Q&A with Maurita Glynn-Weissenberg

MauritaThe aim of the Q&A series is to get an inside look into some of South Africa’s leading education academics, policy-makers and activists. This is the twenty-fifth interview in the series. Maurita Glynn-Weissenberg is the founder and director of the Shine Centre.

1) How did you get into education, can you summarise your journey to get to where you are?

I started off teaching my toys as a little girl as I only ever wanted to teach. I taught in the UK and SA in both private and state schooling of which the latter were in pretty edgy neighbourhoods in both countries. Struggling to read seemed to be something that followed children irrespective of where they grew up which led me to study remedial education at UCT in 1995.

In 1998 I started volunteering two mornings a week at Observatory Junior School. A school where most of the children travel long distances at their families expense to learn in English. However, more than half the class were not nearly reading at Grade 1 (?) level by Grade 4. What struck me was the commitment from families to educate their children and how keen the children were to do well. After two years of tutoring Grade 5 and 6 children I started looking for an early intervention which took me to visit a project in Tower Hamlets, East of London, UK. Here I saw corporates giving up a lunch hour once a week to read with children and the idea of Shine was born.

2)   What does your average week look like.

In the last year I have finally moved into a position of moving out of the day-to-day operations of the Shine Programmes and concentrating on developing the right systems and policies to reach our long term vision.

Last week I spent two mornings reviewing policies and researching a few more.

I had a meeting with one of our funders to look at making some changes to our peer-learning project, met with the Chairman of another literacy organisation to discuss collaboration and spent a morning reviewing our Social Franchise.

I also attended the Year Beyond Dinner at Chrysalis Academy where we welcomed 33 amazing youth who will be Shine Learning Partners in 8 schools who benefit from the Western Cape’s MOD programme. I ended the week attending a committee meeting of RASA (Reading Association of South Africa) as we are hosting this year’s RASA Conference along with the Pan African Reading Association.

However, after having quite a serious accident in 2009 I strongly believe in balance and I do manage to pick up my children from school and walk the dog along the green belt most days.

 3)   While I’m sure you’ve read many books and articles in your career, if you had to pick one or two that have been especially influential for you which one or two would they be and why?

Systemic change begins with people changing the way they think and do things. So that is what I am most interested in. Especially as Shine’s workforce is currently 700 volunteers, 23 Centre Managers, 23 school heads, 33 youth and a head office team of 13. Our focus group is thousands of young children and their caregivers.

The book and teachings that made the greatest impact on our work and my thinking is Nancy Cline’s Time to Think. Nancy Kline has identified 10 behaviours that form a system called a Thinking Environment, a model of human interaction that dramatically improves the way people think, and thus the way they work and live. We work this model into our programme and all our meetings. Meetings are useless if people don’t listen to one another, interrupt one another, talk too much or say nothing at all.

The second book that I learnt so much from was Playful Approaches to Serious Problems by David Epston, Jennifer Freeman and Dean Lobovits.

Our volunteers are offered training by Linda van Duuren who’s incredible work is based on David Epston’s Narrative Therapy. Our children come with huge challenges in their lives and it is important that as adults we are able to listen to and respect their unique language, problem-solving and resources. David Epston’s work gives us a framework to work from.

4)   Who do you think are the current two or three most influential/eminent thinkers in your field and why?

I have recently been lucky enough to be part of some incredible thinking.

In 2011 Shine was a finalist for the Wise Awards and ever since I have been sponsored to attend the Word Innovation Summit for Education. What I love about this Summit is that they want to hear from everybody in the field and actively sponsor thousands of people from all areas of education. There is as great a respect for the voice of a field worker in a refugee camp school as the chairman of Unesco for instance. There is so much to learn from the many people around me but I do have some favourites:

Firstly, Charles Leadbeater, who is a leading authority on innovation and creativity and co-wrote Learning from the Extremes. Published early in 2010 by Cisco, Learning from the Extremes examines how social entrepreneurs around the world are devising new approaches to learning in extreme social circumstances – favelas, slums, informal settlements – when there are few teachers, schools, text books. The radically innovative approaches they develop challenge conventional wisdom about schooling and provide new insights into how the developed world should reform its education systems.

My second favourite is Professor Anil Gupta who created the Honey Bee Network to ensure recognition, respect and reward for grassroots inventors and innovators at local, national and global levels. Searching the country with colleagues, he has found countless inventions developed out of necessity, which he has documented and often shared with the global community.

My wish for this year is for a larger group of South African educationalists and policy makers to attend the Wise Summit.

5)   What do you think is the most under-researched area in education in South Africa?

 Can’t say for sure but possibly Early Childhood Development.

6)   What is the best advice you’ve been given?

I think I have learnt the most from Kathryn Torres, our current chairperson, who has partnered me on the Shine journey since 2006. I always tended to allow my visions to paralyse me whereas she is someone that thrives on getting the job done. How lucky is this relationship?

Whenever I have an idea she gets me to haul out my diary and put the next step into action. So usually by the end of that conversation I have identified who I need to speak to, have made contact and the appointment is in the diary. That is simply how new centres were established in 2009, how our Social Franchise model came about and hopefully how our new project involving peer learning will evolve .

Kathryn’s advice: ‘One step at a time.’ It’s as simple as that!

7) You founded the Shine Centre in 2000 – can you give us some information about what Shine is all about, its aims and approach and maybe some of your plans for the future?

The Shine Model

We currently have 8 Shine Centres supporting 10 primary schools and 13 Shine Chapters (our Social Franchise Model) which supports 13 primary schools in 3 provinces.

The Shine Programme runs from a centre in schools each morning. It is managed by a Shine Centre Manager and between 40 to 80 trained volunteers run the programme (depending on the need). Grade Two or Three children are partnered with a volunteer for a year and together they work through a one hour structured literacy programme, twice a week.

Children who attend the Shine Centre have been assessed by Shine to be ‘at risk’ in terms of their literacy scores. This is determined at the end of their Grade One year when Shine assesses all Grade One children. Their progress is monitored twice a year which is shared with the class teacher together with any anecdotal information that the volunteer picks up.

The Literacy Programme consists of: Paired Reading, Shared Reading, Have a Go Writing and Word Games, using 36 five-minute games specially designed by Shine. Our programme complements the school curriculum and provides individual support to children who are struggling. All volunteers receive initial training on the methodology surrounding each of these areas, as well as continuous in-depth training on key and additional skills and learning areas.

On top of that we offer eye testing and glasses to the schools, parent workshops and soon we hope to introduce a peer-learning programme to the teachers.

Importantly, everything is tied together using our Shine Ethos which is based on the principles by Nancy Cline’s Time to Think, and we believe that this is what makes our programme both unique and successful. Children are encouraged to work at their own pace in a fun, warm and nurturing environment, where appreciation and praise are used to positively reinforce progress and good behaviour.

8) I’m sure you are in a different space now than you were in 2000 when you founded Shine, what advice would you give to yourself 14 years ago?

There are things I wish I had done differently but I do believe that it’s part of what I needed to experience and learn. In 1999 I lacked confidence to even think of knocking on doors to get funding. Thus I ended up designing a project that used volunteers and the infrastructure of the school that hosted it. The first Shine Centre established in 2000 ran on the smell of an oil rag but it was quickly noted that the literacy at this school rose steadily from 50% in 2002 to 82.7%% in 2008 (Western Cape Grade 3 testing).

But if I had to choose anything it is to have the courage of my convictions. I used to second-guess myself too much. And I wish I had been a little wilder in my youth. By 21 I was already married, had built a house and had two dogs that were serious hand-breaks! (I may have made up for that in my forties.)

9) What is the most rewarding and most frustrating thing about your job?

Walking into a Shine Chapter that has had our basic support and training and seeing the powerful interaction between the Learning Partners taking place. We won the Truth and Reconciliation Prize in 2008 based on the relationships that develop during a Shine session. It is nation building – without a doubt.

The most frustrating is seeing the huge potential of the children in our schools and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that confront them in our schooling system.

10) If you ended up sitting next to the Minister of Basic Education on a plane and she asked you what you think are the three biggest challenges facing the South African ECD sector, what would you say?

  1. The difficulty of finding and tracking every informal and formal crèche and nursery school in the country let alone the cost and challenges of training, resourcing and monitoring each facility.
  2. The challenge of training in a sector where caregivers have varying background in education.
  3. The fact that parents can often only pay a minimal cost which results in children spending their day in impoverished and over-crowded facilities with little or no individual care.

 11)   If you weren’t in education what do you think you would be doing?

I’d be in HR or maybe a feng-shui consultant. My team tease me because I love nothing more than rearranging the furniture in our offices and centres. I love making a space conducive to allowing people to really feel good.

12)   Technology in education going forward – are you a fan or a sceptic?

I love the idea of children being given the power to create their own learning using technology and Dr. Sugata Mitra who started the first Hole-in-the-Wall in a slum in New Delhi proposed the following hypothesis when he delivered an inspiring presentation at WISE in 2011: The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.

However, being the mother of two boys who attend Waldorf Schools, I still believe that the most cost–effective and meaningful medium of teaching can be and should be dynamic, warm, positive human beings who are passionate about their subject and have mastery of it.

12) If you were given a R10 million research grant what would you use it for?

As we know children across the board in South Africa have poor literacy skills, which impacts on their opportunity or ability to learn and has devastating consequences for their chance to succeed in life. I would like to research innovative ways to improve literacy in South African schools through a national peer reading programme in which children read together for set times during the day. Paired and shared peer reading programmes have been introduced in both the UK and Canada and there is sufficient positive research emerging from these countries to support introducing a Book Buddies programme in schools throughout South Africa. I would love to be able to visit and observe the most successful peer reading programmes in the world and then research ways in which these could be modified to fit into the South African context. I would like to implement a Book Buddy programme nationally and complete a longitudinal study on the effects of the programme on the children. It is my dream to see children pairing up with their Book Buddy spontaneously and reading for pleasure at any time of the school day. If children learn to read for pleasure at school this translates into a life-long love of reading, which, in turn, impacts positively on generations to come as the children become parents and read to their children.


*Full disclosure: my mom (Sally Spaull) is a Shine volunteer in Durban and regularly tells me how wonderful the program is 🙂

Some of the others on my “to-interview” list include Veronica McKay, Thabo Mabogoane, Yael Shalem, Linda Richter and Volker Wedekind. If you have any other suggestions drop me a mail and I’ll see what I can do.

Previous participants (with links to their Q&A’s) include, Johan MullerUrsula HoadleyStephen TaylorServaas van der BergElizabeth HenningBrahm FleischMary Metcalfe, Martin Gustafsson, Eric AtmoreDoron IsaacsJoy OliverHamsa VenkatLinda Biersteker, Jonathan ClarkeMichael MyburghPercy Moleke , Wayne Hugo, Lilli PretoriusPaula EnsorCarol MacdonaldJill Adler and Andrew EinhornCarole Bloch and Shelley O’Carroll.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s