It’s hard to believe I’ve nearly completed my first year of teaching – both in my Peace Corps service and in my life. Looking back to my panicked preparations in early January, I chuckle at my whizzing thoughts of terror: “What do I say on the first day?”, “How do I discipline with a language barrier?”, “Will they even understand me?!” Many people helped calm me down and get excited about the school year, but one conversation in particular stood out. An older PCV who had been in country longer told me something to the effect of, “90% of your service and success is just showing up. These kids are so accustomed to not having a teacher in the classroom that your consistent presence will affect them more than you know.” It’s so true – allowing these children a schedule with routine and expectations is something so beneficial, yet so uncommon in the rural school system. Pulling myself out of bed on groggy mornings with that in mind, the 2013 school year began, continued, and now it’s almost over.
My learners and I have encountered many things together: my stumbling through learning their names (some with Zulu clicks), their stumbling through learning my expectations of a gender-equal, English-only, no-fighting classroom, and our combined stumbling through teaching and learning the English language. But, the thing is, I don’t view stumbling as negative. I think many times within today’s culture and social norm, people are ashamed or embarrassed to admit to having to start over on a flopped project, repeat a failed course, or just not ‘getting’ something on the first attempt (hell, I’ll be the first to admit to failing Bio110 my first semester of college). We’re all human, whether we’d like to admit it or not. Grade 6 and I have stumbled this entire year, through successes and failures, but the bottom line is: we are much farther along than we would have been if we stood still. I didn’t initially want to post quantitative figures, but why not: I’m proud to say that the pass rate of my learners’ ANA (Annual National Assessment) English exams has risen from about 15% last year to 66% this year. I don’t accredit this to my incredible teaching experience and know-how (please indulge in the sarcasm), but in all honesty to the fact that I showed up regularly, consistently spoke English, and engaged the learners in fun and challenging ways.
Though the year has been an overall success, there have been some frustrations. That is, of course, natural when you take a westernized individual and plunk her down in a culture of differing values and expectations – especially when it comes to education. My primary school is quite good at always having teachers present in the classrooms, but it’s been difficult to watch the happenings of our neighbouring high school, knowing that most of my learners will end up there and especially knowing that not many grade 12 learners actually matriculate. Our secondary school is disheartening: teachers sit in the office most of the day, drinking tea and complaining about how small their salary is (and here I was thinking salaries had to be earned). Once I walked around their grounds and, each time I poked my head into a classroom, I was greeted with the older learners’ beaming smiles and a, “Thandeka, hello!” It was bittersweet: making a cheerful connection with them for a minute or two but knowing that when I left they’d go back to being without an educator yet held accountable for ‘self-teaching.’ Now, as the school year drones to the finish line, even my primary school seems to be making the shift towards apathy.
Term 4 in most rural schools is a joke. Learners across South Africa write the ANA exams at the end of Term 3 and so, with those results being the most important to the school because they are reported to the Department of Education, Term 4 is seen not as a time for continued learning but a time for patting oneself on the back for completing 75% of the school year. It seems that rural school teachers are overzealously premature about one thing: finishing final exams and marking early and then cruising towards the DoE’s date of closure. Last year all the Volunteers in my cohort left for our Peace Corps In-Service Training a few weeks after the ANA exams, so we didn’t truly see how our schools functioned during Term 4. This year allows us a front row seat. In a state of both western confusion and rural understanding, I’ve witnessed my learners’ exercise books and classroom materials be collected a month before the close of term, final subject exams given weeks before they could have been, and the inevitable decline of learners’ attendance. Back when there were three weeks of school left, I noticed school days getting shorter and shorter: bad weather or any adult’s whim could allow early dismissal (hence the title of this post). My school is quite small – 120 learners at full attendance – but this past week has wrangled in between 5-10 learners a day, arguably just for the food. And who can blame them? Why get up early, put on a uniform, and trek to school with absolutely nothing to do when you can stay home and socialize with friends in the village?
I try to occupy the ones that do come with games (Memory, learning English tongue twisters, etc.) and they’ve also been helping me deal with my school’s recent influx of ‘new’ library books. You’ll remember the Books For Africa project many South African PCVs were involved with a while back – well, it’s completed! The cargo ship toting both the 22,000+ books and a faulty engine finally beached itself on our dear shore. A semi-truck then transported the pallets to a Volunteer’s school in my area where we unloaded the 600+ boxes and began sorting them into intimidating piles for the 30 involved PCVs to fetch, sort, label, and add to their libraries. I’m quite pleased for this large task to arrive at my school, as there’s not much else to do until December 4th. I’ve really enjoyed opening the boxes and seeing what’s inside (cue Forrest Gump’s classic line)…many childhood memories have flooded back as I recognize titles from the past – and, who knows, they could be the very same books my family owned! A great deal of gratitude goes out to the David Rattray Foundation and all of those who donated to the BFA project. The learners now, and for many generations to come, are very appreciative.
As I edge towards the finish line of this first year of teaching, and as it’s autumn season (my favourite) back home, I’m reflecting fondly on everyone who has encouraged me throughout my service thus far. All the letters, phone calls, and parcels received make me feel so loved and connected to my people, items, foods, inside jokes, and memories in the States. Many thanks for everything, and I hope y’all enjoy a lovely holiday season. I’m so excited because unbelievably soon (well, January 5th) I’ll be joined over here by my big brudda, a one John Floyd, to explore parts of South Africa together. He’s already been given a Zulu name, too (Thokozani – “they are happy”)! This week, I wish a very Happy Thanksgiving to all my crazy Americans… get into a pigskin, autumn-coloured, turkey tryptophan, cranberry stuffing, pumpkin pie, bourbon eggnog, shed-your-pants-in-exchange-for-an-elastic-waistband coma for me! Nostalgia coupled with exorbitant food intake gives a whole new meaning to “home stretch,” eh?