Sunday, October 25, 2009


Friday, 11:58 am.

Alone in my cool classroom, I sit and read. On my right, a soprano from the choir sings strains of an unfamiliar aria in the schoolyard, her beautiful voice wafting through my door. Through the open windows to my left, birds chirp happily, eagerly announcing the impending arrival of summer. A hundred metres down the way the entire grade 12 class has assembled for their final assembly as today is their last official day of lessons. Intermittently, their raucous laughter and thunderous applause crackles through the air, raising the hair on my arms. And above all, the ever-present cacophony of students' voices - chattering, laughing, screaming, whispering - fills the warm late-october air...

Thursday, October 8, 2009

outside the fishbowl looking in..

During the spring break of last week, four students from Fezeka participated in a conference called Shikaya with students from a variety of schools across Cape Town. The three-day forum included discussions, debates, guest speakers and the exchange of ideas on various issues facing the youth of this country and South Africa as a whole, focusing particularly on the use of statistics and a rating system developed by the Mo Ibrahim foundation (

On Monday following a particularly heated meeting with the English department (more on that to follow), our Principal asked me if I could drive these four students to a school in Rondebosch where they would participate in the closing ceremony of the conference, including with an audience with the board of the foundation, a London-based NGO that rates the countries in Africa based on a range of criteria, offering a $5M incentive to the leader of the country that manages to top the list each year. More information can be found on their website.

The event was held at Rondebosch Boys High School. Despite being touted as a government school by the event organizer, it was difficult to imagine how this could be. From the time we drove onto the campus, it was like we were in an alternate universe. Beautiful wide tree-lined roads wove their way in and around the property. Lush green fields and plants were everywhere you looked. Stunning, well-maintained and massive structures housed the administration, school and various other buildings. A cricket field and soccer pitch, complete with their respective clubhouses rounded out one edge of the campus. As the students and I walked along one of the roads towards the location of the event, their awe was impossible to ignore. Their silence as they took it all in was interrupted only by the occasional ooh and ahh. I later found out that this “government school” has annual school fees of R40K. Right.

When we reached our destination we sat on the grass outside for a bit while the rest of the students arrived. The organizer had asked the students to think of some questions they may like to ask the board about what they had learnt during the conference, or that they may have about their rating system. They asked me for help with their questions so we sat and discussed. Despite the rating focussing predominately on economic development, the kids said that they had also talked about education and crime in South Africa. Sensing an opportunity, I asked them what they thought about the education system in this country, if they thought it was fair. They did not. I agreed and asked them to give me an example of how this is true.

“Look around you miss. Look at these trees. This grass. These buildings. You don’t see kids bunking. You don’t see rubbish everywhere. Why do these kids get to have this kind of education, these kinds of things [facilities]? How come we don’t?”

This had been exactly what I had been fishing for. The stark contrast between the school and environment we had left 20 minutes earlier and the one at which we currently found ourselves had not been lost on them. Sad as the reality of the situation was, I was happy to hear that they were at least aware of this sort of inequality.

I asked them how it made them feel when they looked around the campus surrounding us.

“I feel….small.” said one.
“Wow.” said another, under his breath.

We spoke about how they mustn’t feel small, that they mustn’t ever allow anyone – or anything – else to make them feel small. That the advantages enjoyed by the students at this school were no reflection on them as individuals, merely of the opportunities they had been lucky to benefit from, because of where and the privilege into which, they were born. By that same token, my students had been born into a disadvantaged reality. Neither them nor the students at Rondebosch boys high school had asked or done anything to be born into either world. It’s just the way it is.

We continued talking. The issue of crime and violence in South Africa was raised. What causes crime? I asked.

“Poverty.” answered one.
“Can you expand on that?” I asked.
“When you are hungry you are not thinking with your head, you are thinking with your stomach. When your tummy is rumbling you can’t think of anything else.” she continued.

As we were heading into the clubhouse for the discussion, a student from another township school approached me.

“Miss, do you teach at Fezeka?”
“I do sweetie, yes.”
“Wow. I never expected that. I thought maybe you would teach at a school like this – but a township school? Shuuu.”

The discussion was an interesting one, as the students – diverse as South Africa comes – asked a number of interesting and well thought-out questions. I was impressed at the degrees of critical thinking expressed by many of them. At the same time, there was clearly a difference between the competency levels of the students, particularly when it came to the knowledge and grasp of the English language. This saddened me. The students that had been selected from Fezeka were among the top students in their grade but yet they were miles apart from their colleagues from wealthier schools. Not that this came as any surprise but as my exposure to students from these schools is very limited, it was a jarring reminder.

I couldn’t help but smile as my students asked some of the questions we had discussed, with their own twists. One of my favourite answers from the panel came from the only South African member (it is an international collaboration, with members from all over the world). When one of my students asked her what she thought about the fact that there were so few green spaces and recreational activities available to youth and how libraries are all but non-existent, in disadvantaged communities, she wholeheartedly agreed with him on the greatness of this injustice.

“This issue is not one of a lack of funds,” she continued, “every year the Minister of recreation returns with a surplus in his budget. The money to build parks is there. The fact that this isn’t happening is because of poor organization and mis-management at the implementation level. I am glad to hear you are aware of this however, and support you in your mission to change things. You need to make yourselves heard though. Take advantage of 2010. The world’s eyes will be on South Africa. The powers that be don’t want the world to know that your schools don’t have libraries or that poor kids don’t have places to play. They don’t want people to be aware of how much worse off township schools are then richer schools, especially when they’ve sunk billions of ZAR into that “fish bowl” [referring to the Green Point stadium that is being constructed for the world cup, to be used for only 8 games]. The world cup is your window to have your voices heard. Take it.”

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

blood boiling

As discussed in earlier entries, at the end of the second term we experienced a loss of two English teachers. On the last day of classes before the Winter break, we were informed that one of these teachers had gotten a job teaching at another school. The other would be on “stress leave” for the duration of the third term. This last minute news left the English department and school administration in a very difficult situation. The late notice of these absences meant it would be all but impossible to find replacement teachers before school re-opened 3 weeks later. Their unexpected departure was especially problematic as both teachers taught Grade 12

It was not until the end of the second week of the third term that a replacement teacher was found for one teacher and mid-way through the third week that another was procured. To their credit, both of the replacement teachers did a stellar job picking up the slack left by the departing teachers, doing their best to get to know students and trying to catch them up on the work that had been missed in the earlier part of the term.

In the interest of preventing the Grade 12 from falling too far behind in those weeks that there were no replacement teachers, the English Head of Department shuffled around and switched the Grade 12 classes of the departing teachers with some of the Grade 11 and Grade 10 classes of the existing staff. This way, the Grade 12s were taught all the way through (especially important as they were preparing for exams), and the new teachers taught those other Grade 11 and 10 classes when they joined our staff.

Despite the fact that taking on Grade 12 classes midway through the year, as they are preparing to write exams (and the corresponding marking of said exams – in English this means 3 exams for each student, one for Language, one for Literature, and one for Writing), the teachers who were given these new classes took them on without complaint, recognizing that this sort of thing was part of the job and that their priorities were the students, not their own interests.

All went well until we reopened this week.

The teacher who had been on “stress leave” returned. As some of her classes had been redistributed, she was given the timetable that the teacher that had filled in for her had been using.

She was not happy about this.

As is the practice, we had a departmental meeting on the first day back from break in preparation for the upcoming term, to touch base and make sure we are on the same page with our classes. During the meeting the teacher who had been absent raised the question of why she was not given her original classes back. She indicated her upset at not having being informed of this timetabling change and stated that she wanted to return to teaching her Grade 12s and be able to take them to moderation. Sidebar – the final term of the year for Grade 12 is the least teaching-intensive. About half the term is spent doing review for the final exams, the other half of the term students spend writing exams that are marked externally. Those teachers then take 9 examples of their students’ work – 3 exceptional students, 3 average students and 3 poor students – to their subject advisor from the Western Cape Department of Education for review. All this technically means that very little work and almost no marking must go into the 4th term for Grade 12 teachers. This is an added bonus for English teachers as in our subject area marking abounds during the rest of the year.

To put it more plainly, this teacher, who had been absent for the entire third term, thereby missing all the teaching and marking that goes along with the exams written during this time, and who, incidentally, is the absolute WORST offender of negligence and absenteeism when she is here (I have referred to her in more than one blog entry), was now upset because she had not returned to a cushy final term of the year. Her expectation that she would be given her classes again meant that if fulfilled, those teachers who picked up her slack would once again be given a great deal of marking at the end of the year for those Grade 10 and 11 classes that had been switched for the Grade 12s (the end of year Grade 10 and 11 exams are marked internally, and these grades do not write exams in the third term). Her gall was unbelievable.

During the meeting, which became quite heated and (if I’m being honest), would likely not have taken place in any of the schools I have previously been in, rules of professional conduct and the like), this teacher actually said she refused to teach the classes she had been given. Refused. She said she had expected to teach her Grade 12s and that she did not want to teach Grade 11. What she was really saying was that she did not want the workload associated with teaching Grade 11 and had no problem shirking her responsibility and giving the work to her colleagues who had been her back when she was gone.

I felt very sorry for my (normally very calm) head of department. I had never seen him so angry and emotional. On more than one occasion I had to step in and mediate, although this was extremely difficult for me out of fear I would say something I would regret, and came very close to doing so more than once.

After a great deal of back and forth, during which her insolence and nerve became more and more unpalatable, we closed the meeting with her refusal to do her job, fulfil her contractual obligation and responsibility towards the students, noted in the meeting minutes.

The blood boiling experience of this meeting was worsened by my knowledge that because of the intricacies of the red tape associated with firing someone who is a union member, the disciplinary action related to this teacher’s blatant unprofessionalism will struggle to accomplish anything of substance before the year is out, if at all.