Tuesday, 27 November 2018

She schooled them!

In two weeks' time, I come to the end of a decade of teaching.  It has been a great joy and also a journey about 3 years too long.



As the daughter of an English teacher, the career held no appeal to me, even though I love the language, am an avid reader and majored in English at the University of the Witwatersrand!

Ain’t life funny though! (yes, English teachers may use ‘ain’t’ to be ironic) Funny that I should find myself almost accidentally thrown into the job at the age of 37.  Although I had taught adults in other settings, it was a joy to discover within myself the ability to impart concepts to young minds.

And what a wonderful journey it has been! I have been so privileged in so many ways. Firstly to teach at a very special school: Woodland School, which is unique in so many ways as a small, countryside, private school. I enjoyed great freedom to set curriculum and make literature choices.  Creativity is so important to me and I spent hours preparing lessons in the early days.  It was also here that I became sold on private schools for one simple reason: small classes.  Before, I had shunned the elitism of private schools, vowing my children would go to government schools.  Yet when I saw the benefits of the teaching and assistance that goes into a small class, the room for discussion and expressing of opinions, I changed my mind – and we have literally put ourselves into debt subsequently, to send our kids to private schools.

Two years ago I spent two terms in a government high school, so I know what it’s like to teach a class of 30 and the tremendous enforcing of discipline and pace of teaching required to keep the attention of 30 children; the huge marking burden, as well as the additional administrative burden.  I salute everyone who does it: You are not paid enough!

I have also had the immense privilege of teaching my own children from grades 4 through 7.  Seeing them in the classroom and with their friends, and even in the lower grades, sneaking hugs between lessons has been a treasure.  It has also been a challenge, as at times my children have felt I was unfairly strict in class with them – my attempt to never favour them above other pupils – was perhaps at times misplaced.

I have had the camaraderie and support of so many wonderful colleagues over the years as well as working for heads who ran the school as a family.  We all went out of our way all the time to make the school succeed and we did it with love and laughter.  Thank you to you all – you know who you are!

Kids wore civvies and we wore uniforms!
I have learned many things in my journey – too many to share here – for my fellow teachers, simply a reminder to walk the fine line between high expectations and great compassion.  For parents – put in the hours and hours to READ with your young child and make it as enjoyable as you can!  For those who are both parents and teachers: don't let your child be the last straw after a day of keeping your irritation and annoyance contained!

My journey, however, was probably three years too long.  There’s the wonderful concept of a ‘sabbatical’, meaning: a period of paid leave granted to a university teacher or other worker for study or travel, traditionally one year for every seven years worked.  I don’t know what it is about the number 7, but for me, it is certainly true that 7 years in one space is enough.  I did in fact leave at the 7 year mark – then stood in for someone on maternity leave, then stood in for 2 terms at a high school – and perhaps that offered me the breather to do 2 more years back at Woodland.  But boredom, complacency and fatigue are horrible factors which creep in and affect our ability to work at our best.  (For this reason, I loved the opportunity to teach Maths for a year.) 

I would highly recommend a change or a break to everyone, no matter what career you are in.  However, I cannot stress this enough: Teaching is an exceptionally demanding career.  It is like being on stage for 6 hours straight every day.  There is no time for other thoughts, personal admin or allowing your mind to drift.  It is utterly exhausting.  Let me just add in the strongest possible terms – it is not a half day job! At minimum you are at school for 7 hours, with no lunch hour, then when you get home you will have marking and preparation of on average an additional 1-3 hours. And let me say it again: You are not paid enough!

So, I am incredibly grateful for the last 10 years.  I am also incredibly grateful to be ending and moving on to managing my guest houses full-time (a load I’ve been carrying additionally these last 4 years).  I must say a big thank you to my Woodland colleagues who have allowed me to reduce my teaching days this last year in order to give more time to my guest house business.  They have kindly picked up the slack in a less than ideal situation.

My days are now increasingly quieter and less people-intensive, although still very full.  And I now face the challenge with a child about to start grade 6, of us both adjusting to my not being at school with him.  I have learnt this week, after finding myself behind on returning a form and payment, that I must ask, “Was there anything announced or sent home that I need to know about?”  May the next 7 years be just as full of learning about life!


My grade 8s at Bekker High

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

I'm calling out for a HERO - A very personal account of a changing South Africa


Lately, I hear a lot about how little has changed for black South Africans, and for too many this is sadly true. Too many still live in tin shacks on muddy, trash-strewn streets where they are daily prey to the drugged-up degenerates who have no qualms in violating their own neighbours, people, who are only slightly less down-trodden than themselves.

But so much HAS changed. The country I now inhabit is vastly different from the one I grew up in.  As a 40-something (okay, nearly 50 year old), I came of age at the cusp of change. I was 21 and eligible to vote in the ‘92 ‘whites-only’ referendum to end apartheid.  It felt so good to go and vote ‘YES’ – FOR GOD”S SAKE YES!  And then two years later, to stand in those long, iconic queues in the first democratic election of 27th April, 1994.

I was raised in a politically liberal home where my parents voted PFP (Progressive Federal Party) their whole lives.  I know some of my black compatriots will sneer at this, but it was no small feat for two individuals born in the 1940s, both in small ‘platteland dorpies’ (towns) to Nationalist Afrikaaner parents. I applaud them for using their own brains and hearts.

My mother raised me on a diet of Market Theatre protest plays – I saw all the greats (John Kani and Athol Fugard) and so I guess you could say I was ‘concien-tised’(millenials read ‘woke’) to some extent from a young age.  My parents were both civil servants – my mom was a teacher, and my dad was a statistician for the CSS (Central Statistical Service).  Can you imagine being a progressive (probably the only one) in that environment? Trying to make changes and suggestions right from inside the instrument of the State?  Again, I know many now scorn those who didn’t protest enough, or sacrifice their privileges.  All I can say to that is, it’s easy to look with the advantage of hindsight and say, “I would have stood up to Hilter”…  Also, not all of us are heroic martyrs, not all of us are Martin Luther-Kings.  Some of us are timid, quiet souls (but brave) who make small differences in their daily interactions with people; challenging the status-quo in ways that make people think anew and bring change incrementally.  But they are heroes none-the-less, and I count both my parents as such. I never heard a derogatory word spoken about people of colour in my home and although the only black people I knew were domestic workers, I was raised with the conviction that apartheid was evil and that black people were no different to white people. (Well done mom and dad – I love you for giving me that)

When I finally met black peers at WITS university, it was such a delight! Like meeting unicorns – I knew they existed – I had just never seen any!  I made friends, I joined anti-apartheid organisations, I had my room searched by police, and I stuck a new South Africa flag on my little red city golf.

***

The country I live in today is very different, and my children’s experiences are very different to mine.  From having grown up in a ‘white-only’ world, now I am frequently the only white person in a shopping mall, or in an office. My husband is one of 9 whites in a team of a 100 managers – exactly the South-African demographic, below him the employees are all black.  I have taught black and white children throughout my teaching career.  I now run a guest house where most of my clients are black.  My children have black friends who regularly visit and stay over.  I am very aware now of my minority status here, but it doesn’t worry me at all.  Because that’s not what’s significant.

What is significant, is that I am still within a majority of South Africans (regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, sexual-orientation) who want the same things – a healthy, happy country with jobs and decency and safety and family.  So many of us want that.  Despite the vitriol of politicians, the lurking under-currents of racism and sadly still too many racists; the bitterness of those who lust for revenge; despite the legacy of crime and violence that threatens all of our day-to-day lives – and especially those who are already the most down-trodden; despite all that - I am almost daily still amazed by the interactions I see on the streets.  The little interactions with cashiers and security guards and car guards.  I see whites chatting to blacks on the pavement, little gestures like hands touching arms, smiles and enquiries after families.  I’m not naïve, I am sure some turn away and smirk with their friends about the ‘rich white bitch’ or what ‘the blacks’ do, but the common decency still inspires me.  

I can tell you so many little stories – like the black shop-owner who gives the old white car-guard R20 and enquires after his health and family because he’s known him a long time and likes to look out for him.  To the white manager who asked the company to fork out some money so that his maintenance guys can learn to read and write.   And then there are the hundreds of little stories like ‘black person interacts with white person as equals and nothing happens’ because it’s just normal and we’re all just people going about our lives. Really I know so many of these ‘little stories’.  The multitude of these stories are bigger to me than the big ones about Zuma and Gupta and Malema and even than the hijackings and the murders - as deeply, deeply painful as they are.  I am haunted by the encounter with a black receptionist who was so raw with the pain of her recent loss that she took out her phone and showed me (a complete stranger) the photos of her father's skeleton, picked dry by the birds and the ants, because he had only been found some 6 months later after a tip-off to the police, lying discarded on a rubbish dump after a hijacking.  You see we ALL face the big stories, we all live in them.  But we also live in these small stories.  And call me a hopeless idealist if you will, but these are the stories that make life worth living.

If the South-African project fails it will having nothing to do with blackness or whiteness or ordinary people.  It will be a failure of leadership.  Everyday life in South Africa is very different than it was 40 years ago. Everyday heroes abound. I have even more hope for the ‘born-free’ generation, provided they don’t take for granted the slow and deep and significant work that has been done.  What we need now is big heroes who will step up and lead us forward.


Thursday, 8 December 2016

My Sons

Each one unique,
precious,
loved.
They are like new books;
Waiting to be read.
They are stories;
Waiting to be written.
Oh how I love reading them!

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Birthday parties and other failures

So yesterday I held the ninth birthday party of my third child, which for the record means it was the 39th time I was staging some kind of birthday celebration, and by now, you’d think I must be somewhat of a pro at this. (Snorts)

But it’s been a very rough month in a very rough year in a fairly rough life and I was feeling, to use a theological term, ‘fucking awful’. (Credit to Annie Lamott for that little gem)

So I sent an invitation on Monday via whatsapp for Friday.  And what ensued was one of those tiny miracles whereby everything went off quite passably with the help of my two gorgeous older boys. Broken bicycle notwithstanding.

My older two had half term so they walked to my youngest’s school and then walked a motley crew of 12 third and fourth graders home.  This involved taking on pretty much all their school bags half-way home, which are heavier than you could possibly believe (are these kids carrying dictionaries to school?), and consequently they arrived looking fairly heated and laden like pack donkeys.  I arrived home from work just 4 minutes before they did, in time to delegate the assembly of the cake to my daughter, to take a wee, and to gather some juice and cups (yes those two things shouldn't be in the same sentence, sorry). My saintly boys had already carried chips and sweets (something more substantial since they’re just back from school? I hear you ask. No. sorry, just no.) down to the pool and bless their cotton socks, the gardeners had mowed!

I then plonked myself down to make sure no-one drowned.  All seemed in order but then there was the small matter of helping my child come to terms with the fact that out of the 14 kids, only one had brought a gift and 2 had brought money (WTF?).  Slightly put out, he then had to cope with getting hit on the head with a very chunky tennis bat (accidental) and a bunch of kids wandering off from the pool, finding his bike and managing to break the pedal and the seat within the space of 10 minutes.

Again my oldest saved the day by producing (unasked for) a pass-the-parcel gift!  He also quickly downloaded an upbeat song onto Mother’s sadly-lacking phone.  Bombs away! here we go!  The kids were fairly tolerant when I halted the game half way for a phone call.  On we played; what I wondered curiously had my child wrapped up? Since I obviously wasn’t prepared enough to buy party prizes.  2nd in charge, came to give me a heads up – there’s an Oreo box inside, mom, but that’s not the prize, the prize is inside.  Super. Soon the last wrapper came off producing… an Oreo box with 10 bucks sellotaped on. Cool.  But I’ve been told there’s something in the box… Take the R10! I yell, there’s another round for something inside – the children’s eyes light up… Bam, the music stops, what’s inside?  Half an already opened pack of Oreos.  Oops… I guess the 10 bucks and the box was the jackpot.  Never mind! I yell, to the surprised little girl, you can share them with everybody!  My youngest pipes up quietly, somewhat put out – those were my Oreos, I was saving them!  Never mind! mommy will buy you more.

A short, sequestered conversation about pulling your attitude right ensues, (no gifts, tennis bat, bicycle and now Oreos, but pull it together, you're nine now!) then it’s more swimming, no we won’t have a present opening session my sweet, cause it’s 2 notes of money and a pair of flip-flops.  Cake! Let’s have cake!  Candles are lit with the usual pre-requisite impossible lighting of candles, and then no sooner had 14 slices of hand-baked-the-night-before-by-the-sweat-of-my-brow, cake been handed out, than said-cake was flying through the air in a spontaneous food fight.  God help me to smile and not beat the shit out of these little kids.

Finally the parents arrive and even the kids who have yet again arrived with absolutely no plans to get home, have been foisted onto another parent to deliver.  Now that it’s all died down, my son seems to have recovered his composure and is playing happily with the last 2 playmates. Cheers and thanks for coming, party-packs? Don't make me laugh!

Another birthday party under my belt. Managed with a half pack of oreos, R10 bucks and little help from my family.  That's when you know you've really arrived!

Saturday, 8 October 2016

What can you, as a male pastor, do to encourage women in ministry?


A while back I asked a 30-something male pastor if he had a conscious strategy to empower women in ministry.  His answer was, “I just follow the lead of the Holy Spirit.”

Mmm. Well that’s one of those unanswerable comebacks, but let me have a go anyway.

If you think that you as a white, 30-something, male with a relatively privileged background are an uninterrupted channel for the Holy Spirit, then let's apply to the Vatican for sainthood straight away!  Am I really to believe the fact that every preaching opportunity in the last year was given to young, white men, was a move of the Holy Spirit? 

But, YOU reading this are thankfully not that guy, so thank you for caring enough to find out what at least half your congregation needs!

Firstly, open yourself up to the reality that you (like all of us) are prejudiced to favour what feels familiar, comfortable and relatable to you.  Then pray that God will open you up to notice those who don’t fit into the above mould.  Actively take note of these people and ask God how you can encourage them and empower them in your church.  If you feel ill-equipped to do this then ask someone else in your congregation (maybe a woman) to make a list and bring it to you.  Or brainstorm with a team of people; a team that is diverse in age, marital status, gender and colour.

Here are some practical ways to empower women:

1.    Ask them.  Ask them what their gifts are and how you can provide opportunities for them to use their gifts.  On that note: don’t reserve preaching opportunities for times when you are called elsewhere.  How will you evaluate and support this gift if you are not present to hear it and give feedback?

2.    People who feel disempowered need to see examples of people like them, up front and visible.  So ask women to make announcements (not tea). Ask women to serve communion (not tea). Ask women to come forward to pray or share or preach or baptize.

3.    Examine the make-up of those serving, leading and ministering in your church critically. If there seems to be an imbalance, then set out deliberately, led by the Spirit, to correct this.  Ask more women onto your leadership teams if necessary.  Churches need balanced teams rather than charismatic leaders alone.  When you visit people for prayer at home or in hospital do you have both men and women present?

4.    Single women deserve a point for themselves.  These women are as available to minister as single men. At any age.

5.    Some women need to be challenged to step up to leadership just like some men!  If you can’t do this; find someone, male or female, who can be a ‘talent-scout’.

6.    People need to see no one is above the so-viewed ‘lesser tasks’; so have men serve tea and teach children’s church.

7.    Don’t open with or use predominantly male references or illustrations when you’re up front - like rugby (yes, I do know there are female rugby teams).  Don’t make jokes at the expense of women.  When these jokes come from a male leader they become weapons not jokes.

8.    Be mindful that gender-neutral terms in the Bible have often been translated with male-gender pronouns.  Try to correct this or get a new translation.

9.    Don’t be threatened.  If you feel threatened by strong women then you have issues that need to be worked out with a trustworthy colleague behind closed doors.  Go and do the work.

10.  I truly hope this doesn’t need to be said, but I suspect it does… Don’t talk down to women.  Realize that some of the women in your congregation are lawyers and doctors and actuaries and have teams of staff reporting to them.  They are smart and capable.  I am not one of the above, but I am smart and capable and find it patronising when a male pastor assumes he knows more than me about how to lead, how to guide or manage others or world issues.

11. Be sensitive to the global issues women face: violence perpetrated by physically powerful males, rape, abuse, trafficking.  Chances are a good proportion of the women in your church have experienced some level of these.  And every women is haunted by the threat of rape even if she hasn’t experienced it.  So be careful of imagery of force and power, even biblical stories which are heavily-laden with cultural stuff that is not specifically rebuked (eg.polygamy).  When reading a story like that of David, don’t assume we all relate to David.  Some of us are sitting thinking about how Bathsheba felt and whether God cared about her too.


I hope that’s a good start, no doubt the women in your congregation can give more insights, so ask them!

Monday, 20 June 2016

Speak Life

This past Sunday I had the delightful opportunity to speak at Hillside Vineyard.

Our words can bring life to others or death.  If you'd like to hear more follow this link.

http://www.hillsidevcf.org.za/files/F6280A4F-D555-4089-BB95-B5C82DEAA302--DC58C76D-CDE2-4078-B789-74C8A55ABF58/20160619-natalie-simmons-james-5.mp3

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Follow me

Hello and welcome,

My latest offering is a cooking blog 'Osso Bucco and Risotto' - which is really a post about drinking wine while looking busy.  I don't really like cooking because I do it far too much.  My blog is being hosted by my friend Bev, who is a prolific blogger, and you can see more here: https://bevbouwer.blogspot.co.za/2016/04/natalie-cooks.html?m=1  Check out her other stuff while you're there.

I blog sporadically, so if you don't want to miss it, follow me - I assume Google has a way of notifying you... Otherwise on twitter @Natalie_1971 and yes, that does give away my age!

Happy reading.