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Month 10: success is counted sweetest when…

Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, once wrote:

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Failure in life is inevitable – especially when you’re working in a foreign country. But that doesn’t mean you can’t experience what success feels like. It’s just all about how you decide to measure success. As my girl Emmy D said, success is counted sweetest by those who don’t succeed much; they are able to comprehend and appreciate it so much more – and as parched, they taste that sweetness and juiciness of a nectar like no other.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ll say it again: English development is challenging for my kids. Learners learn in home language until grade 3, then switch to English and curriculum work is equivalent to that of an American English standard.

Thus, how am I going to measure success during my time here? Quantitatively? How my kids score on the upcoming nation-wide exam at the end of term two? How much homework they complete? No way, Jose. I’m almost positive not much of that is going to change. Call it failure on my part, I don’t care. Failure builds character, strength and courage. Numbers aren’t everything, and success can be measured qualitatively, too.

One of the ways I’ve decided to measure success is analyzing my student’s English speaking and listening abilities. It’s only the middle of term two, and I already see a drastic change with how my students communicate with me.

Buhle and Zanele, tow learners who didn't speak in the beginning but are getting more comfortable with trying

Buhle and Zanele, two grade 5 learners who didn’t speak in the beginning but are getting more comfortable with trying

Most – or at least my mediocre and top learners — are speaking English to me, even some of the ones who can’t really speak. They are trying to have conversations with me. They follow my instructions. They respond to me in complete sentences. They come to my hut on weekends to visit and speak only English. Some can copy down word-for-word what I say to them. And the best part is – they aren’t scared to talk to me. They are confident and trying because they know I won’t laugh at them.

Even if it’s the most broken and ungrammatical English ever spoken to me, I’m somehow now able how to decipher what they are trying to say and then say the sentence appropriately to them.  Of course being around this daily has toyed with my English ability and I speak the slowest and loudest possible English (my village voice) and enunciate all contractions — “DO — NOT — TALK” or “I – AM — GOING — HOME”. I usually catch myself talking in my village voice to other Americans and people back home. Don’t even make me think about what I’m going to sound like after another year here…

My learners know well enough now that I will NOT translate to Zulu for them, and I will not speak Zulu to them. Yes, this means my Zulu isn’t top notch – but I’m here to make sure these kids get English exposure. If I wasn’t doing this, these kids would never get this much English exposure. Everything at school is done in Zulu – except grade 5 and up classes – but those classes are a mix between both languages. The educators only speak in English because the classwork and teacher’s guides are in English. However, as soon as they’re done with the class books – hello, Zulu!

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of spending a weekend at one of my co-worker’s home in Nquthu, our shopping town. Her little 5-year-old, Wendy, was visiting home for the weekend from boarding school. When I first met Wendy in November 2012, she couldn’t speak a word of English. I still played with her and spoke little Zulu to her, but there was a huge language barrier. Wendy left for boarding school last January to start grade R (kindergarten) and was thrown into an English-only environment. She still takes a Zulu class because it’s her home language, but is taught in English.

Cute little Wendy after getting her hair did!

Cute little Wendy after getting her hair did!

Common knowledge: Kids thrown into a language at a young age will catch on quickly. Wendy has done just that. This month when we had a sleepover, played games and coloured, she spoke to me in English. She even taught her older brothers how to play Uno in English. Her vocabulary is advancing as if English was her first language, and this all developed within five months of school. FIVE MONTHS. And you wonder what would have happened if my grade 5 learners were taught in English from grade R and up? They’d be fluent. Many probably wouldn’t be failing. Oh, if only…

Too bad that’s not a reality for my kids or any other rural kids. So, in my case, success is sweetest when the learners try to talk to me. If they’re already chattin’ away with me this much, what’s it going to be like a year from now? We’ll be even better best friends!

There is one spoken English issue here that everyone who learned English as a second language says and drives all the Americans crazy. In Zulu there is only one verb for “lend” and “borrow” so everyone says, “Please, borrow me ______.” My PCV friend who teaches grade 8 English even saw this phrase used as a correct English phrase on a district exam once, which is hysterical but makes me also face palm.

I have this jump rope I brought from America the kids love to use. If they say, “Please, Miss, borrow me the skipping rope?” I say, “I will if you say, ‘Please let me borrow the skipping rope.’” Most grade 5s have caught on and now will only say to me, “Miss, may I please borrow the skipping rope?” OH SWEET SUCCESS!

There are plenty of setbacks in the Peace Corps and South African schools, but depending on how one decides to interpret success, you can get a little taste of that luscious nectar Emmy D was talking about. Take what you can get, and treat it as a great triumph.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

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Month 10: library opening!

The library is finally open at my school. I’m almost done training my grade 5-7 library monitors who now know where to put back the books, how to help learners pick out appropriate books for their grade/reading level and how to check-out books.

I will slowly integrate the library into class time by bringing classes in and showing teachers how they can utilize it. To lead by example, I am currently introducing my grade 5s to the library and differentiating from fiction and non-fiction texts through a research project for my English class.

They are researching three countries: Ethiopia, India and Nigeria to decide where our class character will travel in my class story. Then, one-by-one each learner will tell me me why he should travel there for a speaking grade for term 2. We are researching those countries specifically because they are the only countries we have books about. Twelve kids are sharing one book, so I made photocopies of the books. They are also using an atlas from the 1980s that has a page about the USSR…the USSR still exists, right? Hmmm… maybe my characters Umhaha and Amandla can travel to the USSR? Yeah, you can get pretty creative with little and old resources…

This will be the project – other than my class – that I spend the most time for the rest of my time here. I’m ecstatic because it’s sustainable, the learners love it and it will teach the kids that reading is something fun and enjoyable.

The library with tablecloths and all

The library with tablecloths and all. My principal added the final touches to the library on a Saturday — ah-mazing, right?

That computer, straight from the 90s, works

Believe it or not, that computer, straight from the 90s, works

Ethiopia group working hard...or hardly working?

Ethiopia group working hard…or hardly working?

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Researching what people eat in India

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Taking a break from researching Nigeria… I guess the “throw yo hands up for the camera” is a worldwide “I’m a cool kid” thing

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Sanele drawing a picture perfect map of Ethiopia

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Some of my learners – like Siyanda – struggle with English, but are artistic. It’s nice to deviate from the norm and give them something to draw and label

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Siyabonga and Buhle working together to draw the Nigerian flag

Dear Peace Corps high, won’t you stay for a while?

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

Month eight: just call me mama

Every morning, I walk by the grade R classroom and the kids either say, “buh byeeee Ms. Mathebula” (because it’s all they know how to say in English). One of my wittle friends, Zinhle, always says, “Hi mama!”


Zinhle swingin’ away, where the “Hi Mamas!” usually come from

Mama is how one refers to an older woman in Zulu culture. But as we know, I’m not old, and I look like I’m 18. South Africans usually call me intombazane (girl), so it always cracks me up when Zinhle calls me mama. Learners have also asked me many times if I have a baby. Am I really old enough (23, soon to be 24), to be called mama and have a baby? Maybe in this culture, but in my own culture? Uh… I sure hope not.

Although I’m in a drastically different place from last year, I keep experiencing things here that remind me of my City Year service. One of which has come to mind quite often this school term: students seeing me as a motherly figure.

Liz Warden, as a motherly figure? The girl who has vowed countless times that she will not have kids because she can’t deal with them? The girl who often has a scowl on her face – without even knowing it? Yup. I guess there’s just something so warming about that infamous scowl.

Last year, I had a couple of students who called me “mom” and clung to me. Their mothers had either passed away or they were absent from their lives. I never really understood it because I was far too young to be considered a mom in America.

After almost two years of this stuff, I am starting to understand the mama role a little more. Because I show a lot of interest in my student’s lives and try to get to know them personally, they open up to me. They see that I care and trust me, so they begin to see me as a motherly figure. To have a young, energetic woman, pushing them to do their best in their life is different than what they normally get.

In my journaling efforts with my grade 5 class, one of my students wrote all about her mom. She told me everything. That her mom lives all the way in Johannesburg and rarely sees or talks to her, she forgot about her birthday, and she even said, “My mom doesn’t care about me.” Then she wrote, “Miss, tell me about your mom. What is your mom like?”

Alright. To my readers who don’t personally know me or my life story, I guess it’s a time to get a little mushy because I can only truly explain this impact of my service by digging deeper into my past. I don’t have a relationship with my mom, and cut off all communication with her last year for various reasons. I haven’t had a — let’s say — present mother since I graduated high school and my parents split. Blah blah blah blah life story blah blah blah.

I’m sure my student thought I would write about how perfect my mom was, how much I miss her, how beautiful she is, and all that. As someone from America, of course everything has to be perfect, right?

I could have simply described what my mother looked like, her name, where she lived, and all that boring stuff. But I had a gut instinct to be honest, probably because I had tears filling up my eyes. I told her I don’t talk to my mom also, we don’t agree about many things and it can be very hard without a mom, especially at her age. I told her that she’ll look back to when she was 10-years-old when she’s my age and realize how strong she is because of all of her mama drama. I knew by writing this, she would trust me more and hopefully not get so down on herself. I understand both of us have very different mama drama, but mama drama in general is always bond-worthy because somehow it always relates to an absent mother.

I know you’re probably thinking how can one of my grade 5 learners comprehend any of this, as I have said plenty of times before that some of them can barely write a sentence in English. This little girl, however, is an anomaly. Her aunts spoke English to her growing up, so she speaks very fluent English for a fifth grader. She’s really mature, too. I enjoy talking to her sometimes more than talking to adults at my school. After telling her about my mom, I can tell she feels more comfortable with me. Sometimes she’ll just come into the library because, “They’re being too noisy in class.”

With little of a language barrier, I can be a mama figure for this learner and push her to succeed in school and life – something her gogo, who she loves very, very much, can’t do because she’s too old. Two years of being my little buddy will be something unforgettable for the both of us.

Staff told us in Peace Corps training, our “self-identities” would change drastically during our service. Well, so far mine has changed from “Liz Warden” and “friend and daughter” to “Miss Mathebula” and “friend, daughter, sister and mother”. Call it mentorship, call it whatever, but honestly, sometimes I really do feel like a mother and care for some of these kids as if I was related to them. Maybe because of my past, maybe because I feel guilty about my family, maybe because I’m old enough to be considered a mother here, or maybe that’s just how this service game plays out. Who knows, except I do know that I’m happy, excited, and have found just another one of those kids that makes my service worth it.

Yours in service,
Small heartLiz

A month in photos: October 2012

Unfortunately, Halloween isn’t celebrated here, so there are no cute photos of little kids in costumes, but there are photos of…

  • Grade R graduation ceremony (which lasted three hours, with a guest speaker and all. It was quite amusing to watch the little ones squirm and pick their noses).
  • Walking to the closest PCV from my village, which is about a two-hour walk one-way.
  • Secondary school’s matric dance — the equivalent to high school prom — but during school hours. Grade 12s dress up, eat together in a decorated tent, listen to speakers and receive awards; parents attend the event also.
  • Weekend swimming at Buffalo River, close to Rorke’s Drift, with my fellow Americans.
  • A party at my mom’s house to “cleanse” her sister-in-law a year after her husband passed away. Traditionally, after the funeral and memorial, the family gets together at anytime, slaughters a cow, bakes and eats a lot of food and sweets, the men drink and everyone enjoys each other’s company.

Month three: living and learning, thinking and hoping

One of my best PCV-buddies Katie told me a good Peace Corps analogy: You’re so excited to get in the boat in the beginning, set sail and do everything you imagined, but then you’re stuck in the ocean for a long, long time, waiting, waiting, until you finally see the shore.

Right now, I’m excited to set sail, am making my breezy ride to the middle of the — at times rocky — ocean, and can’t stop thinking about how I can make my service meaningful here.

I’ve got plans in my little reporter’s notebook for days — initiatives I want to do at school such as spelling bees, phonetics activities, reading competitions, intramurals, SCHOOL NEWSPAPER, and more. I’ve got a little piece of paper hanging above my bed as a “blogging cue” that has ideas for stories during my time here; most of these ideas will take a while to report.

Yet, I also feel like a fish out of water on this little USS Peace Corps boat. I’m here for a reason — to live and thrive — but I’m going to need help from others, like a fish needs water, to implement anything I want to do here. That will happen in time, but not as fast as my head is daydreaming it will.

What makes me nervous is that my school is pretty unstructured: Teachers spend up to an hour into morning class to argue over something, don’t get to class on time, might not teach because they are “too tired”, listen to people come to the school and sell things (real life infomercials straight in my school’s staff room — I’ve learned that “there’s a meeting” doesn’t mean there is a meeting, just someone selling something), etc. My favorite moment of unstructurdness is on “sports day” when learners are out of class at 1:30 p.m. to play sports, but they end up just sitting around. The sports equipment is there and plentiful, but there is no structure for the kids to actually use it. Moreover, my principal seems to always be busy or away from the school attending meetings to really have the direct oversight that’s needed; she’s extremely hard to schedule a meeting with.

A lot of things I want to do here must be structured (I salute you, America), so I’m crossing my fingers that I can find a way around this “structural” clash of cultures to still be successful. Whenever a teacher isn’t in class or learners are wandering the school grounds, I stay clam and collected because I remind myself that this is their culture and how schools have been for decades. Teachers don’t see a problem, so how would they fix it? I’m hoping that by leading by example the next school year will help add more structure to my school.

I still haven’t been doing much at my school because there aren’t many classes to attend. Teachers are busy grading and working on evaluations. Thus, I started one of my secondary Peace Corps projects, which is to get the school library up and running.

The David Rattray Foundation, a non-profit that works closely with the schools in my area, has donated plenty of books to my library, including every kid’s favorite — Roald Dahl! The director of the non-profit, Ben Henderson, supports PCVs and we are very lucky to have him so close by! He comes by the schools every so often to deliver new books.

When I first arrived at school, the library had been sorted into fiction and non-fiction and by subject. However, there was no system in place that would allow learners to check books out. So, I’ve taken on a couple of duties:

1) Cleaning out the library and getting rid of every teacher or student workbook that was unnecessary. This took me about two weeks. I felt like I was on a reality show for hoarding; I found student workbooks that were from the 1980s. I lugged all the books out in a wheelbarrow and burned them (literally — trash is burned here). Satisfaction.

2) Making an “accession register” for all the books — a handwritten notebook with numbers according to every book so they can easily be tracked. I recorded 671 books!

3) Currently, I’m in the process of organizing the books alphabetically and color coding the books based on reading level in the fiction section and color coding and grouping the books based on subject in the non-fiction section.

4) After that, I’ll make return cards for all the books so they can be checked out and create an alphabetical title catalogue to make the books easier to find if a learner asks for a specific one.

Talk about tedious and repetitive work! My goal is to have the library up and running by next school year (January) so I can use it with my class and show other teachers how to utilize it in their classes. In the meantime, I will get some students on board as “library monitors” — some grade 5s have already been coming in during lunch to read and were so excited to see the new books Ben brought the other day. They’re top of my list.

The library has been keeping me busy and I feel somewhat accomplished. Americans like getting things done and that’s exactly what I’m doing. But don’t worry, I’m still socializing with the teachers now and then because building relationships is #1 in South Africa over getting things done quickly.

Other than spending M-F from 7:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at school, I have free time when I’m not doing chores. Community “integration” has been a bit challenging for me because the weather is bipolar where I live — blazing heat one day and vicious thunder and rainstorms the next. People rarely walk around unless they have a destination.Thus, I feel stupid walking around with no place to go even though I’d like to meet more people. I go to church with my host family occasionally, which is a community hub to greet people. However, as a female, it’s harder to make friends because being friendly to men here isn’t taken as “let’s be friends” but rather, “oh, can I get your number?”

Just the other day I was laughing and hanging out with my 19-year-old host brother and his friend to socialize, but two days later the friend knocked on my hut at night, asked for my number and asked to come in. Hmmm…REJECTED.

Whenever I go into town I am hit on or proposed to.Trust me, none of this is going undocumented: I am writing down all the hilarious things Zulu men say in attempt to woo-me-over and it will be published in a while. I’ve started telling people in my town and my community that “ngiya xolisa, kodwa I have” an American boyfriend, which is actually kind of fun. Clearly, he’s a hipster-preppy mix and a journalist (still searching for name suggestions?) This make-believe man has my heart back home, sorry Zulu men!

I haven’t met many females my age except my host sister and the secondary school’s admin clerk, who I’m hoping will agree to be my language tutor. On a normal day, I watch Generations, an over-the-top-so-bad-it’s-so-good soap opera, with my host family every night and hang out with them on their porch just to spend time with them. I’m molding my relationship with them as if I am part of the family rather than a tenant.

The other day my Mama and Sisi showed me family pictures from as far back as the 60s — some of my Mama and her siblings at the school I’m teaching at, pictures from my Mama’s wedding (you can tell she LOVED her husband. I really wish I could have met him) and some pictures even in front of my 20-year-old rondoval hut! My family has lived in my village for generations and still lives on the same property my Mama grew up on. Now, we live on her husband’s family’s property. I was so happy to learn more about their history and shared a couple of my own photos with them as well.

Women, like my Mama, in the community are seriously super women, just without the flying super power. I wouldn’t be surprised if later they evolve to have that, though. They do everything at home but herd the cattle and chop the wood. As a female, I’m finding my place in the culture. People are shocked when I tell them I can’t cook or I’m single. Which, obviously, ignites the common responses: “I will teach you how to cook!” or “I will find you a South African boyfriend and you will get married here!” Ha, have fun with those people!

My “cooking” has been made fun of plenty of times back in the states and frozen meals were my best friends. I’ve never learned how to really iron clothes. I don’t fold my laundry. Doing laundry in the states consisted of throwing all my clothes — regardless of color — into a machine at once. Cleaning my apartment or room to be spotless clean only happened every once in a while. It’s a running joke with my friends back in the states to feel sorry for whoever marries me (it will suck to be them — IF that happens).

Frighteningly, I’m becoming domesticated like the Zulu women I live among. I’m learning how to hand wash my clothes (which takes up to four hours sometimes) and scrub the coffee stains out of them. I clean and sweep my hut every day because cleanliness is a big deal to my family. Likewise, I’m learning how to cook without a fridge.

Daily meals consist of oatmeal for breakfast, fruit or dry cereal for lunch and a variation between a mix of grilled veggies (onion, tomato, butternut) with seasoning, lentils, sugar beans, soya mince (soy meat), flour tortillas from scratch, rice, pasta, or eggs and if I’m lucky some avocado or guacamole for dinner.

I’m going to get sick of eating the same thing every day after two years, but I’ve been pleased with it so far and my cooking isn’t horrible. I coined the term “saxican food” — a fusion of Mexican and South African food. My host family even loved the guacamole and tortillas I made for them. Rarely do people want to eat what I make, so that’s a score in my book!

Although I haven’t been eating anything so foreign, my body is still hating me right now. It doesn’t like eating the same thing every day and it really doesn’t enjoy trying to digest beans — big or small — all the time. I’ve been sick on-and-off since I arrived at site and hoping it isn’t an on-going thing like a parasite from water or something of that matter, but I doubt it.

The untold Peace Corps stories of dashing to the outhouse or puking outside your hut during the night are real. I am living proof — people just don’t like to talk about it because in our culture it’s taboo. Here, it isn’t and I’m giving you a real slice of life of what it’s like to adjust to a foreign country. News flash: You get sick and all you can do is laugh about it with your fellow PCVs.

I’m supposed to start team-teaching with a teacher next week. The English teacher is aware of this, so hopefully the plan follows through. If not, I’ll be taking on my own grade 5 class — wish me luck!

P.S. mine and Katie’s CYLA alumni story made its way to Peace Corps social media (the Tweeta and Facebook) thanks to City Year!

We are beyond thrilled that our ripples story was shared to such a wide audience because if we were City Year or Peace Corps applicants we would be “fired up” from the story; it demonstrates the power of service! Humble brag, but we’re pretty darn proud of both of these organizations.

Sorting through the fiction books and grouping them based on reading level…it’s a mess, I know

All the new books the David Rattray Foundation just donated! Can’t wait to read Roald Dahl books to my classes!

My completed hand-written library accession book. Hopefully people can read it…

Sala kahle,
SmallTransparentLogoLiz

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),

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