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Month three: South African school structure; similarities and differences in America

“YES!!!” The learners screamed and jumped out of their seats.

YES!!! They got an answer right!

I sat in the back of the grade 5 English class during one of my “observation” periods perplexed, cracking a smile, but also trying not to laugh because the thought of my students from last year acting like this is just too funny to cross my mind. They would never be caught dead screaming “YES!” in unison during grading; indeed, they are too kewl for skewl.

South African youth, however, aren’t sitting in class during grading period texting and Facebooking each other, “bord in 4 period!!!! lmao >:((((( lyke or commnt” (American middle school internet slang gets me every time). Instead, school is cool and South African learners care a lot about their schoolwork because it’s such a big part of their lives. Family, church, school, chores, cleaning and playing games with other village kids is a typical learner’s childhood.

After the lesson, I told the English teacher that would have never happened in the grade 6 class I worked in last year. She laughed and said, “Ah, yes the learners like to learn!”

At that moment, it really became apparent to me: oh boy, I’m definitely not in America anymore.

So far, I have observed some drastic cultural and administrative differences between South African schools and American schools. To name a few:

  • Students stay in their classrooms, but teachers move class to class.
    Many classrooms aren’t decorated, but may have a few educational posters up because each classroom doesn’t belong to a teacher like they do in the states.
  • Learners from grade 4 and up take NINE subjects.
    These subjects include: arts and culture, life orientation, maths, economics management science, English, home language, natural science, technology and social sciences. I guess instead of one grade 4 teaching all the subjects in a day’s worth of class, the learners get the subjects from different teachers. But seriously, would you have been capable of all these subjects at grade 4 after being taught in isiZulu and now your first year being taught in English? Didn’t think so. However, with next year’s new curriculum, the ministry merged arts and culture and life orientation and natural sciences and technology. The ministry also ditched economic management science and now learners don’t take it until the senior phase (grade 8 and up). Amen my brothas, is teaching a kid about how businesses run at age 10 really practical? Nah, also didn’t think so.
  • Teachers teach based on a “timetable” that breaks up the hours the Ministry of Education requires.
    Subject classes aren’t taught every day and are longer or shorter on certain days. Therefore, learners don’t have a set schedule like we do in America (about an hour for every class period and usually students have the same schedule every day). Some days they might have one hour of English and on other days they might have two hours. As of next year, the ministry requires per week six hours for home language, five hours for English, six hours for mathematics, three and a half hours for natural science and technology, three hours for social sciences and four hours for life skills.
  • Teachers teach multiple subjects.
    In America, teachers usually teach only one or two similar subjects — English and history, math and science, whatever. South African teachers teach whatever they are assigned to and it changes each year. That means if they needed a maths teacher and I had time in my schedule, they’d throw me in that class. I can barely do sixth grade math myself, but in an extreme case, I would possibly have to teach it (trust me, though, I’ve strictly said I will only teach English).
  • Learners clean on Fridays instead of attend class.
    This has been one of the hardest things for me to watch/deal with. Learners come to school on Fridays, sing at morning assembly, then sit in class and wait until 10:30ish when they eat the school food. After they finish eating, they clean all day — polish the floors inside and outside the classrooms, clean the staff rooms, sweep, do the dishes, wipe the windows and burn the trash. The reasons for this are two-fold: the school doesn’t have enough money to hire a custodian and it “teaches the students responsibility.” When I tried to clean up my mess in the library the other day, a teacher refused to let me do so because it’s the learner’s job. I’d argue that these learners go to school four days out of the week. I know I won’t be able to change this because it’s cultural — South Africans need everything to be clean regardless of the unstoppable and ever-going accumulation of dirt in buildings — but I do hope that I can at least make Fridays a literacy day for some learners. For example, some grades clean while others do literacy sessions with me in the library (I would do phonetics with lower grades, reading and listening with other grades, etc.) We’ll see if it works — I probably won’t propose this until I feel it’s the right time. In a way, this cleaning business is kind of ironic for me — from my experience, I’ve seen American students trash and tag their schools; now cleanliness is a top priority.
  • Teachers go to class on their own time.
    Heard of African time yet? Well, it ain’t no myth — it really exists. African time is far, far, far different from American time and I’m slowly — but surely — getting used to it. I value timeliness back in America and I have mini-panic attacks when I’m running late for something (I know my roommates painfully miss morning car rides with Liz, right guys?) My time clock says 30 minutes before the scheduled time is early,15 minutes before the scheduled time is on-time and right at the scheduled time is late. In Africa, I’ve learned that schedules aren’t of much importance. When teachers are done with what they have to do — like socializing, debating over a morning announcement from the principal or marking papers — then they’ll go to class. Classes are supposed to start at 8 a.m., but usually start around 8:30 a.m. or later. I’m going to be moving at the pace of a tortoise when I come back to the states, no joke.
  • A substitute system does not exist.
    Self-explanatory. If a teacher isn’t there for the day, the learners sit in the class and do nothing. Hey — at least they don’t throw chairs, hit each other or trash the classroom like my old sub days! Not too shabby kiddos.
  • Every morning, learners gather in the front of the school for “Morning Assembly” where they sing in isiZulu and pray.
    All the learners have different dances and songs they sing according to the day. It’s pretty cute to watch. Sometimes they pray in English and the younger one’s faces are so serious because they are concentrating on saying the prayer right. My school is public, but all the learners are of a Christian background (they attend the Anglican church), so they know all the same prayers. Separation between church and state is unheard of. I find myself closing my eyes, pretending to pray and mumbling “amen” a lot during morning meetings. Awkward.
  • Learners are respectful and listen to teachers.
    Learners say good morning and good afternoon educator to me every time they walk by. They stand in unison when you walk into a room and say, “Good afternoon educator, how are you? We are fine.”Whenever I see a bunch of learners gathered in a group or boys playfully fighting, my blood rises and my eyes are glued to the group as I think a fight could break out. That’ll never happen, though, I just assume that a grouping of students means a fight is about to start. Miss Little Liz won’t ever have to break up a fight again (ha, or attempt — middle schoolers are strong)! Soon enough, the Markham Middle School-effect will fade and I won’t be on edge at school.
  • Staff meetings are held during school and not after-school. Teachers leave directly after-school.
    Only four teachers at my school live in my village and the rest live at more suburban towns anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour away. Those who live farther get a salary incentive to teach in a rural village. Thus, teachers may be more qualified, but only put in the hours they need to because of distance and time constraints. Staff meetings are therefore hosted during school hours so all the teachers will attend. In America, staff meetings are usually once a week after a minimum day at school, which is one more thing I’m looking at to implement here.

Now, I bring you the basics:

In general, all South African children have a right to basic education, which is the same in America: children are guaranteed an education until the 12th grade. Twenty percent of the government’s budget is spent on education, but during the Apartheid period that funding was purposefully not given to all-black schools in the rural areas we serve at. As I’ve mentioned before, the purpose of doing so was to ensure that whites received a decent education and blacks received a poor education so they would later work for the white people.

South African operate top-down similar to the way individual American schools operate: principals —> deputy principals —> department heads —> teachers.

All students at the end of grade 12 take a comprehensive exam in English that measures performance, which is called “matric”. This statistic — the matric pass rate — is a significant marker of the schooling system. In the 1990s, South Africa had a 40 percent pass rate and most recently in 2011, the pass rate is 70 percent. Other than English being an official language in South Africa, this is another reason why learning English is so important for these learners because to graduate from school they must be able to pass this test.

Ninety-three percent of South African children are in public schools. There are “no fee” schools for those who cannot pay and then two other groups of schools where parents pay for activities, supplies, etc.

One in 100 South African students will receive tertiary education (translation: go to college). After high school (grade 12), they can attend either colleges that emphasize further training for specific skills or universities like we do in America.

Funding here comes from the government, but isn’t determined by standardized tests like it is in America and schools are allowed to fundraise. If parents are more involved in their children’s education and earn a salary, they tend to contribute to their children’s public schools. At my school, this isn’t the case, but I haven’t seen a lack of resources yet. There are enough exercise books, workbooks, paper and printer ink to teach. The office assistant told me that the school never runs out of basic supplies as such. I have a hard time believing this because paper and ink were such a scarcity last year at my American school, but maybe it’s true. If it is, I can’t believe I’ll be able to make as many photocopies as I need for my class!

Now, I bring you the social issues:

Aside from differences, I can travel from urban America to rural Africa and still find social issues that ring a bell. The schools Peace Corps South Africa serve in face similar challenges to those that Markham Middle School in Los Angeles and other American schools face. There are high illiteracy rates because students cannot get the help they need with homework at home. In rural villages, the mother is usually out working so a grandparent is the only person home, who cannot assist the children because many elders are illiterate. Likewise, the mother may speak some English, but not enough to help; the mamas and babas of my community had to learn Afrikaans in school because they went to school during Apartheid. At Markham, many students couldn’t complete homework at home either because their parents weren’t involved in their education or their families only spoke Spanish. Same situation, different language and country.

Most dropouts leave school during grade 10-12 — a little later than the American school system. Some girls dropout as early as grade 7 due to pregnancies. Most girls are pregnant by age 18 and may return to school if there is a Gogo at home to take care of their child. Girls my age — 23 — more than likely have at least one child.

HIV/AIDS also plays a big role in the South African school system. Learners may have to be the adult of the household because they have lost family members to HIV/AIDS. In America, students may have to assume responsibility in the household due to substance abuse in the family or their parent’s busy work schedules, but still also live in child-headed houses.There’s a good number of children at my school who are also orphans — like foster children in America — and are taken in and cared for by relatives or elders in the village.

Now, I bring you everyone’s favorite — the political issues:

Teacher’s unions also integrate themselves into the way schools operate — what a shocking surprise. Low-performing teachers from the Bantu education era aren’t fired because of union rules and not many want to take their spots in rural schools.The only way teachers are seriously fired is in extreme cases of corporal punishment, which is now illegal in South Africa, or sexual abuse. If a teacher doesn’t commit such a crime, one can call teaching a lifelong job. I can travel 10,000+ miles away from Los Angeles and teacher’s unions still play a huge role in the education system.

The image of a teacher in South African culture doesn’t help draw attention to these issues in the educational system that need attention, either. Historically, South African teachers were seen as poor that made the bare minimum. Therefore, the profession in the past has not been appealing to South Africans and those who made it out of the public school system work in the private sector, but now more and more people are teaching after attending university because of government incentives and higher salaries.

I find South Africans exclaiming their appreciation for us being here far too often. Most of all, I recall the time a deputy from the Ministry of Education came to our pre-service training to welcome us to the South African school system and tell us how excited and lucky they were to have us. Very nice gesture, but like anything and everything, my questioning kicked in.

There are definitely some talented and experienced people in my Volunteer group so I have no doubt that they’ll be amazing teachers and English is our native tongue, but the question that keeps running through my mind is do other countries really look up to American education and educators?

Do other countries understand that our public education system is struggling too? Just because we’re American doesn’t mean we have solutions to all issues or a decent public education system. The teachers at my school were shocked to hear that teenage pregnancy is an issue in America too. See, I told you, believe it or not — we are combating similar issues!

Regardless of the issue of public education plaguing many parts of the world, Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful WEAPON that you can use to can change the world.” Truth.

Now let’s spread that message like wildfire, my Peace Corps and City Year friends.

Here’s a glimpse into my school (10x smaller than an American school!)

Outside of my school

School yards and garden

School sport yard and volleyball court

Peace Corps world map project completed by former health Volunteer in my village

Love to my peoples back at home working in American schools!
Ngidinga ukulala (I need to sleep),

SmallTransparentLogoLiz

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. Dear Liz, Thank you for sharing your experiences. I note with interest that you mention the 2011 Matric pass rate being 70%. This is indeed the figure that the Department of Education has released. However you do not mention that the previous year was a 37% pass rate, as opposed to the 90+% pass rates of the pre-1994 era, which figure was “reconstructed” to reflect a pass-rate of 67%.

    Interesting reading here : http://www.wonkie.com/2011/01/17/matric-pass-rate-south-africa/

    It is a sad fact that once again the curriculum has been changed, and that 2013 will no doubt again see lower marks, particularly if one takes into account the fact that in KwaZulu Natal we have an extremely high percentage of unqualified or inadequately qualified persons doubling as “teachers”, some of whom have, according to reports in the local newspaper, not passed matric themselves.

    November 3, 2012

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