Sunday, April 20, 2008

Make a difference.

Am I able to?

It’s tough to say. Most days I can’t tell, some days I am sure not, many days I feel like a fraud. And then there are the other days. The few. Where I have a moment and think maybe – just maybe – I am.

Friday was one of those days.

The bell indicating the change of class had rung late, meaning I left my previous class after the next one had started. Making my way to the lesson, I was intercepted by one of the students from that class who had been on his way to fetch me.

‘You’re late miss!’ he said, ‘We are all waiting for you!’

As I apologized and quickened my step, I couldn’t help but smile. This particular student (Z), the one who had come to fetch me, was one who I had seen a notable difference in since the beginning of the year. I had been told about Z by other teachers, as he was known at Songeze (our sister feeder school) for being a trouble-maker. In the early days of last term, it was apparent that this behaviour had carried over to Fezeka. He was also often absent from class. His work was weak and he clearly struggled with the language. I heard whisperings that he was involved in gangsterism, though as with other students which I have heard this about, I never asked him for fear of hearing something I didn’t want to.

As the term progressed however, I began to notice a change in Z. He was showing up for class more – and increasingly on time. He would answer questions that were posed to the class, [perhaps] encouraged by my mantra of: ‘if you aren’t sure, its okay to guess’. Z would do his in-class work, and even call me over to ask if it was right. A firm believer in positive reinforcement, even when students’ work is wrong I let them know what is good about it and how to get back on the right track. As English is difficult for Z, this was common with him, but when he did get it right, my comments would be met with an ear-to-ear grin and an almost imperceptible-but-there blush. The fact that it was Z who had been fetching me further reaffirmed that he was making an effort now that previously he had not.

While the impetus for this change is anyone’s guess, at the end of the day his visibly improved commitment is what matters most.

When I get to class, the first thing I do after greeting students, making any announcements and going over the plan for the days’ lesson, is to check homework.

I assign it about 50-60% of the time, and I sign their books if they have completed it. Despite the frequency with which it is given, many students often do not do it. I have spoken to them about the importance of completing all assigned work and what it means for their participation marks on a number of occasions, yet this often falls on deaf ears. Regardless, I continue to reinforce the message that they are intelligent young people and put the onus of responsibility for completing their work on them. Unlike the social and cultural capital which surround schools in more privileged environments, this is not a situation where parents may be counted upon to support the pedagogical achievements of their children. Moreover, as with tardiness and attendance, I could easily spend a majority of the time dealing with these issues if I was so inclined.

On Friday however, when I asked them to show me their homework, the sweet sound of 34 notebooks obligingly opening greeted my ears. Aside from 2 students – one who had been absent and one who had forgotten his book at home –


Did their homework.

While something so small and seemingly expected in another context may seem insignificant, to me in that moment, it made my heart skip. Granted it wasn’t a difficult assignment (Write 5 sentences using the Conditional Form), but they did it. And it was something I taught them.

And almost all of them got it right.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

...and death.

On Wednesday we were informed that one of our students died over the Easter break. A girl in grade 10, she was killed when the shack she lived in burned to the ground while she slept. Fires are common in the poorer areas of the townships. With endless natural and synthetic material to fuel them, they start easily and spread quickly.

She was 16 years old.

As it turned out, this student was in my Life Orientation class, although I am ashamed to say that I do not know who she is. In my defence, this is a class of 54 that I have seen fewer than 10 times since the middle of last term when I was given the lesson, and apparently she was frequently absent from school, but still. It saddens me that I cannot remember her face.

Thursday, when I saw the class for the first time since the holiday, I offered my condolences and expressed my sadness at their loss. They clearly appreciated this although I was surprised at how normally they were all carrying on. While this could have been attributed to a number of reasons, I believe that the most glaringly obvious is the reality that this sort of tragedy is not uncommon in their worlds.

As such, their attitudes towards death are often vastly different than that which my Western understanding affords me. Here, life is often seen as fleeting, hence the common lack of thought about the future and according disinterest in school. I am not saying that this is the case for everyone, though it most certainly is for some – as demonstrated by a conversation with a student that I referenced in an earlier entry.

This particular in-class experience only reinforced my understanding of how for far too many, the casual views on the value of life that their social locations have shaped allow (force? require?) death to be digested with a similar apathy.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Looking back

over the last three months of my time at Fezeka, more than anything I am astonished at how quickly the time has flown by. It seems like just yesterday I was visiting the school for the first time, being presented to the entire staff while nervous butterflies fluttered around in my stomach.

Now I am part of that same staff, and feel a sense of integration into the school culture in more ways than I thought possible in the beginning. Although the conditions of my S.A. Visa and the Western Cape Department of Education prohibit my assuming a full teaching schedule, and creates a distinction in the responsibilities between the other teachers and I which is beyond my control, in most every other way I do feel that I have been accepted into the Fezeka family.

This is not to say that the process has been a smooth one. There have and continue to be – shall we say – hiccups along the way. Hiccups which are primarily due to my need to understand and adjust to the ways in which the school culture differs from the Western North American environment in which I was educated. For example, the attitude towards punctuality to and attendance of classes – from both teachers and learners – was something I found difficult to understand at first. Simply put, it is a very lax. Attending and being punctual to class, while theoretically mandatory, weren’t.

I use the past tense as yesterday, the first day of classes after the Easter Break the faculty was joined by the new Principal of the school. Mr. B appears to be a keen disciplinarian who is well aware of the areas that Fezeka needs to work on. At the top of this list is the issue of punctuality and class attendance mentioned above. In addition, upon returning to school today, teachers were greeted with brand new timetables, which now include a 7-day cycle of classes as compared to the 10-day version that had been used for years. Start and finish times of classes have changed as well depending on the day of the week, and the school day has been extended. I am optimistic and about how these changes will go over, although nervous at the same time about how easy it will be to make these adjustments. Having school and lessons start and end at different times every day seems to be somewhat in opposition to the spirit of consistency that we are striving for but only time will tell.

As many of us had hoped, the new Principal appears forceful and first impressions demonstrate that he has strong leadership skills – something that if I may be so bold to say – Fezeka was sorely missing. Again however, only time will tell how this will pan out, although my initial intuitions are encouraging.

Since making the move to South Africa and Fezeka, I have been asked many times about what it is like to do so. What is Cape Town like? Is it dangerous? Are you scared? What it is like to teach in a township? How do the staff receive you? How do the students treat you? How does it feel to stand out because of the colour of your skin? What is the teaching like? Is it hard? And so on and so forth.

My answers, as they have been given time and time again go something like this:

It’s amazing. I feel so fortunate to be able to experience something like this. Cape Town is stunning…breathtaking…a city of many faces and endless contradictions.

It is dangerous, yes, but so is any big city. Fortunately I have not yet had any serious experiences with that side of it although I have several friends who have. As with any large metropolis, it is important to keep your wits about you and not let your guard down too much. I don’t go walking alone at night, and we always lock our front gate even if we are just running inside for a minute. I do not walk around Guguletu by myself even in the middle of the day and not even along the short distance on the large road that runs from Fezeka to the bus station, having been warned against doing so time and time again. ‘You are a target Sisi (sister),’ they tell me, ‘There is no need to tempt fate.’

Working in a Township school is quite different from any school I’ve been in before, for many of the reasons I have mentioned above and in earlier posts. At Fezeka both staff and students have received me very well, and seem genuinely happy that I am here and taking an interest in them and their community. They are eager to learn anything I have to offer, although I am often wracked with insecurity about whether or not I am doing a good job or if I am deserving of their interest. The novelty that I think I was when I first started is beginning to wear off for learners, but this was only to be expected. My skin colour has not been a major issue, although stares are common from passers-by, especially upon my commute to work with other teachers. I can usually count on one hand (that is if there are even any to count), number of other White faces I will see on the drive into school once we turn off the N2 and into Gugs. Whenever I take a taxi by myself in and around Cape Town, I will usually sit in the front seat next to the driver. More often than not the driver is Black, which garners endless stares from those who observe us and are not used to seeing a White woman and a Black man sitting side by side. On that note, it is worth mentioning how rarely I have seen interracial couples here in Cape Town. Before moving here and having a better understanding of the current state of race relations in this country and city, that they would be common. From my experience however, they are not.

The teaching itself is difficult but for reasons that are far beyond me, my students and the school itself. The hardest and most frustrating part of the whole thing is my forced acknowledgement of how much of a disadvantage my students are at because of the legacy of Apartheid. The damage that has been done will take – in my opinion – generations to undo. These students have been raised in a ‘Free’ and ‘Democratic’ South Africa, yet for every Rand that is spent on their Education, 5 is spent on educating a White child. My students share books…desks…sometimes even chairs. For many of them, their only exposure to English is in the 40 minutes a day I have with them, and the music and other forms of media they enjoy. As a result, for many of them, their reading, written (and sometimes spoken) grammar is very poor. At times I am overwhelmed with frustration at the difficulty they have understanding a verb or a concept or even a word that given other opportunities they would have learnt years ago. And yet, our hands are tied. Given such small slots of time with them, with such large classrooms and often inadequate resources, how much can one really accomplish? I refuse to adopt a defeatist attitude about anything, as this doesn’t help anyone and is not why I am here, but when people ask me ‘is it hard?’, this is what I tell them. Yes it is hard, but the most difficult part is how hard life is going to be for the majority of them.