I have been in South Africa for four seasons, many holidays, 4 school terms, nearly 11 months, and spent varying amounts of time in 7 different schools. As I near my year mark here, and as SA 26, the new group of education PCVs, prepare to head out on the adventure of a lifetime, I’ve decided to do a series of blog posts, reflecting specifically on different parts of the life and culture here. Today’s topic: schools.
Now, I’ve written several posts about schools, but today’s post is a general overview after having spent 4 terms in different schools. When you read this, realize I am only talking about rural schools.
Schools in SA have many problems. My schools have 310 (KPS) and 390(MPS) learners. They are both primary schools, Grade R (kindergarten) through grade 6. Despite this, we have learners ranging in age from 5-18, because learners often fail multiple grades. One school has a laboratory, computer lab, extra classrooms, and a library. Rarely are they utilized. My other school is bursting at the seams and is too small for the number of learners. One school has a fabulous garden (see “garden” tagged posts) and the other school has scraggly spinach plants growing randomly in the courtyard.
Learners in general are timid. Part of this is language, and part of it is the traditional use of corporal punishment. I will address CP in a separate post. The learners in my village have lower English levels than most, which is the language of instruction for Grade 4-12. This means that they can hardly understand me, and can scarcely complete assignments without resorting to Tswana translations by me, other learners, or another teacher. Children often don’t do their homework, and when they do, they hardly put effort into in. About 20% of the kids at one school are OVCs (orphans and vulnerable children). They don’t have parents to motivate them to do their homework, or they live with illiterate or non-English speaking relatives. Schoolwork is not as important to children and families, as it is in the USA.
Children often fail a grade, or several grades. There doesn’t seem much shame in this, and this is how I have 18 years old alongside 11 years olds in Grade 6. Passing rate ranges from 39%-50% in schools, depending on the age level, so even if a child passes, they may only know 40% of the material. The system is kind of set up for failure.
Classes are large, in general. My classes are 39, 45, 52, and 61 learners, in a small classroom and squished around ramshackle tables on broken chairs. In the nearby village, there are a few grade 6 classes which are over 90 learners. In Vryburg, there is a Grade R class that has one teacher and 104 learners. Classroom management is difficult, border impossible. And there are rarely enough supplies or room for all these learners.
All this said, kids often get excited for something other than lecture in class, and seem to enjoy the lessons I do with them. They are receptive to learning in general, even if they do not participate much in class. They know the value of an education, and most dream of going to university. They are more than willing to help me in class, and love to greet me whenever they see me. As they get more used to me, they are coming out of their shells and speaking beautiful English more often. Some even try to imitate my action, which is hilarious.
Working in the schools is a struggle, but small things are rewarding. When the trouble-maker apologizes, when the quiet kid speaks up, when kids holler at you across the village, or when a teacher asks you to teach them something or help them out. The little Grade R learners are no longer scared of me, and often reach out to touch my hands or clothes when I walk by. Since they are the cutest kids on Earth, it makes me smile every time.