should err on the side of over-communicating, especially during the time when everyone had to stay at home,” Mr Jackson said. “We wanted everyone to know what was happening and knew that keeping quiet would only encourage the spread of rumours and create fear and doubt. So, we pledged to send out a weekly headmaster’s letter to parents, containing all the detail available at the time, and we held regular, virtual, management and staff meetings and online assemblies.

“We also tried to communicate with every boy, and when they were able to return to school, we held detailed grade by grade induction programmes, so that everyone knew the protocols and procedures. I think this policy paid off in terms of co-operation from the boys and parents and, despite the challenges of COVID-19, the re-introduction to on-campus schooling has been relatively smooth as a result.”

Jeppe was able to get to most out of the online teaching and learning phase of the lockdown because of a decision, taken four years ago, to embrace the latest technology and introduce elements of Google for Education to the school.“Academic performance is the most important part of a school and we decided, four years ago, with the support of the School Governing Body and, in particular, Mr Berger, to look for ways to improve our offering to the boys. Investing in technology to improve teaching was a key part of that,” Mr Jackson said.

Mr Rob Faltermeier, the school’s Director of Innovation, is a firm believer in the value of Google Suites for Education and has been a key driver to make the school receptive to the benefits it can bring. “We sent a group of 10 educators on training as a pilot project four years ago, and that was later expanded to the whole staff,” Mr Jackson said. “Mr Faltermeier himself became one of only three teachers in Africa to become a Level 3 qualified Google educator at the time.

“Under his guidance we began introducing elements of Google Suites for Education to the boys. We invested in Google Chromebooks, every Jeppe boy was given a Jeppe Gmail e-mail address and we invested heavily in IT infrastructure in the classrooms and throughout the campus. That was important because it gave us a head start when it came to taking the school online.”

When the announcement of the total lockdown was made on March 15th, Jeppe was not taken totally by surprise. “We met in the preceding week and anticipated that it would happen. We had already drafted and prepared an initial letter to parents, in fact. So, by Thursday of the next week we were already teaching online. Within a week, we had 180 Google classrooms set up and more than 1000 boys had enrolled into them.

“As a result, our transition was surprisingly seamless and the feedback was that the boys and teachers were enthusiastic with a lot of work being done.”If a lesson was learned from those days it would be that less is more, Mr Jackson believes. “We did too much. The boys were reporting that they were working far harder than they did when they were in class. When we issued term two reports two weeks ago, they were the result of numerous assessments and projects which, in hindsight, may have been too many. If we made a mistake, it was trying to replicate online the rate of learning that can be done in the physical classrooms.”

There have been positives coming out of the crisis as well. One of these has been a new attitude of sharing and care among Mr Jackson’s colleagues. “We established a weekly virtual meeting of the headmasters of Gauteng’s boys’ schools, public and private,” Mr Jackson explains. “It’s not something that we did before and it has been a great forum for bouncing ideas off each other and sharing advice and information. The attitude between us has changed from being individual school-centered to a more concerned, empathetic and caring approach. It’s something that we will certainly be continuing when things return to normal.”

The teachers have also benefitted. The feedback is that many consider themselves better educators now. “There were one or two who battled emotionally and psychologically and we have tried to ensure they received the necessary support, but the majority have shown remarkable resilience and I’m extremely proud of how they have stepped up and gone above and beyond the call of duty, often working late into the evenings and on weekends during lockdown. They have learnt new skills, and are far better educators as a result of the crisis. I am also grateful that every single one of them has returned to the classroom with none having applied for comorbidity leave” Mr Jackson said.

As far as the boys are concerned, being deprived of social interaction and missing out on the sports and cultural programmes that form part of school life has been tough. “In the main, however, the boys have been coping well,” Mr Jackson said. “Many of them have learnt lessons that usually only come once they have left school. They have, for example, realised the value of a holistic education and that playing sport is a privilege, not a right, that the participation is actually the main thing and not necessarily the winning. I also believe that they have a new respect for, and appreciation of, the role of an educator in the learning process and the skills and importance of their educators.

“The parents have also learnt a lot about their children through having them at home. So many of them have told me that they see teachers in a new light now and appreciate the central role they play. That is another of the positives to come out of all this.

“I think the more serious academics are going to do far better this year, in the absence of the usual distractions and considering how far ahead they are when compared to the vast majority of other public schools. It’s been fantastic to have all of the boys back on the premises, even if it’s only for half of the time. The school is a soulless, depressing place without the boys. They bring the energy and provide the fun to what it is that we do.”Looking to the future, Mr Jackson doesn’t think Jeppe will ever be quite the way that it was again. “Large gatherings like assemblies will probably be dropped for the immediate future, but we have learnt how online gatherings, events and meetings can serve a purpose. Some sporting events and tours may be curtailed in 2021 and I believe restrictions around large gatherings, the wearing of masks and sanitizing will persist into 2021

.“While physical lessons in class will be our primary methodology of teaching, Google Classrooms are here to stay with their ease of use and familiarity meaning that boys who are absent or away on various tours will be able to remain up to date with work.”Jeppe has always been aware of the need to provide a caring, emphatic environment in which everyone is accepted. “I think the Covid-19 experience has confirmed that for us,” Mr Jackson said. “We have all seen how important it is to look after ourselves, and each other. The resilience everyone in the Jeppe family has displayed, and the commitment to rise above adversity can only mean a bright future for our school.