In the summer of 2017, I had the privilege to travel with a group of educators to study the culture, history and meet the people of South Africa.
We, a group of mostly white educators from all across the US, who met each other for the first time on the plane from Amsterdam to Cape Town, were welcomed on our first day in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood of Cape Town by local families. They taught us how to make traditional Cape Malay fare like samosas. The women laughed at our clumsy ways of rolling the dough out and gave us polite and confused looks as we likened the folding method to making paper footballs. That afternoon, over a floury table in a cramped hot kitchen, a group of American and South African strangers laughed together as we tentatively stuffed and folded samosas in slow hesitant steps over this first shared experience, breaking the ice and starting to break down walls.
This is the idea of Ubuntu which is seamlessly woven into every part of the country, from the cities to the townships to the countryside. There are many different — and not always cohesive — definitions of this feeling, even among the South Africans. But a common thread that can be seen amongst all of them is “humanity to others” and a correlated saying “I am who I am because of others.” Ubuntu values the community above self interest and a sincere warmth towards strangers is infused throughout and respectfully demonstrated. Ubuntu drives community and business relations alike, building diverse partnerships where all parties collaborate and contribute.
And as I looked around the faces of the people in the kitchen that day, my dusty, floury hands covered in sticky chicken curry filling, I realized something. This was what I wanted my classroom to feel like. A place where all parties felt welcome, felt like they were important, where they were contributing and felt like they were known — not just by me but by their peers.
So how to do it? How can we welcome our students with sincere warmth and to foster the feeling of Ubuntu in our classrooms and schools? How can we create the feeling of belonging and accepting community so that all people present are free to be themselves?
- Shared experience create bonds. A goofy icebreaker. A fun team building activity. A potluck meal. Students who can engage with each other in meaningful ways start to learn about their peers and see them in new light.
- Focus on relationships. Encourage them to use their webby, to introduce themselves to their peers and that names are important, because not only do I know their names, they should know each other’s names to foster the feeling being valued.
- Buy in. Taking time to create norms or house rules that every student and staff member will agree to follow in that classroom. Taking a different tack to the conversation such as “what behaviors does a good friend display?” could encourage a fresh perspective to the conversation. By taking this and connecting with the students that normed classroom behaviors could bring everyone on board to recognize the humanity in all would bring the activity full circle back to Ubuntu.
- Shared knowledge. Have students recognize the wealth of cultural and interpersonal knowledge in the classroom and foster a place where they are willing to share it. Going beyond “jigsaw” lessons to where students truly are the expert at something that they are passionate about where they can share it and practice cultivating Ubuntu by “hosting” others in their metaphorical kitchens.
John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.