College Celebration of Excellence Address

October 2017

Chairman of the Board, Mr Foyn, and Mrs Foyn, other members of the Board, distinguished guests, parents, staff and College students, I thank you for the opportunity to share my thoughts with you on this exquisite day.

On Thursday 7th June, the school day started at 07:40, as per usual, with only a few people noticing the small plume of smoke on the north-western horizon. Little did we know that, 24 hours later, thirty-two Oakhill families would be homeless and many more left traumatised by the siege of devouring flames, smoke and chaos that was rushing towards us on the wings of gale force winds blowing at 100 km/h. By early evening the fire had already ploughed through our sports campus and the north-western part of town, and flames of up to 30 metres high were curling over the Oakhill Learning Commons. The last few parents, pupils and staff members who were still hoping to save the school were forced to flee from the smoke that engulfed the campus. In those desperate moments, the irony was not lost on me that we were about to lose our precious school in our 25th celebratory year. I was emotionally devastated as I tried to grasp the reality that this beautiful gem of a school where I had started as the new Head only six months prior was about to be destroyed. I drove back early the next morning, exhausted after that traumatic night of horrifying scenes and sounds… to find that Oakhill had survived! The school stood out like an island of hope in the sea of devastation around it.  I could not stop my tears of relief and I then knew that this school had stolen my heart.

It was exactly one year ago that my family and I drove to Knysna to attend the 2016 matric Art Exhibition and to be introduced to the Oakhill community. I am often asked whether hindsight has brought me to any regretful conclusion about our move to Knysna. I am thrilled and grateful that I can stand here today and report that, although this has been a tough old year, it has also been one of the most rewarding and meaningful years of my career. I am immensely proud of my association with Oakhill and enthused by our prospects for the future. Although our school is facing many challenges associated with the global 21st-century education landscape, the uncertain future we are facing and our location in the world, we also have countless experiences, relationships, privileges, opportunities and achievements to reflect on today. These have enriched us and built our character in 2017. Think of how the events that followed 7th June have deepened our relationships, highlighted the privilege of being alive and presented opportunities to reach out to each other. I am making this statement with much empathy towards the many families who are still displaced and battling to recover and come to terms with the loss and trauma they suffered.

I am a teacher because I am inspired by the idea that schools are places of hope where we get to work with young people on their hopes and dreams for the future. This is why it is so important to me that we should keep thinking critically about what and how we are and should be learning and teaching in order to best prepare our pupils for their future of constant, exponential change. This fact about the future is a daunting one to some people who foresee grim times ahead… but I beg to differ. If the glass only has 50% water in it, I prefer to view it as HALF FULL. Good educators should not sugar coat stark realities but I believe that teachers should be optimists who inspire their pupils to ask the questions that have no answers yet, rather than teaching them answers that can’t be questioned. They should present problems to their pupils as opportunities to unlock new possibilities and not obstacles that cannot be overcome. They should develop in their students an appetite for tackling challenges and the resilience to step into uncertainty, rather than spoon-feeding them with a recipe for success.

I was interested to read that Bill Gates is of the opinion that the world today is a better place to live in than it has ever been. He most certainly did not come to his conclusion after consulting newspapers or social media. Instead, he encouraged his readers to “look beyond the headlines and rather at the trend lines”. He is alluding to a great truth, namely that perceptions, rather than empirical facts, too often inform our description of reality.  The challenge for us is to keep perspective, rather than trust perception.

There is nothing new about this wisdom. It was Leonardo da Vinci who said: “Perspective is the guide and the gateway, and without it nothing can be done well.” If our perceptions are wrong and we base our decisions and behaviour on these, then, according to da Vinci, we are going to get lots of things wrong at a time when getting it right could elevate humankind to new remarkable levels. Twenty years from now things will be much different. They could be much better but, equally, they could be a lot worse. Let us challenge our prevailing perceptions. Sure, the world is a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous place but these qualities are not new; it’s the cameras that are. Social media amplifies everything in real time.  News goes viral before it is verified, not because it is interesting, important or even true, but because it is sensational or controversial.  Populism rises on the strength of fear, based on such news, spread by corrupt politicians who are then crowned by those very people they fill with anxiety, rather than hope.

My grandmother died at age 98, three years ago.  Her life spanned an era in which the following progress was made:

  • The global maternal mortality rate improved from 1000:100 000 to 7:100 000.
  • Global life expectancy increased from below 40 to over 72.  It is projected that most of the pupils sitting here today can expect to live to well over a hundred years of age.
  • There were two world wars in my gran’s lifetime in which the estimated death tolls were 37 million and 60 million respectively – an unthinkable statistic by the end of her life.
  • In her lifetime aviation science progressed from aeroplanes that achieving short unreliable flights to space crafts that carried the first person to the moon and landed on Mars.
  • Last year 500 000 people worldwide died of violent crime but 1.5 million of diabetes and a further 3 million of obesity.  Sugar has become more dangerous than gunpowder.

Our most significant global problems include climate change, water scarcity, poverty, food security and economic inequality.  The latter is perhaps the greatest.  The 85 wealthiest individuals in the world have more money than the poorest 3 billion.  The biggest global problems are ones for which we do have solutions but not the willingness to actually implement.  If we could stop global military spending for just one week, and invest the money this would save, we could provide all the world’s youth with high quality education for 20 years, FOR FREE!

Our current times are the best humanity has ever seen, not because of lack of problems but because of the quality of our problems.  We have ‘better quality’ problems to solve and better means to do so than ever before in the history of mankind.  Let us encourage our students to draw inspiration from this fact and go out to make a difference.

If you followed Oakhill’s progress through the year, you will agree with me that we have enjoyed an incredibly successful 2017 on all fronts.  This address is not meant to be a 2017 school report and I will therefore not list any specific events and achievements.  Oakhill has one of the most informative websites and facebook pages you will come across, where news is shared and records published of all our activities, achievements and events.  It is mind blowing to observe the array of opportunities and achievements that is reported via our website.  We have earned a reputation as a centre of excellence, opportunity and development in the Southern Cape region, marked by the exceptional achievements of our pupils in the areas of academics, sport, music, art, drama, educational innovation, environmental education and outdoor education, to mention but a few.

It is therefore appropriate that we are gathered today to celebrate excellence but I want to point out that we have so much more to celebrate than top achievements, measured in the traditional sense of the word.  Perhaps it is time that we expand our definition of excellence and what is worthy of being celebrated.  I am not suggesting an insincere condonation of mediocrity but rather an encouragement of the traits that really matter and will be helpful to our pupils when they finally leave school.  Schools are generally not good at rewarding such attributes because these are hard to measure and take extra effort to monitor.  It also requires a very different take on the importance (or unimportance) of competition with others.  Professor Ari Poka, one of the leading thinkers in Finnish education, points out that competitiveness and rivalry are discouraged in schools in Finland while collaboration, group achievement and striving to fulfill one’s own potential are viewed as more meaningful measures of success. Let us therefore acknowledge, here today, those pupils in our school who are NOT receiving an award today but showed grit, made progress, faced their fears, scaled obstacles, addressed their anxieties, broke out of their comfort zones and kept going against the odds.  Let us lift our hats to those who have invested their best effort, followed their moral compass, treated others with dignity, cared for those in need and celebrated the success of others.  I read a suggestion some time ago that we should encourage innovation by rewarding excellent failures and punishing mediocre success.  Now, there’s a thought!

We are in a phase of strategic thinking about the future of Oakhill.  The process is provoking stimulating introspection and deep thought about what our future-minded learning and teaching should look like.  What distinguishes Oakhill from more traditional schools out there and how should we change and adapt to maintain our reputation as one of the most innovative schools in the country?  It is not the marketing value of the accolade of being announced one of the most innovative schools that interest me, but rather the fact that such an acknowledgement is indicating that we are serving our pupils well as we equip them with 21st century competencies, all while they are inspired by the joy of learning, exploring, experimenting, discovering, inventing, attempting and creating.  

Today is an important day for saying thank you. We often hear that a good school is built on the triangular partnership between pupils, educators and parents.  I want to suggest that it is much more complex than this.  The real power lies in the quality of the relationships that bind together the triangular partnership.  It takes a village to raise a child and that same principle applies to running a school.  Over the past 25 years, Oakhill was raised from a vulnerable baby to the healthy, happy adolescent that it is today, thanks to the deep trust relationships that galvanised the strong vision, values and ambitions to see the school succeed.  In addition to our parents and pupils, Oakhill has always enjoyed the support of a fourth pillar to this partnership, namely the excellent relationships with friends of the school who we treasure as incredibly important partners.  I would like to thank every individual, business and organisation who have supported us in whichever manner this year.  We value our relationships very highly and look forward to strengthening these in the future.

The incredible support and hard work of the members the Board deserve to be mentioned here.  Our Board consist of an exceptionally competent group of individuals who generously give of their time, effort and expertise without any reward, other than the joy of serving a cause in which they firmly believe, namely the flourishing of our school and everything it stands for.  Thank you to each and every one of the members of the Board and its subcommittees.  I know that the members of the Board do not wish to be singled out when I thank them but I do feel that the Chairman of our Board, Mr Richard Foyn, deserves a special thank you from me, on behalf of all the stakeholders of the school.  Richard, thank you for your steadfast leadership, rooted in your confidence and faith in Oakhill School.  You have been a mentor, supporter, advisor and soundboard from whom I have gained much insight, wisdom and confidence this year.  You have been an outstanding custodian of Oakhill’s best interest.  Thank you very much!

I have thoroughly enjoyed my interaction with parents this year. I have found Oakhill parents to be enthusiastic, loyal, appreciative and engaging. They have high expectations and this is absolutely appropriate in a context of excellence.  I would like to thank every Oakhill parent, grandparent, godparent, uncle, aunt, and every other mentor represented by the pupils in our school.  I am acutely aware of the huge sacrifices that are made by you in order to ensure your child’s education at our school.  We do not take this for granted and we strive to honour your commitment, loyalty and support with our utmost effort to offer a world-class education in return.  The sacrifices and contributions of our parents reach far beyond the financial though.  Thank you for the time, service, love, enthusiasm and hard work you have invested in the school this year.  Thank you for the wonderful relationships we share.  And, on behalf of your children, I want to say, thank you for caring, feeding, transporting and supporting them through yet another very demanding but productive year.  College students, please give your parents a grand round of applause for everything they do and sacrifice for you!

My next word of gratitude goes out to the Oakhill academic staff.  I am immensely proud of the quality and quantity of work that is done by our teachers but also of the professionalism with which they teach, coach and care for our pupils. Teachers are by far the most valuable and most influential asset of any school. We often hear mention of the ‘Oakhill Way’ that is supposedly the magic ingredient that sets our school apart.  I have come to the conclusion that the Oakhill Way is located in the very special relationships that exist between Oakhill teachers and their pupils.  I saw this shining through at our magnificent Matric Valedictory Dinner last night where our teachers paid individual tribute to matric pupils whom they mentored from Grade 8 to 12. Thank you, teachers, for everything you do and sacrifice in the best interest of your pupils. Thank you for your care and dedication. You are not taken for granted by your students and most certainly not by the parents either.  I salute you and want to ask all pupils and parents here to stand up and acknowledge the lion’s share that our teachers and coaches carried in Oakhill’s success in 2017. I would like to extend a special thank you to the College leadership team – Mr Botha, our College Head, and his executive committee of Directors: Mr Browne (Academics), Mrs Viljoen (Mentorship), Mrs Brown (Learning Support), Mr Keevey (Sport), Mrs Nuttall (Arts) Dr Lamont (Music).  It has also been (and remains to be) a privilege to work closely with the competent and dedicated team of leaders on the whole-school Executive.  I want to thank Mr Cross, Mr Botha, Mrs Paton, Mrs Trollip, Mrs Van Staden and Mrs Hill for the countless extra hours they have generously offered beyond the call of duty this year.

There is a large team of staff who work mostly behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of our school. They are responsible for administration, operations, grounds, housekeeping, sports coaching and music teaching. Thank you very much!  Without you, Oakhill will simply not be able to function.

Finally, to the College students, a word of thanks and congratulations. I have mentioned a long list of various groups and individuals who have made your schooling possible this year and I am sure that you are grateful for their input. However, the very purpose of a school is located in its pupils. There will be no school if you don’t show up – literally and figuratively. You can look back with pride on 2017 and your contribution to Oakhill.  Our school is a happy place where children have wonderful opportunities and where most are seizing these opportunities. My congratulations are extended to you all, whether you are a recipient of a prize today or not.  Here I want to single out the matric class of 2017 for the fantastic manner in which you have led the way this year. You have set a benchmark by which those who follow you will be measured and inspired at the same time. We wish you well on the final exams, confident that you will do us proud.

I would like to leave you with advice from Nicki Abdinor, a remarkable clinical psychologist from Cape Town with whom I recently crossed paths. What makes Nicki particularly noteworthy is not only the fact that she is an outstanding thinker and speaker but also that she is a grown woman who stands just over one meter tall and has no arms. Her advice is simple but relevant to all of us:

Believe in yourself:  We are all born with an inner drive which becomes challenged when we start comparing ourselves to our peers. We all have abilities but life causes us to doubt ourselves when we consider what we believe other people are able to do but perceive ourselves unable to do. When we are asked if we are able to sing, the majority of people say no.  However, who said we cannot sing?  Focus on what you CAN do: We should never be ashamed of who we are, with our limitations and all.

Be grateful: There are always blessings to count. Remember that quality outshines quantity. Guard against envy for what others have. When we stop comparing ourselves to others, we become empowered!

I look back with much gratitude on a remarkable year and forward towards a promising future for our school. Let’s take it on with enthusiasm and the intention to make the most of the promise that it holds!

Jannie de Villiers
Head of School

 








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