I am now coming to the end of 11 fantastic weeks teaching Arts and Culture, English and Life Orientation at a primary school in a South African township. Without a doubt, this has been the most rewarding, yet challenging experience of my life.
It has been wonderful, as a gap year student with no teaching qualifications, to be able to walk into a school and teach the children what I think they will benefit from learning, with no moderations, reports or curriculum to stand in the way. As the daughter of a primary school teacher, I am very aware of how much the paper work now dominates a teacher’s role in England; here, I’d say 90% of the role is teaching, and 10% lesson planning and marking work. It is more simple here and in many ways the schools are about 30 years behind English schools! Having few assessments (twice a year) means there is more time to teach, which can only be a good thing. Although there is a syllabus, I found it difficult to follow as there were big gaps in the children’s knowledge (for example, how could I teach the G major scale if they cannot yet read the notes?) so I taught them what I thought would benefit them most. Often, the gaps are there because the teachers here don’t know it themselves – sometimes a teacher will sit at the back of my lessons doing the same classwork as the children.
Having said that, I am often pleasantly surprised at what they can do and what they know. Their knowledge of their own culture is very impressive (thankfully, as I couldn’t teach that!), and it is a joy to teach music to children who have a natural rhythm and love to sing. Music is a big part of their culture, and they are not embarrassed to sing in front of others like many English children – in fact if I teach them a song in class, they sing so loudly it’s deafening! They learn songs by ear and pick up tunes and harmonies very quickly. One of the most rewarding things I’ve found is teaching them a song in class and then hearing it being sung for their own enjoyment around school for weeks afterwards. I found that teaching them to read music enables them to learn more songs themselves, which will benefit them in the future. Likewise, they can all dance (really well!) and I learnt pretty early on that they were going to teach me more dance than I was going to teach them (suits me fine!).
The teachers who usually take my classes are very different too – one tells me what I should teach and checks my lesson plans, whilst another has said I can teach whatever I like from day 1. Many things are difficult to adjust to – the classes are enormous (usually between 40 and 45 children), they use chalkboards (the dust gets everywhere!), there are pigs, chickens, dogs and cows from the township wandering around the school, all practical subjects are taught in the playground (there is no school hall or gym) and I am yet to see another white person in the school! Learning the children’s names is incredibly difficult as they are almost all Xhosa (their language) names – very hard to pronounce and remembering them is as hard as learning the language. I know the bright ones and the naughty ones, but I’m sure remembering the names of all 500 children I teach is impossible…!
The resources here are very poor in comparison to most English schools, but they are far better than I expected. For example, there are some computers (no internet connection), a photocopier, text books and a small library, all of which are very useful. I bought the school some percussion instruments to use in lessons as they had none, and I will never forget the look on their faces when I first showed them a tambourine! They appreciate their resources very much and using them effectively/finding alternative teaching methods just adds to the challenge.
I underestimated how challenging the language barrier would be. For many, English is their 3rd language (!) after Xhosa and Afrikaans, so it’s very impressive that at age 9 they know enough to be taught in it! But I came to SA with the typical English attitude that ‘Everyone speaks English’, and they will do – but not fluently until they are near to finishing primary school. Many of the younger children still have only a basic understanding, and it often takes a few attempts to get a point across using words, actions and drawing pictures on the board! It also took them a few weeks to get used to my accent, especially since the previous Travellers volunteer was Canadian. I love it when they teach me words in Xhosa too, even when they laugh when I pronounce words incorrectly!
At first, I was overwhelmed at how much there is to learn about the school and the township (even finding the classrooms is tricky at first) but as my confidence has grown, I have enjoyed it more and more – so much that I never want to leave. I have grown very fond of the children – some of whom are so inspiring – and the other teachers/staff are very friendly and a good laugh. The children are polite, enthusiastic and have big personalities, and I wish I could bring them home with me!
My placement has given me amazing insight into another culture, and I have probably learnt as much from the children as I have taught. I will come away from this experience with a new appreciation for life – it is humbling to see how happy these children are despite having very little, and I am proud to have made some difference to their lives. I have learnt new songs, some phrases of a new language and even some traditional dance, and I have gained teaching experience, an insight into a very different culture and memories that will stay with me for ever. I would highly recommend this placement to anyone who is positive, creative, up for a challenge and willing to embrace a very different way of life.
Other music opportunities in South Africa
As a musician, I was keen to teach and share my love of music as widely as possible here in South Africa, and I feel very lucky to have been given some extra opportunities for this, outside of the classroom.
I run the school choir with two other Arts and Culture teachers, which has expanded since my arrival – now open to grade 6s and 5s as well as grade 7s, and to boys as well as girls (something I was keen to enforce). The choir has as many as 60 children in it, and the sound they make is thrilling. As the teachers do not read music, I taught them the songs they had the sheet music for, as well as some South African songs I knew from my choir at home. I have also accompanied them on the piano and djembe drum, and in return for me teaching them the music, they teach me the African words! They have also taught me songs from their culture which I can take back to England with me. Choir is one of the highlights of my week and I come out of each rehearsal with a big smile on my face. I will always remember the joy in their faces when they sing and the way they so naturally move as they sing – it’s amazing to be part of it.
I also took the opportunity to teach a marimba band at the township’s youth and development centre. The centre was recently bought 3 marimbas (similar to xylophones), and I have been teaching the 4 teenage boys who come twice a week for an hour’s session. Again, I teach them songs by ear but using the note names (I refer to the notes by name but they are only just starting to read the written music) and as the boys have a natural rhythm and good ear, they are quick learners. I started with a fun arrangement of ‘Zippedy-Do-Dah’, which I had heard performed by a percussion band at home, and have since taught them their National Anthem, ‘Waka Waka’ and ‘Wave Your Flag’, all of which they requested! Teaching the band takes a fair bit of preparation; I have had to write out 4-part arrangements of each piece, which is fairly time-consuming as each marimba has a different range (just 10 notes for the bass and over 2 octaves for the highest). But it is well worth it! It is great fun and very rewarding and I never want to stop after an hour! Seeing their excitement and pride when a piece comes together is a real buzz; I only wish street-kids in England would be so keen to play musical instruments!