Teaching in South Africa: Brett Robinson | Real Gap Experience Blog

Teaching in South Africa: Brett Robinson

At the start of the year, we sent a teacher - Brett Robinson, to South Africa to volunteer in a school. He had an amazing time whilst he was away; check out his account to see where his adventures in South Africa took him...
Week 1:
During my time with Real Gap Experience, I volunteered on the Schools and Development project. The first couple of days spent at Simons Town High School have been absolutely fab. We were given the absolute warmest of welcomes by the head teacher and other school staff before being given a tour by two fantastic ambassadors from the upper school. 
I've spent my first two days in Grade 2 (7-8 year olds) which is a bit of a culture shock for me as I'm used to teaching aged 14 upwards! However, the kids have been absolutely fantastic! So very willing to learn, well behaved and incredibly friendly. Many of them get up at 4am to travel in to school from the surrounding Townships, which is very humbling. 
The teachers have been very helpful and have already allowed me to lead a couple of lessons. Tomorrow I plan to check in on some of the upper school classes if I can and perhaps see some Science - my own subject. The view from the classrooms continues to blow me away - often literally as it's quite windy too!
Couldn't be happier with the start we have all made and looking forward to the rest of the week ahead!  
End of Week 1:
"So, all too quickly I approach the half way point of my volunteer project at Simons Town school and what a week it has been! Already the school feels like a second home and the staff and students continue to make us all feel so welcome. It's a sad thought that I only have a week to go. 
Having taught a number of classes this week and helped out in many others I thought it timely to perhaps reflect a little on my experiences as a teacher here compared to being a teacher in the UK.
What impresses me first and foremost is the kids thirst and eagerness for learning. That's not to say I don't experience this with kids in the UK. However here the students think absolutely nothing of staying in the classrooms during break to continue with their work; regardless of missing much of their 'own time'. What also impresses me is their desire to succeed and to encourage each other. This is more pronounced than back home. Perhaps this is because all too any of them realise the consequences of not doing well in school in Africa. There are far fewer  opportunities and a far greater chasm in lifestyle choices between those that leave with qualifications and those that don't. In my mind this reiterates the importance of volunteers here. Class sizes are large and teachers efforts are spread thin. The help that we can provide hopefully makes a big difference, it certainly feels like it does. 
Being here for a week has also allowed me to get to know the kids characters a little more. Suffice to say they are a fantastic bunch and while I may not be used to hugs and "thank you for teaching us" at the end of classes they are very welcome additions to the teaching day.
There are many similarities to the children at home: the studious one, the loveable rogue, the quiet but thoughtful one, the withdrawn one, the enthusiastic one, the one who will tell you every answer verbally but will do everything to avoid writing it down, the one who thrives on praise. That's why I love teaching. It's a universal profession and while the culture may be vastly different, at heart people are the same and at deep down everybody wants to succeed. 
So I approach next week with a view to teaching the older kids some science! And I'm finally back in my comfort zone! Can't wait!
Week 2 
My second week at Simons Town school begins with an introduction to the upper school and a chance to lead on some science lessons. I've been a little apprehensive over the weekend as I'm unsure how they will respond to me, how much they already know and how well they will adapt to my way of teaching. Having now taught 2 lessons to Grade 9 (15-16 year olds) however I needn't have worried. The students were so well mannered and cooperative and showed real interest. They seemed to be very taken by the fact that I had a PowerPoint presentation and a laptop  to assist me! It's standard back in the UK, but some of the lessons I've seen so far here can be a little didactic and teacher-led so I guess it was perhaps a nice change for them. The lessons were on "mass and weight" in physics and I was very pleasantly surprised by how much some of them already knew. Ive set them the task of completing a short assessment sheet on the lesson content as homework for Friday and I've promised treats for all those who submit a completed and correct sheet....so it's another trip to pick up chocolate prizes later! Meanwhile, I've continued with Grade 2 in the afternoons helping out a recently qualified teacher. I'm really getting to know the kids in this class well now. They are such a nice bunch and it feels like coming home when I see them again each afternoon. 
It's not all been hard work though. In my down time I've managed to squeeze in a football match, a trip up table mountain, the Cape of Good Hope nature reserve, penguin watching on Boulders beach, whale and seal watching and some food and drinks at the stunning V and A waterfront. There is so much to see and do in Cape Town. I'm lucky to be working here. 
Brett's girlfriend Kate and fellow volunteer Kirsten
End of Week 2
It's going so quickly! Only 3 days left on project now and as the end approaches I'm already sad about the prospects of saying goodbye to people I feel like I've known much longer than two weeks. I've been continuing alternating my time between teaching science to the upper school and leading or assisting in Grade 2 in the afternoons. The science department seems to have little useable equipment so Tuesday evening was spent trawling around Fish Hoek searching for magnets, paper clips and any other random objects I could use to teach 30 sixteen year olds about the effects of magnetism. Today I demonstrated the  Indian Rope Trick, where you can make a safety pin appear to float in mid air underneath a magnet. In the UK this often promotes a couple of wows from some of the keenest ones, but today I was totally unprepared for cheers and a round of applause from the whole class! Simple things like group work, using post-it notes and showing a few interesting pictures seem to be sufficient to enthrall the vast majority in their work and it makes me think about how much more I could do with these kids if I had a bit more time. I've been discussing sharing resources with the Science department here. They seem to be in some need of resources to spice up lessons. The school has this week received funding to supply staff with their own work laptops and a suite of overhead projectors has been installed but are yet to be used. In the UK these things have been in place for many years, but I'm heartened that some schools out here, like Simons Town are fortunate enough and are heading in the right direction. The students are so keen to learn but often have only text books to learn from. If a PowerPoint and a floating paper clip can be enough to engross them then I think as volunteers we can add so much more to their learning experiences with just a little planning and a splash of creativity. The kids will love you for it! And so I approach the final couple of days. The last day of my project is also my birthday so I'm planning to put on a bit of a party/fun lesson for Grade 2 as a goodbye. So I'm off to get hold of some paint, some glue and lots and lots of cake. Recipe for disaster??...
Final blog:
It's Friday evening and today, sadly, my project has ended. It's been the most incredible day. I've spent most of it with Grade 2 and they have made what also happens to be my birthday one I will never forget. I arrived this morning to a loud and heartfelt chorus of Happy Birthday in both English and Xhosa followed by 30 separate hugs! After a bit of English and Maths we then decided to get out the brushes and paints (something some of them hadn't ever done before) with the objective of painting your favourite animal. After a while though the kids decided that they would all paint me birthday cards and I'm now reading through a small pile of their funny and heartfelt messages which I intend to keep very safe. Today has also been 'Bakers day' where the kids are able to buy extra food at break time from a local bakery. What has moved me is the sheer generosity and thoughtfulness of these 7 year olds. One of them used all his money to buy me a muffin for my birthday (which I of course gave back to him). Another boy, who earlier in the week had missed school as his family couldn't afford the bus journey, happily broke his muffin in half and offered it to me, saying thank you for my help this past week. I'm genuinely blown away by them and I'm going to miss them all greatly. It has been a fab end to a wonderful and humbling experience and one I am not going to forget.
The experience of coming out here to teach has reaffirmed my belief in how important education is to our society and how much it can affect and alter peoples lives. I only found out today that in my Grade 9 class, two have recently lost parents, two have recently been diagnosed HIV positive and a further seven live in an abode in a township that doesn't even have an address. Meanwhile, in Grade 2, one has recently lost her mother, two have never met their mother, one is a refugee from Angola and another a refugee from Zimbabwe. Some of the backgrounds are harrowing, the daily lives a huge struggle. Yet for them school is most certainly a privilege and a place to escape to and to feel safe. To be part of such a wonderful place for two short weeks has been a privilege. Moreover, I do feel like I have helped. I have a strong sense that I've  been able to make a difference. There is a boy in Grade 2 who can now count backwards because I helped him to do so. There is a girl in the same class who can punctuate her stories because I helped her and gave her examples. There is also a girl who greets me and asks me how I am in French every morning because we did a little each day. And there are some kids in Grade 9 who all handed in their Mass and Weight homework and can all explain why they would weigh less on the moon. This school is a very good one, but the help of volunteers is paramount in dealing with some of the large class sizes and the stretched resources. You're needed out here and it's such a worthwhile cause!
On Monday I'm off to spend some time exploring in Namibia and having a proper break before school in the UK starts again in September. But in truth I'll be thinking a lot about Grade 2 and Grade 9 and how they're getting on. It's fab that I to I have been able to offer this to a teacher and I'm very grateful and humbled to have been chosen. I've been able to get thoroughly involved right from the start and I've been able to offer some advice to the other volunteers too.  Im very much intending to keep in touch with the head of Simons Town school in the future so my school and hers can collaborate in all things science. I'm also intending to head back in a couple of weeks time to share some electronic resources and say a final goodbye. I might even pay Grade 2 a surprise visit!
All that is left to be said is that if you're thinking of heading out here and doing something similar, don't hesitate - just do it! You're needed and you won't regret it!


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