Spotting the warning signs of disengagement: Champion Teachers are attentive and responsive to learners’ needs

Zandisiwe Cetywayo is a teacher at Mzomhle Senior Secondary in the Eastern Cape. Cetywayo is among the first cohort of Champion Teachers joining Yethu Network of Schools.

Zandisiwe Cetywayo — a Champion Teacher in the Yethu network — is on the lookout for the warning signs of disengaged behaviour.

Economic exclusion, exposure to violence and poor nutrition are some of the challenges of growing up in poverty in South Africa. The Covid-19 pandemic has deepened the vulnerability of many learners living in difficult socio-economic circumstances, making it even tougher to stay on track.

Zandisiwe Cetywayo, a Champion Teacher in the Yethu Network of Schools (a school-based programme of the Zero Dropout Campaign) is an example of how a caring and attentive adult can step in to help when individual learners are showing signs of distress or withdrawing from school.

“With the impact of the pandemic, many of our learners are facing extreme poverty at home among other social challenges; there is so much going on in their lives,” says Cetywayo.

She often sets aide time for her learners to discuss these problems in class so that she can direct them to the appropriate state services or call in additional psychosocial or academic support.

“It’s important that they feel heard and know they are not alone,” she adds.

School dropout is not a spontaneous event – it doesn’t just happen from one day to the next. It’s a process of disengagement in which a learner is pushed or pulled away from school because of disruptions at home, at school, and in their community. This means that educators are in a unique position to spot when learners are unable to concentrate, are finding it difficult to absorb information in a meaningful way, or they are missing classes, or falling behind academically. This is why the Zero Dropout Campaign has developed toolkits to help educators to identify the warning signs of disengagement and build systems of support for learners who are at risk of dropping out.

The Early Warning System tool uses key ‘dimensions’ that are considered the leading signs that a child may be in danger of dropping out, and then enables educators to systematically capture observations about the learners in their classrooms. These observations will help educators to approach School-Based and District-based Support Teams with clear evidence that individual learners need additional support.

Disruptions to schooling caused by the pandemic have led to an increase in absenteeism and learning losses. “There are many absent learners and many of my learners are behind with their academic work,” says Cetywayo.

To help these learners, Cetywayo changed the structure of her lessons by focusing on the fundamentals that learners may have missed in previous grades or while schools were closed. She hopes this strategy will help learners who have fallen behind in their schoolwork to be able to catch up with their peers.

Cetywayo’s simple interventions will no doubt have a positive impact on the learners in her class.