Former science teacher who wouldn’t be cowed now works for the minister
FOCUS ON PERFORMANCE: David Silman is now a director in the Department of Basic Education advising Minister Motshekga on delivery issues.
LIKE a schoolboy, David Silman’s face lights up as he remembers hurling improvised explosives at a gang of protesting teachers who invaded Queens High School during the public service strike last year. “My colleague and I had prepared explosives for them because we knew they were going to come to our school,” remembers Silman, a science teacher, with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “I threw them when the striking teachers came running through the school. It was lekker stuff and gave off a huge bang, but was completely harmless. “I was very angry. You see, what these people did is round up bullies and street scum. They pushed their way through the school gates and we had to put all the terrified kids on the second and third floor.
“At the nursery school up the road, these shitheads had told toddlers: ‘If you come to school tomorrow, you’ll be dead.’ I’m definitely not anti-union, but that’s just not okay.” And as the crippling strike intensified, more and more schools across Gauteng shut their doors –and thousands of matrics out.
Silman, ever angrier about the unfolding crisis, thought of a novel solution. He would volunteer to give lessons in science and biology at weekends. All he needed was a large venue, and to borrow a laptop. “I was pissed off. When the strike happened, I was very annoyed because the timing –just before prelim exams –was deliberately chosen to be as damaging to the kids as possible. These striking teachers were intimidating working teachers and kids.
“I thought if I could get a big venue like a 1 000-plus, (and) a laptop which I didn’t own, then I could just project the science and biology lessons on a screen.”
He contacted David O’Sullivan of Talk Radio 702. “He liked the idea and interviewed me to explain what I wanted to do. Within 10 seconds of getting off the phone with him, my phone started ringing. There was a huge response – people offering their time, their expertise and their products.” He started lessons at the Harvest Time Dome Church in Claremont, west of Joburg, where, at first, about 1 500 pupils packed its seats, every weekend and some nights. “What was so remarkable was that people then started setting up similar kinds of operations all over the place. At the maximum I was the catalyst. I did get off my ass, though, which is, I suppose, the difference.”
Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga was so impressed with Silman that she offered him a job as director in her office on the spot. “The minister had sent me a letter saying: ‘Thanks very much for what you do.’ It was very nice. The second letter asked if she could come out one Saturday to the Claremont classes to see what’s going on. “I said, sure, but unfortunately it’s Yom Kippur and I won’t be there for long, only before the shul service, which starts at 9am, so if she (the minister) could get there early– between 7.30am and 8am –I’d be delighted to meet her. “And what did she do? She rocked up at 7.30am. That impressed me because it says a lot about her respect for other people and her values. She asked if I was doing all these things on my own. I said: ‘Ja, it’s not that hard.’ She asked right there and then if I would consider doing what I’m doing in her office.”
Silman started work as a director in her office in January. “I’m the director of getting things done. The minister hired me because she saw in me the capacity to go over, around and through the bureaucratic impediments to deliver what I want the kids to get. “My role is distinctly focused on advising the minister and developing doable things –workable, not pie-in-the-sky strategies –to improve teacher and pupil performance in maths and science specifically, throughout the country… I work ultimately for the children of the country.”
There is some disbelief, still. “I’m male, white and over 50. In three strikes, I should be out, not in. I got here the way everybody does, by bribing people. The higher ranking the better. “What people may not assume of the practice is that as you go higher up the ladder, they’re prepared to accept less and less,” he jokes.
The minister, he says, is a mensch, a Yiddish term of endearment used to describe a person who has integrity and honour. “I’m fulsome in my praise of her because I see how she deals with people. “Second, she’s a very smart lady and she is incredibly hard-working.”
Silman is wearing a tie decorated with iridescent peace signs as he sits in his Randburg home. “I had a penis tie but I could never wear it to school, because it’s got cartoon willies,” he laughs. He puffs on a cigarette, running through the past 20 years he has spent in the classroom. “I miss being in the classroom and watching the lights go on. “One of my bosses told me teachers have the greatest privilege because we get to perform every day and can’t afford to be useless. “That’s exactly it. I like the performance.” But he doesn’t long after the ancillary irritations, or the “associated crap” –particularly the lack of meaningful support from districts for schools. “They’re a bunch of can’t-do people. Whatever the minister’s done to try reduce the administration load for teachers, the districts have just ignored to a large extent.
“They don’t know their own regulations so when you have a problem with a kid, should you be lucky enough to hold a hearing, the district manager will find any excuse to shunt it back to the school. “They don’t want a blot in their copy book, as it were.
They think it’s a bad thing to agree with a school to suspend a child or impose some kind of formal sanction, so it gets bounced back. “Are you surprised teachers are demoralised because they encounter this crap every day; they have kids in their faces and it’s unpleasant and they see that nothing happens.” There are teachers, too, who shouldn’t be in the positions they are. “The Peter Principle applies – rise to your level of incompetence. The fact that it happens in such a sensitive sphere of human activity like schooling makes it that much more significant and serious, but it’s no different to anywhere else. “There are not only teachers who teach subjects they are not qualified to teach, but there are subject specialists throughout the country, at both provincial and national level, who themselves need to be re-jigged and skilled up.”
But he is impressed by the calibre of staff in the ministry. “The senior management people whom I interact with are without exception impressive people. In fact, there isn’t one I’ve met who I haven’t been impressed by, which is quite something from someone who is not scared to say: ‘Listen, I think you’re a bunch of halfwit wankers.’
“This was a big pleasant surprise because being a classroom teacher, it’s easy to say, ‘Ag, ja, I wish they would do this or that’, but actually one doesn’t see the constraints and the quality people generating policy. “The failure occurs at the level of implementation, as with everything else in South Africa. They suffer from the frustrations that the public can’t see. And that’s like being a captain of a huge ship. You can’t turn it around in five minutes.”
He blames the institutional lag at district level and school level for the failures that occur. “It’s got nothing to do with resources. It’s got to do with leadership. I can tell you that many of the schools that have bugger-all have extremely good results.”
He cites the example of Lucas Mangope Technical High School in Rustenburg. “The principal runs a huge school of 1600 kids, from poor homes, but the school has a 92 percent pass rate. She runs an incredibly tight ship and makes it work. When I went there, I didn’t see one child out of class. Teachers are teaching in circumstances that are suboptimal. They have partitioned workshop spaces into classrooms so it’s incredibly hot and dark. The kids are sweating to death. But the teachers are doing their thing. So if the leadership is good, a school will run and it will succeed.
“That really is all it’s about. All the rest is ancillary because you can take a teacher who hasn’t got great academic training and put that person in an environment where they can grow and learn. They exist. There are tens of thousands of teachers like that.”
Silman says it’s “mad” that there are township schools that are empty and abandoned by bad management, and believes that education outcomes will be improved by focusing on rural South Africa. He believes one solution is to set up self-sustaining kibbutz- like boarding schools to address the challenges posed by multigrade classrooms, which he describes as “6 000 little houses on the prairie without the romance” where school-going children of various ages at primary level are taught by one teacher. “That is one of the major challenges of the schooling system and part of the reason so many children fall out of the system because high school is just too far. They can’t get to school and back in a 24-hour period. I’d like to pilot boarding schools taking kids from far-flung rural districts and putting them in a self-sustaining boarding house to solve the issues of distance, food, and child-headed households.
We’ll see the most significant improvement in our results. “They’re different to city kids, they are not spoilt and cynical and have a different appreciation of schooling than jaded city kids.”
Silman believes the most significant causes of failure everywhere is inadequate management at school level and district level. “If you’ve got a bad district or principal, the kids are screwed –and they are. We recognise we’ve got a problem. “The minister is very realistic and recognises the truth. I speak openly with her. I’ve always been like that. I can quickly see the flaws in policy documents that don’t translate down to school level.
“I’m not a politician fan. I think they’re mostly scumbags worldwide, but on a professional and personal level, the fact that the minister respected my particular religious observance when I met her, and accommodated her busy schedule to fit mine –and she’s the minister, I’m not –that spoke volumes of her respect for people. “That’s so important when you’re dealing with 12 million people in the schooling system. She consults all the time. She doesn’t know everything and knows she doesn’t, which is both unusual and admirable.”
PICTURE: CARA VIERECKL