This is Heart Work

Back in November of 2017 Bruce Collins, outgoing Director of Academic Innovation at St Alban’s College, attended the “Transformation Conversations for School Leaders” event at the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

 What follows are not necessarily his words, most are the words of others. He has simply linked snippets of the conversations together to challenge people like himself. Bruce leaves St Alban’s to take on the role of Director of Member Engagement within the International Boys’ School Coalition.

Students of colour feel that they have to “play the game” in order to fit in to a “dominant culture [of] whiteness and privilege.” The walls of our schools, “painted white”, are “symbolic of a whitewashed culture” — one that many of us continue to perpetuate. We create spaces that look beautiful on the outside but are — in fact — hostile to many. These are places where the “white, heterosexual, male narrative” is crowned king.

Heart Work (eye)
Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

When our students feel like “visitors in a space” that was not “created for them” (but where they “should belong”), and feel like “foreigners in their own homes” because they have to “posture to fit in”, things need to change. Being a minority has nothing to do with numbers; but has everything to do with systematic and historical power.

We see anger in the eyes of young people. But that anger is — in fact — a deep sense of betrayal. The betrayal is found in the bartering of one identity for another: many kids have traded their distinctiveness for social status. That trade-off is our fault. We have created the spaces where identities have become commodities. And, we have allowed these transactions to continue.

Educators in historically advantaged schools have so much work to do. ‘Heart work.’ It’s heart work because that’s exactly where it starts. A shift cannot be imposed; it has to be lived. But, unless we’re willing to do this work, our recognition of privilege and power means nothing. We have to start dismantling. Hearts would need to be granite-like to ignore the pressing call to abandon the comfort of colonial hegemony.

As white teachers, we have to acknowledge our implicit bias. A friend of mine tweeted, ‘It’s not the explicit racist in the room who is most dangerous to schools — it’s the unconscious thoughts and actions of the majority who believe they are “colour blind”.’ In many schools, “racist issues — especially subtler, bias-based transgressions — are often not dealt with in the moment.” Instead, these are covered up by the “it’s his opinion” narrative (as if opinions were a get-out-of-jail-free card). “It’s the subtleties” that teachers like you and me “don’t address, that perpetuate privilege and whiteness.” We simply have to choose courage over comfort, and confront and unpack bias in the moment.

As a result, and for far too long, many schools have not sought difference. The challenge is for schools — when hiring new teachers — not always to “go for the smooth fit.” Prominent schools are largely insular spaces where the dominant culture is “in front”, but doesn’t see itself as such. Students of colour want (and need) teachers “who are like them.” Moreover, our systems have access to information and intellectual capital that can be used to champion black teachers. We simply have to ‘deinsularise’ our schools. Also, the notion of experience is overplayed, and we have to recognise this for the excuse that it is. Roy Hellenberg asserts that “experience is overrated. These days, things change so quickly, that 15 years of experience means very little. What’s more important is agility in challenging circumstances — the ability to respond to change from a core set of values that don’t change.”

School culture is vitally important — “vision and compassion” must co-exist. ‘Necessary’ is rarely a simple task, but it is exactly what it says it is — necessary. Institutions must be led into the future by brave people who have a clear plan. Schools, and in particular, school leaders, must paint a clear, uncompromising vision for their future.

Lastly, because historical power structures remain entrenched in many South African schools, we have to start “civil discourse in classrooms.” This “is key to starting this change.” And, we have to learn to listen because generative “listening makes one shift.” Truth is, “the only thing worse than having difficult discussions around race, gender, inequality, and belonging in schools is NOT having these discussions.”

Fellow teachers, will you be brave? Will you join me? Let’s do the heart work that will lead to a better future, because “the most aware people we need in the world are teachers.”

The original version of this article was posted in November of 2017 and can be found at

One comment

  1. Loved the piece on “This is Heart work” ! Headteachers should be striving to make sure that this is part of their school’s vision.


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