I’m going to take a break from my training flashbacks to talk about what I’m doing here in South Africa. Or, perhaps a better way to express it is the “intention” of me being here. I am willing to spend over two years as a volunteer in a foreign country, and the U.S. Peace Corps thought I would work best for them as a primary school teacher.
Specifically, I’m teaching English to what they refer to as the intermediate phase: grades four, five and six. Right now, I’m jumping into other teachers’ classes as I am prepared for them and they are available for me. Otherwise, I’m grading tests, reviewing textbooks, or just getting acclimated to – and taking notes on – the place and the people. Starting in January, I’ll have my own classes.
“Why?” you may ask.
Why Peace Corps? I’ve worked for small companies (less than 20 employees). I’ve worked for a large corporation. I’ve worked as a freelancer. I’ve worked as a stage performer. I’ve done a lot of things. Well, it seems like a lot to me; it may seem like a little or a lot to you, based on your point of view. But until now, I’ve never done anything quite like this. And I’ve never known anyone personally who had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer until I started looking into it for myself.
Why a teacher? Molding young minds was never something I expected for myself when I was forging a “career path,” but to have the opportunity to serve in this organization, I’m taking the challenge. This is a challenge for multiple reasons, but maybe the most important one is that I never had any formal training as an educator.
My highest level of formal education is a four-year degree in Telecommunications from Youngstown State University (go Penguins!). Most of my other education would be considered informal at best – very much on-the-job and learn-as-I-go. It’s not that I don’t like to learn new things; like most people, I stick to learning mostly about the things that really interest me or are necessary to perform a task at hand. So, I know lots about the careers of my favorite musicians, the history of Saturday Night Live, and how to use software called Adobe Captivate.
In other words, most of what I know about being a school teacher comes from my recollection of my past teachers.
So, what else do I have to offer? I had to convince the fine folks of the Peace Corps that I was worthy of performing some task. I mean, they don’t take just anybody and throw them on a plane to South Africa (or anywhere else). Luckily, my recruiter walked me through what I needed to do in order to be the type of person Peace Corps is looking for.
First of all, the phrase “relevant work experience” seems to be pretty flexible. For starters, I have work experience, which I think counts for a lot when you consider that most of the volunteers are right out of colleges and universities. I know what it’s like to work for “the man”. I know how to keep my mouth shut (when I have to). So, working for a subsidiary of a multinational financial corporation for nearly nine years means something. Working in their training department for the last four years makes it mean more.
Next, I had to prove that I know something about volunteering. It seems like a no-brainer, right? “Do you want to do something for someone else for the sole pleasure of doing something for someone else? Yes? Ok, prove it.”
In other words, it was good for me to formalize my volunteer experiences. Which is how I started on the path of actually teaching people in a classroom. Up until 2010, my volunteer experiences were mostly things like working at a friend’s charity fundraiser or going with a group of friends or coworkers to cook food at a soup kitchen. But then I started to have a recurring role at a community center to teach adults how to use computers. The folks that ran the community center liked me enough to offer me the role of ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher – again for adults. This is the kind of well-documented stuff that makes you an attractive candidate for Peace Corps.
So, I’m not a complete novice, which is good. On the other hand, many volunteers are teachers by profession, with lots of training and experience. But I do believe I fit in with the diverse backgrounds of education and experience found across all of the volunteers.
This diversity in experience and training is something we’ll most likely need to help us work together to figure out the best ways of dealing with our shared challenge: working in rural South African schools.
For all the criticisms that can be made about how schools and teachers in SA operate, I truly believe the primary challenges facing these schools stem from lack of resources. Even at a school as large as the one I am working in (a kindergarten through 12th grade school – in American terms – that has nearly 900 students and just under 30 teachers), you can’t expect to find things that would be considered priorities in American schools, like flush toilets … or a parking lot. Just getting the students to the school can be a problem, especially in bad weather, because there are no school busses.
I am happy that the South African government is progressive enough to emphasize the learning of English in their schools by having all of the instruction in English from grade 4 on (for all subjects except “Mother Tongue” class, which in this part of SA is Zulu). I’m sure I have the bias of being an American and the bias of having spoken English my entire life, but I think English is and will be a key component to South Africa competing in the world, at least in financial terms. However, again due to lack of resources, many teachers struggle to deliver classes in English. After all, it is a second language to them, too.
There are some things about SA schools that have carried over from the past that would make many Americans cringe. Most noticeable of these is corporal punishment; when the child does something wrong, the child gets hit, usually with a switch. (Of course, not by me or other volunteers.) I’m happy to say that this isn’t as common at the school I am in as has been reported by some of the other volunteers in their schools. And, it doesn’t seem to me to be all that serious at my school, either. That is, I haven’t seen a child really in a lot of pain. It is a strange ritual of the teacher feeling it must be administered and the student accepting it as normal. Even though it is supposedly illegal, it is ingrained in the culture. From what I’ve seen, it does nothing to improve behavior or learning. It just seems to promote and normalize violence. I’m optimistic that it is becoming less of the norm, and will continue to fade away over time.
Much like the students, I am also expected to walk to the school everyday. It is less than two kilometers, or somewhere in the vicinity of a mile. (I know what you’re thinking. Unfortunately, as a volunteer, I’m not allowed to own or operate a motor vehicle.) The good news is that enough of the other teachers drive that I’ve not had to walk any great distance in the rain. To be honest, I get rides pretty frequently, even in beautiful weather. But, this convenience has contributed to the unfortunate side effect of me not knowing my village as well as I should. I managed to get myself lost at least three times since I moved here earlier this month.
So these are the conditions under which I work. They may sound bad, and maybe by American standards they are. But, they really aren’t. And I chose this for myself, that I could do something different, in a different landscape, under a different set of stars. Sure it includes the built-in benefits of serving my country, serving allies of my country, and – if I am any good at my job here – extending a helping hand to humanity in general. But, at the core of this endeavor is a self-interest. I get to experience something that not everyone gets to experience. And my version of this experience will be unique to me. It already has been.
As a side note, over the past five or so years, I’ve gained more and more friends in the U.S. who happen to be teachers. I’m not sure how that happened, but I’m glad it did. These are good people, that deserve a little more respect and (at least) a little more pay. I don’t know if my rubbing elbows with these folks has left any teacher-esque wisdom on my shirtsleeves, but I guess it couldn’t have hurt. And as I’ve already called upon some of them with questions (some even before I left the States), I’d like to take this opportunity to thank them for being there for me.
But in the meantime, if all else fails in my efforts to educate, I can resort to the mantra of rock musicians around the globe: “fake it ’til you make it.” And if I’m lucky, I will achieve a proficiency that is at least – as my friend and former band mate, Neal, would say – “good enough for government work.”