Hmm, long time no blog

I never know how to start these posts, so I’m just going to start writing down whatever comes to mind.  Bear with me.

First off: Friends.  I’m so thankful to have fellow volunteers & other awesome people in the area who are fun to hang out with and/or like giving me secondary projects to break the monotony.

Second: Work.   I can’t deny that I’m getting frustrated and sometimes doubting that I belong here; education is not my professional background and the schools here need professional help.  On the bright side, whenever my efforts seem futile I think back to when I first arrived, and it becomes clear that there is progress being made.  Even if it’s absurdly slow.  Something about watched pots and boiling water.

Third: Luxuries.  I absolutely LOVE having a fan and a refrigerator.  Irene, you’re the best.  Irene is the compassionate, hard-working and fun loving principal of Balalia Primary school, where my friend and fellow volunteer Hannah works.  They are without a doubt the perfect match; Peace Corps allocation of volunteers at it’s most successful!  Although I suspect the arrangement may be slightly coincidental….  Anyway, lending me a refrigerator is now among the long list of nice things Irene’s done for me thus far.  I totally owe some handywork.

Speaking of which, I really miss working with tools and machinery.  I’m trying to incorporate crafts and hands-on projects into my classes at school: this semester’s topic in technology was structures, so I decided to revisit the old “design and build a bridge” project which I’d enjoyed in tech class when I was in school.  Getting even the simplest of materials in bulk turned out to be difficult (who would have guessed that drinking straws are only available in bulk directly at the Coca-cola factory?), but all in all it worked out pretty well.  Once I demonstrated the method of evaluation (increasing the load until the bridge fails), the students started focusing on structural integrity over aesthetics.  The project was fun for the kids and it also required creative problem solving, which if you’re not aware, is in serious deficiency here.  Independent thought is a pretty foreign concept in the school system here, and although the reforms of the post-apartheid government are trying to rectify this it’s not going to happen overnight.

Under the apartheid government, schools were segregated and the different racially distinguished schools had their own different curricula.  The white schools were designed to produce managers and leaders, so these schools received the majority of the governments support.  The system in place at the black schools was known as Bantu education; as I understand it Bantu education focused on producing stratified workers with specific skill sets.  Subjects like philosophy, science and literature would not be found in the Bantu curriculum.  So basically white South Africans got a quality education and black South Africans got to be mindless mineworkers.  Now it’s been 18 years since the abolishing of apartheid and South Africa’s done away with all that nonsense…..kind of.  It’s all well and good to say “we’re no longer undercutting the education of black South Africans!  Let’s integrate schools and improve the curriculum!” but the fact is, deeply ingrained traditional roles die awfully hard.  “Integrate schools” you say?  OK, but given the choice of where to send one’s kids the average South African will send them to a school which has a student body racially similar to their own.  Can’t blame ’em really, I mean would you send your child to a school where you know they’d be the “token white/black kid”?  Segregation of schools doesn’t need to be government-sanctioned; decades of racial tension segregates the schools just fine on it’s own.  Oh well.  “Anyway, let’s improve the curriculum!  Now these kids need to know about ALL that stuff that was neglected by Bantu education, so let’s get crackin’!”  Result: unrealistically difficult syllabus which is still vague because it tries to cover literally everything.  I don’t think my 7th grade class, some of whom are still learning vowels, are up for an in-depth analysis of particle physics in different states of matter.  I’m not even fabricating this stuff, that’s one of the topics for this term in science.  Gezz, talk about overcompensation.  Another significant hindrance to this dream of quality education for all is the lack of prepared educators.  You see, among the reforms of 1994 was the abolishing of white-only colleges for educators.  These were the countries finest source of qualified teachers.  For reasons I still can’t fathom, these colleges were simply dismantled and not re-established in the equal opportunity education system.  Result: Majority of educators in South Africa went to school under the Bantu system more than 20 years ago.  Although the department of education is constantly making efforts to introduce new teaching techniques, it’s not going smoothly at all.  For one thing, teachers are getting frustrated because the department is frequently changing its policies.  Also, the scope of change demanded by the reforms is usually unrealistic; overcompensation in the way the curriculum is unrealistically difficult.  And of course there are some teachers who don’t feel like dealing with these fancy new things like “independent thought” and “critical thinking”.  Something about old dogs and new tricks.  Motivation is generally pretty low among the school staff.  I remember stumbling across a little saying posted by one of my teacher friends back in the states, something like: “Teachers: we’re not doing this for the income, we’re doing it for the outcome”  Now that’s a mighty heartwarming sentiment, and my appreciation of truly dedicated teachers knows no bounds.  I just wish I could apply that saying to the teachers here, because nine times out of ten I can’t.  The attitude is more like: “Teaching?  It’s a job.  We grind out the exam results and get paid.  Done.”

Well that’s my little soap box for the state of affairs in South Africa’s education system.  Now I’m going to prepare my lessons for…..oh that’s right, particle physics and conservation of energy! for 7th grade ESL students, with about a 70% literacy rate!  Sometimes I really can’t blame these teachers who don’t take their job seriously.

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One Response to “Hmm, long time no blog”

  1. Steve Davis Says:

    I suppose it was naive of anyone to assume that the dismantling of the apartheid system would have resulted in things changing overnight, but it is sad to think that progress is as painfully slow as you describe…. it’s a shame the government seems unwilling/unable to realise that! Mina and i look forward to further updates though. Keep up the good work though! – Steve

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