“They can tell you where to sit. They can tell you where to swim. They can tell you where to eat, my boy. But they can never take away what you know. Don't stop learning.”
This is the advice St. Claire Adriaan received from his mum who raised him in a marginalised community under the apartheid regime in South Africa.
As one of the first graduates of colour from what was then known as the University of Port Elizabeth (now Nelson Mandela University) in South Africa, St. Claire has built his 35-year teaching career on the principles of restoration, inclusivity, and diversity. Today, he holds eight degrees, and is the head of Encore Junior/Senior School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Hesperia, California.
Growing up in apartheid South Africa shaped his approach to teaching
“The colour of my skin meant that I couldn’t attend certain schools or universities. I know what it’s like to be excluded and marginalised and I never want my learners to feel like they don't belong, that they are inferior, or that people from marginalised communities can’t achieve success.”
St. Claire’s approach to education is focussed on building positive relationships, and empowering learners from all walks of life. Having attained a master’s degree from the International Institute for Restorative Practices, he’s implementing these methods to help transform education.
The aim of restorative practices, according to the IIRP, is to “develop community and to manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and building relationships.”
How restorative practices helped transform an entire school
In 2008, St. Claire was appointed as head of Success Preparatory Academy in New Orleans. The school was in an impoverished neighbourhood and had the lowest student test results in the state.
Through St. Claire’s restorative approach, it was named one of the top 10 performing schools in Louisiana just three years later. He believes that the first step to turning a school around, is to employ passionate teachers.
“I hire teachers from diverse religions, race and sexuality because we serve a diverse range of learners. Having teachers from different backgrounds means there’s more opportunity to build relationships, be more empathetic, and become more successful mentors to our learners.”
This approach to equity and inclusion is supported by the 2020 Global education monitoring report which discusses how diverse teachers can serve as role models and have a positive effect on student performance, especially those from minority backgrounds.
Offering opportunities for creative expression
“Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the learners were left with a lot of trauma,” recalls St. Claire. “And with that trauma came anger. So I had a muralist paint a big outline of the word UBUNTU on one of the school walls. Ubuntu is a South African philosophy about relying on each other to overcome difficulties. Whenever a learner was acting out, I gave them a paintbrush, and let them paint until the anger had subsided.”
St. Claire also invested in a school music programme to help learners express their feelings. “There’s nothing like a strong music programme to help learners change their mindset and attitude.”
Music has been shown to help students increase their performance in mathematics and languages. It also helps them develop perseverance and better study habits.
Building confidence through affirmation
“We had affirmations every morning, where learners recited positive characteristics about themselves to remind them of who they are, their capabilities, and how their values should be lived out.”
“We also celebrated every milestone. Whether a learner improved from 95 to 97, or 35 to 37, we celebrated together. It’s not about the test score, it’s about getting better every day.”
Closing the opportunity gap
When St. Claire moved from New Orleans to New York, he brought these interventions with him. In his new school, he also focussed on closing the ‘opportunity gap’. This is defined by the glossary of Education Reform as "the unequal or inequitable distribution of resources and opportunities.".
Making sure learners’ basic needs are met gives them the opportunity to thrive in the school environment.
“Some of the learners in New York were wearing the same clothes every day, so we installed a laundry at the school. We also had a clothing bank, and a food pantry for anyone who was in need.”
“When our learners are out in the world one day, they should feel like there’s a space for them in every situation. They should never feel like they ‘don’t belong’ just because of their background. So we bridge the ‘opportunity gap’ by taking them to restaurants, hotels, and on school trips which they might not experience outside of school.”
By employing passionate teachers, investing in cultural programmes, and building a diverse, inclusive and nurturing learning environment that focuses on restoration and affirmation, St Claire Adriaan's example shows us how teachers can develop powerful tools to transform the lives of learners, even in difficult circumstances.
Learn more about the #TeachersTransform campaign as part of the Transforming Education Summit.
Photo credit: St. Claire Adriaan