Head of Senior School, Gill Jeffrey Reflects on 2020

Early in 2016, various conferences we attended spoke to the Fees Must Fall movement. The acronym VUCA was used; universities spoke to us on how they had managed the protest action on their campuses and how some had simply closed, ensured the safety of their students and migrated seemingly effortlessly to online learning. 

1 January 2016 also welcomed the class of 2020 in the senior school. In their speeches at their delayed matric dance, the head girl and her deputies spoke of how they were the first group to have iPads at St Andrew’s and to begin the 5-year vision of having every student in the senior school work on iPads to facilitate learning. Reflecting now, I see a close correlation between our vision and those talks in 2016. 

Technology has changed the world we live in at a lightning pace. The consequences too, are far reaching – how we communicate, create and gather knowledge; how we listen to music and shop; and even how we start, build or terminate relationships.  

VUCA is an acronym based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. 

Volatility means that things change continuously. We know this; however, it is the speed at which it is changing that is new to us.

Uncertainty – more than ever, we live with a lack of predictability and a prospect for surprise, and globalisation means that a relatively small cause can have huge worldwide consequences.

Complexity refers to the simple cause-and-effect chains that have been replaced by complex interconnected forces and events. In the past the advertiser bought advertising space in printed media, on radio or tv and reached the targeted audience. Today’s advertising is a labyrinth of complex bidding systems to get the right advertisement on the right screen of the right person. The algorithms used by smart phones search and save data that personalises the advertising on your social media sites.

Ambiguity You can easily find convincing but totally contradictory information for any statement made. Many leaders avoid taking positions and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the clarity needed.

Move from 2016 to the year 2019, where the grade 12s chanted for 2020.

For education and schools, 2020 began with the tragic drowning of 13-year-old Enock Pianzi whilst on a school camp, prompting a strong call for all schools to examine their policies, procedures and practices. The importance and acknowledgement of the existence of each member was highlighted.

Less than 5 weeks after this event, came murmurings of a potential pandemic. Two weeks before the class of 2020 could enjoy their fairy-tale matric dance, schools went into lockdown. Suddenly we faced exactly the same prospects, under different conditions, as the universities in 2015 and 2016.

St Andrew’s managed to turn a physical onsite school into an online school within two days. The five years of prework around the iPads and Microsoft Teams had made this possible. My sincere thanks go to Mrs Larangeira, Mrs Murray and the entire staff for a shift that most certainly challenged every fibre of their being.

Home and the workspace suddenly became one. Whilst the upper half of teachers was professionally clothed, the bottom half included tracksuit pants, slippers, the pet cat, or a teacher’s child wanting breakfast.

For the girls, there was the introduction of a warm bed as the classroom desk. Upfront it is important to state that we had never been trained for anything like this. We made mistakes, but as a community we got a lot right and we are here, seven months later, in more-or-less one piece, a little frayed around the edges but here – more equipped, more knowledgeable, and with a tired but can-do attitude.

During these months of Covid, the world was rocked by the death of George Floyd in the States. The Black Lives Matter movement began to echo around the world and we were called as a school, as a community and as individuals to look at ourselves long and hard.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity were very much part of the day-to-day events as this unfolded within each of us and as a community. We had to understand that we do not know or understand everything. We needed to be open to listening for understanding and to learning to examine our own bias. To own hurt caused, intentionally or unintentionally, became part of the path to rebuilding a truly inclusive school.

As head of the senior school I commit fully to building this path with the community, to examining my own bias and to unlearning and relearning what I know and what I don’t. What I do know, is that together we can create a school built on African soil, that is a leader in its field, for before us sit generations of young women for whom the vision of establishing a school of excellence still stands firm and strong.

Clear communication, good teamwork and collaboration is vital in this time. This will give us a clear direction and encourage us to solve complex problems together.

And so, as 2020 slowly comes to an end and the matrics in front of us sit poised for their final examinations and a future that is filled with possibilities, there are a few important things I have left to say.

Nicole, Sarah and Ugochi – leadership is not easy; it can be lonely and taxing. However, you have mastered a technique that many before you have not necessarily got right and that is to stand back to allow others to grow. You quickly pulled people in around you, allowed them to run with tasks and to carry the spotlight. You are all phenomenal young women and I am honoured to have walked 2020 alongside you. May you be blessed abundantly in your futures. 

I end of with the following quote from Mandy Hale: ‘Trust the wait. Embrace the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.’

“I look forward to more girls, in the spirit of ubuntu, joining these discussions and in action continuing to build a community that allows us all to eat from the same basket of fruit.”