Looking Back: Learning and Leaving

looking back

Since its inception, BRIDGE has always had a dynamic team of young and more experienced staff who offer an ideal mix of enthusiasm and institutional knowledge. Over the last 6 months, we’ve continued in that tradition by taking on an intern – Diana Kamau. In this exit post, Diana tells us what her experience at BRIDGE has been like and what learnings she hopes to take with her as she heads out into the wider world. Read on!

What is BRIDGE? That question has been on my mind since I started interning here. Between trying to come up with an elevator pitch in a strategy meeting and explaining to my friends what I do, the question kept rearing its head. And every time it came up I became increasingly aware just how hard it is to summarise all that BRIDGE does into a sentence or a short elevator ride conversation. BRIDGE simply does too much to fit into a brief sentence, and maybe that is okay because BRIDGE is a lot of things to a lot of people. For some, BRIDGE is the organisation that allows them to share their burdens in a safe place; for others, it is a launching pad from which they can network and collaborate with those working in the sector. BRIDGE may be Kaley’s kind face in the Early Childhood Development Community of Practice (ECD CoP) meetings offering coffee and a place to learn from other ECD Practitioners. It may be Ongie’s voice on the other end of the phone reminding principals about CoP meeting dates, or reports and articles written by Sarah in newspapers and blogs. BRIDGE is all those things and so much more. In this blog post I will attempt to explain what BRIDGE has been to me.

These six months at BRIDGE can only be described as one long learning experience. Certainly not the boring – sitting in a chemistry class not understanding anything while the teacher drones on about moles – kind of learning experience. Rather, it was the wake up in the morning not knowing what you are going to do when you land in the middle of a board meeting on your first day kind of learning. Baptism by fire, as Sarah would say. It is the BRIDGE way. It is scary, and daunting, but before I knew it this eighteen-year-old straight out of high school found herself on the phone with district officials. It’s been a crazy ride, but I have learned that baptism by fire is a pretty good way to learn things.

Recently, I had the pleasure of helping with the GTI Axis Summit (a four day convergence of students, teachers and school leaders from throughout South Africa and around the world). BRIDGE was an important partner in charge of helping coordinate the Educators Imbizo, and doing knowledge management for the summit. If ever there was a time that I gained immense hope for South Africa’s education system and the work BRIDGE does, it was at this year’s Axis Summit. Here I saw teachers, principals and other educationists determined to learn, improve their practice, and push South African education forward. At the summit, John Gilmour (the founder of the LEAP Science and Maths Schools, and Chairman of the BRIDGE Board) stressed that the biggest and most useful resource educators in South Africa have is each other. Everyone in the room nodded their heads in agreement. I smiled. “This is what BRIDGE has been saying for the last ten years,” I thought. The Axis Summit reaffirmed what I learned in the first BRIDGE CoP I ever attended – that BRIDGE’s role as a convener of communities of practice (CoPs) is incredibly necessary. After all, South African educators cannot wait for a summit that comes around once a year to discuss their successes and challenges and learn from each other. What happened at the summit needs to be an ongoing process and BRIDGE provides the platform for this process to take place.

During the Axis summit, I helped the BRIDGE team with knowledge management and got a little taste of what it’s all about. I can now say with absolute certainty that the knowledge management team at BRIDGE are wordsmiths, ink slingers, wizards with pen and keyboard. They traverse harsh terrains in the form of long (and if we are being honest, occasionally dry) presentations and talks. They battle dragons trying to make academic articles more accessible, fight trolls making sure all the communications from BRIDGE go out, and produce gold in the form of beautiful knowledge products, newsletters, and reports. If you think knowledge management is just taking notes, you are mistaken. The BRIDGE knowledge management team have tamed the beast that is NGO lingo and academic speak.

Of course, I must take some time to talk about the project managers. Coordinating CoPs, booking venues, getting speakers and sending invites. If our knowledge management team are wizards, then the BRIDGE project managers are straight up sorcerers. They make organising CoPs look simple and seamless. I think that the main lesson I have learned from them is this: ‘if you push hard enough and believe in the thing you are pushing for, something is bound to happen even if it takes a while’. This lesson is rooted in the nature of CoPs, which hinge on the building of relationships based on mutual passions. When you get different stakeholders in education in a room together, anything can happen. The NGOs may not like the academics, a teacher may feel the NGOs do not fully understand the work on ground level, all sorts of things could go wrong. BRIDGE project managers take all this into consideration and push for the building of relationships based on trust and respect. They challenge CoP members to leave behind any preconceived ideas, and instead share what they have learned for the betterment of the community. And with a little pushing and nudging, the BRIDGE project managers always manage to show that amazing things can happen when communities collaborate. From the ‘ECD Quality Reflection Tool’ to the ‘Post-school Access Map’, great things are coming out of BRIDGE’s CoPs and they are all openly available on the BRIDGE website (you should check out the Knowledge Hub, I promise you will learn a thing or two).

When I first came to BRIDGE I came with an open mind, willing to learn new things and challenge myself – and learn I did. Working at BRIDGE has given me a clearer understanding of the South African education system. I’ve learned a lot about BRIDGE’s four focus areas: teacher development, learner support, school leadership, and early childhood development. Yes, it is a lot and yes BRIDGE works in all those spheres. Amazing, isn’t it? Over and beyond learning about South African education, I have learned a whole lot about the world and myself from the BRIDGE team.  Way too much for me to put into a blogpost – I don’t want to bore you. All I will say is that in a little office on 6 Blackwood Avenue, a team of women and the oh so lovely Craig (the resident communications guy) taught me about what it means to be human, and a woman, and socially aware, and most importantly what it means to be working wholeheartedly for the advancement of others.

As I prepare to dive back into the student world, it still feels like I haven’t left. My time at BRIDGE, in typical CoP fashion, was characterised by constant learning, sharing, and connecting. And as excited as I am to take what I have learned and use it to figure out the world (and critique my professors on good working practice), I’m also a little sad because, to quote Craig, “I may have come for the content but I stayed for the community”. Leaving this community is bittersweet, but as Winne the Pooh once said, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard!”.


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