Sunday, May 18, 2008


There is nothing like coming back from a holiday with a few surprises waiting for you. It takes away all the rest and relaxation felt during those short days off, though without it the surprises might never be survived. In our case, the surprise came in the form of one of our 5th grade teachers not showing up for work on our first day back. A few quick inquiries to the other educators as we stood exchanging greetings and stories from our respective leisure of the previous weeks informed us that the reason behind our beloved teacher's absence was that he had taken pension (aka-retired) over the holiday. Substitute teaching is not an institution in much of South Africa, so the absence of one teacher means that those students do not attend that teacher's classes for the day and are split up among the other classrooms. In the case of our newly faced retirement, unbeknown to us or the remaining staff, our colleague had up and left us without a Math or Technology teacher for all of the grade 5 students. We were not initially expecting to teach when we came to South Africa, but looking around at the frustrated faces of our teachers at the thought of adding even more students to their already crowded classrooms, we offered up the question: 'Can we help?'

Immediately the response was 'Yes, you can start teaching tomorrow'. Startled at our sudden plunge into the classroom we worked out a schedule where we were able to work with the current 5th grade teachers and assess where the students were in their Math and Technology classes thus far for the year and begin in a couple days. This being the way of things here sometimes, between school holidays, meetings and other engagements, the school was not ready for us to begin for over two weeks. Nonetheless this gave us a chance to prepare some lessons, look over the curriculum and feel as prepared as we could for our first day at the chalkboard. As we stood in front of our Grade 5C class (we have four 5th grade classes A,B,C and D) on our first morning we realized that while English is taught in the schools here, they do not really formally begin until the 4th grade. Therefore, we quickly found that 5th grade students are not overly experienced in English. Those who are, due to speaking at home with family or friends and picking up much from television, are often reluctant to speak in English for fear of making mistakes in front of us. We have been slowly learning more and more Setswana as the months go by here, but our learning curve just increased exponentially. After day one, we brought our dictionary. Much of our first week was spent learning appropriate terms (kopanya=to add, ntsa=to subtract) to convey our lesson to the students. The students often laugh at our feeble attempts to speak their language, let alone pronounce some of their names while taking attendance but our attempt in itself has been a big help in getting them to come to class ready to learn. As we become more comfortable speaking, they become more comfortable asking questions when they do not understand. Some days it feels like our progress is incredibly fast, other days excruciatingly slow, but progress is progress and it is better than no class at all. Yet there are so many hurdles for these students to overcome.

The students here attend classes in concrete and brick rooms first built in the 1960's and not repaired since with one chalkboard, no decorations, pock marked floors, broken chairs and tables beyond repair. Regularly there are more students than chairs so the last ones to class end up sitting on tables or the floor. This leads to children running, pushing and shoving their way to class to try and get a seat. Our first day we had classes of 90 because two of our four teachers were absent. Discipline, order and structure are difficult to obtain and with class periods of either 30 or 60 minutes, less the time spent traveling back and forth between classes and getting 90 students situated in one room. Little time remains for an actual lesson. The rapidly rising cost of food means many students are distracted by hunger during the day. As winter descends on the area those without proper clothing will either stay home to keep warm or have difficult concentrating during class. Materials are scarce. We spent almost a week trying to unearth a teacher's guide for technology from the bottom of the library stacks that remain unused and out of date. We have a learner's book that we are able to work from, as do most other teachers, but none of the students actually has a book to hold in front of them. There is a photocopier to copy pages for distribution in class, but paper and toner are limited. Students have only the few notebooks they are given at the beginning of the year to work in. If they have work to take home, some may not have electricity to flip on a light to do their work at night once the sun goes down. The school qualifies for government funding but as of the end of this week the funding is months late and there is no definite knowledge of when or if it will arrive. The funding that will come is often already earmarked for critical repairs or supplies of which the list is just too long. Having spent just two weeks fully in the shoes of our fellow teachers here we realize even more how difficult it is to make meaningful and lasting changes to the education system. The curriculum that is in place is actually very well thought out and presented, but it requires time, materials, space and knowledge that most rural schools just do not have. Without being able to meet even minimum requirements in so many ways, it is plain to see how much work is still needed to produce the type of generation South Africa needs to continue all of the success it has enjoyed since 1994.

Despite the enormous challenges faced, students and teachers still come daily. Our teachers are trying many new and innovative to use the sparse resources they possess to educate their students. Projects for class are made out of anything and everything that can be found in the village. Bottles, cans, boxes, magazines etc. are brought to school each day. Activities and hands at work seem to be what our students have craved in the short time we have been working with them. They eagerly await class to see what strange new 'American' game or idea we will bring to class each day. The teachers have seen some of our ideas and we are working together to share what works and what does not with each other to try and get all of our students on the same page. Already we have reorganized the classroom layout to cut down on the longer distances the students used to travel to get to class, giving each teacher a few more precious minutes of face time with their learners. Our principal has been working diligently to acquire an adequate number of computers so that students can catch up on the current technology to those students in urban schools (one of the largest knowledge gaps in the country). Having really enjoyed just a couple weeks of having us as colleagues in the same boat as them, the other teachers are eagerly awaiting the hiring of a new teacher so that we will have more time free to devote to helping them personally with their classrooms as well. It is inspiring to see such unabated optimism in the face of daunting obstacles and it only increases our desire to continue working hard for our teachers.

For many months it seemed as though we may never be able to give our schools the assistance they need, but now that the right avenues have opened and small steps have been made, both we and our teachers see the possibilities that lay ahead. We have been busier and more productive in the last two weeks than any other two week span in our service. There is no sign of it slowing down anytime soon and none of us want it to. We may be living and working on what some call the Dark Continent, but the sun continues to rise every morning on our way to school.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ah teaching in a rural african guys make me miss it dearly!!!!! keep up the great work!


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