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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Grahamstown, SA: Promoting Equity & Social Justice

“How will teaching abroad impact your responsibility to promote equity and social justice?” 

I left this blog for last because I knew it would be a hard and important question to answer after spending five months in South Africa. The idea that I have a “responsibility” to promote equity and social justice is the most meaningful thing that I have learned during my two years at Boston College. It is what inspired me to study in South Africa. I never imagined that teaching abroad was going to be such a life-changing experience. Not only did it reinforce my decision to become a teacher, but it also taught me a lot about promoting equity and social justice.

It has been 20 years since the first democratic elections in South Africa, but still inequality and injustice are undeniably existent. This is especially evident in the education system. I chose to have two placements in order to better understand how unequal the institution still remains. As I explained in my first post, I visited Victoria Primary School and the Good Shepherd School. VP is an all girls, fee-paying public school (while the fees are not as high as private schools’, they are still too much for many South Africans to afford). I was in the Grade R (kindergarten) classroom. My other school, Good Shepherd, is a free, co-educational public school. Here I was in the English classroom, and I taught grades four through seven.

From the beginning, it amazed me how different the two schools could be, despite the fact that they literally shared a back fence. On a surface level, Victoria Primary had a gorgeous campus. There were beautiful gardens and large sports fields. They had tennis courts, a swimming pool, and multiple playgrounds. My classroom was huge with plenty of toys for the girls. There was a large hall where the whole school could gather for assemblies and concerts. There was an excellent music program with a choir and instrument lessons. Good Shepherd’s campus by comparison was much more sparse. There was only one gravel netball court and a strip of pavement for the students to play on. My classroom was small, especially with 40 desks. While my teacher had decorated her classroom with creative posters and students’ work, other classrooms had bare walls. In reality though, Good Shepherd is much nicer than most other free, township schools in South Africa because of the Good Shepherd Trust. The Trust raises money, supplying extra resources that the government does not provide such as the library and computer lab. I saw first-hand how much of a difference these extra resources made for the students. For some classes, my teacher was able to send half of the 40 students to the computer lab. The students were able to work independently on the computers while she or I could focus on teaching a much more manageable small class of 20 students.

Staffing was another major difference between the two schools. Both Good Shepherd and Victoria Primary had amazing teachers and administrators from whom I learned a lot. However, Good Shepherd was very understaffed, especially in comparison to VP. In my grade R classroom, there was a teacher, an assistant teacher, and a classroom aid for the 19 students. Victoria Primary could afford to hire additional staff such as physical education and music instructors too. At Good Shepherd, my teacher had no assistance for classes of 34 to 38 students. The government only pays for one teacher per grade. The responsibility to pay for additional staff (such as a principal) has fallen on the Good Shepherd Trust. My teacher told me that the government has been extremely slow in replacing teachers in the past. For example, the grade 4 students went without a classroom teacher for over half the year two years ago. As a result, the students (in grade 6 now) are still very behind. She said that they would sometimes have the cleaning staff watch the class as they completed worksheets. With such little staff and no substitute teachers, classes are often left on their own when a teacher cannot come to school. During one of my visits, there were three teachers absent! The students ran wild, playing outside.  This was very distracting for the other students trying to learn inside. A few times my teacher scheduled doctor’s appointments for Fridays because she knew I would be there to cover her classes. While at first it was intimidating to be left alone with classes of 40 students, I was glad to be able to fill in. 

With eleven official languages in South Africa, language was one other area in which I witnessed inequity. Less than ten percent of South Africans speak English as a first language, however it is the predominant language of instruction throughout the country.  At Good Shepherd, nearly none of the students speak English at home (most speaking Xhosa and Afrikaans), but since grade 1 are taught entirely in English. It never seemed fair to me that the students should be forced to learn in a language they did not choose. The students received minimal extra support for this transition at Good Shepherd. At Victoria Primary, fewer students spoke Xhosa and Afrikaans at home. However, the few that did were sometimes at a disadvantage. Some of these students were able to receive extra support through speech therapy though. 

After 5 months in South Africa, it has been hard for me to accurately describe the inequality I saw between and within the schools. This institutionalized inequity often saddened and frustrated me. Why didn’t anyone care that there were not enough teachers for my Good Shepherd students? Why did my VP students get outings to the beach and their own swimming pool, while my Good Shepherd students had a few deflated netballs to play with? Why did classes have 20 students at VP and 40 students at Good Shepherd? How was it possible that two publicly funded schools could be so disparate? Why did I constantly have to remind my students to speak in English when I was the only native speaker in the classroom? These are questions I continue to have.

Despite these worries, the students and staff that I worked with gave me constant hope. At both schools, the teachers still loved their students and the students still loved learning. I enjoyed teaching at Victoria Primary just as much as I did at Good Shepherd. I was able to learn a lot from both placements.

I have learned that I need to continue asking similar questions about the American education system now. What are the sources of inequality and social injustice in American schools? Furthermore, as a future teacher it is my responsibility to help create a fair and equitable education system. My last anecdote is from one interaction with a VP teacher. Upon meeting her, I told her that I would also be student teaching at the Good Shepherd School on Fridays. She asked me where Good Shepherd was … as I said: the schools literally share a back fence. The students could hear each other’s bells and watch each other play, but yet this teacher had no idea what was going on next door! While I came to respect this teacher’s professionalism and ability, I do not want to be her. I want to be a teacher that works towards building an education system that benefits not only my students, but also all children.

Student teaching in South Africa was by far my favorite part of study abroad. I have been home for two and a half weeks and already really miss both schools! I hope that all I have learned will continue to make me a better educator, dedicated to promoting equity and social justice.

1 comment:

  1. I think that it is incredible that you were able to work at such different placements. I worked at one of the most expensive private schools in Quito, where as some of my friends volunteered at public schools or schools for students on welfare; so, I was able to hear/ see similar discrepancies myself in the education system in Ecuador. I am really glad that in addition to the differences in staff and resources, you also mentioned the challenge of language barriers. Although that was less common in Quito, it definitely was prevalent in other regions of Ecuador due to the many different languages spoken by indigenous people. I am shocked to hear that the VP teacher had not heard of Good Shepard. It sounds like you gained great perspective through these practicums. I know you will be able to use this knowledge and questions to help guide you as a teacher.


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