Follow me on any form of social media and this summer you will have seen me on safari in Pilanesberg, climbing mountains in Cape Town and even bungee jumping in Soweto (because I’m obviously slightly crazy). But, contrary to its portrayal on Facebook, my six-week stay in South Africa was far from a holiday.
As part of the Warwick in Africa programme, I spent six weeks teaching English at Realogile, a township school in Alexandra, one of the poorest parts of South Africa. Daily exposure to such a deprived and poverty stricken area, characterised by dilapidated buildings, litter-strewn streets and makeshift corrugated iron “houses”, was difficult. Very quickly I was forced to realise the limitations of my impact: I could not change the world in six weeks. What I could do, however, was impact the five Grade 11 classes I was teaching, improving their comprehension, confidence and command of English. Little did I know that this task would present myriad challenges of its own.
Crowded classes of up to 50 learners – more than double the average class size in the UK – was a daunting prospect in itself, and once the novelty of having a white person in the classroom had quickly worn off, discipline became a regular challenge. Decades of students’ lack of effort, disheartened teachers and high failure rates have created an unstable environment. A vicious cycle of students disrespecting teachers and teachers refusing to go to class and teach has been established. The result? A lack of mutual respect. This was certainly evident as learners came and left the classroom as they pleased, consistently copied answers, spoke over my teaching and even refused to engage with classwork. It was tough.
Of course, there were good days and bad; of the 84 lessons I taught, most were successful. My students participated in class debates, wrote and delivered speeches and read literature ranging from short stories to Shakespeare. The worst days, however, were awful. On more than one occasion I came close to just walking out of the classroom, frustrated and disheartened – what was the point in me being there if they wouldn’t even listen to me? Thankfully such days were few and, with the help of such a supportive group of volunteers, soon forgotten.
Other challenges proved much more frequent. Despite my constant reminders, learners would often “forget” to bring the textbook that I had planned an entire lesson around. Teaching 50 students with just four textbooks is an impossible task (trust me, I’ve tried) so I was often forced to change my lesson plans on the spot. Frustrating? Very. But it’s an experience which has taught me to think on my feet and improved my ability to adapt in a high pressure environment.
Homework became another frustratingly consistent issue as activities I set were rarely completed. Many students have a less than ideal home environment to study, some with illiterate parents unable to assist with work, others with a lack of encouragement from their families. Meanwhile, the prevalence of single or no-parent families left some learners with extra responsibilities at home and virtually no time to even attempt homework. As issuing detentions is illegal in South Africa, I had to find an alternative way to tackle this problem. So instead of punishment, I rewarded the few that completed homework with sweets, stickers and positive feedback and gradually homework submissions increased.
Aside from teaching, I gained an insight into issues prevalent within the township. The impact of government corruption was strikingly evident for example, as money had been pumped into providing interactive whiteboards, yet classrooms had more students than chairs and doors that don’t shut properly.
Drug use and teenage pregnancy were also worryingly common. Not only did learners come to lessons high, I was also told heart-breaking accounts of students resorting to smoking weed after the death of a parent, as an alternative to the counselling they could not afford. One pregnancy resulted in the most difficult day of my trip: a grade eleven student had gone into labour at school but, with a lack of medical equipment and an operator’s refusal to send an ambulance, she lost her child. This already upsetting situation was then exacerbated by cultural differences I found difficult to comprehend. In a staff meeting the principal explained that the event was simply the result of God’s will. Had this happened in the UK, an investigation would have been initiated, and as someone who is not religious, I found the response both shocking and frustrating.
Perhaps most challenging of all was the knowledge that, whilst I could positively impact students’ education, I could not fix the underlying social and economic issues. Combined with the daily challenges of working in a township school as well as extensive marking, planning and preparation, our weekend trips and excursions became a much needed chance for relaxation (if you can call getting up before sunrise to climb Table Mountain relaxing).
Don’t be fooled by the online image of volunteering abroad. It’s not a cheap holiday but a challenge; one which will make you more resilient, confident and culturally aware