Photo: Kyle Taylor

In the summer of 2012, I volunteered with the nonprofit group One Heart Source. We taught English to students at a public primary school outside of Cape Town, South Africa, for four weeks. English is only one of South Africa’s official languages, and it’s spoken by only about 20% of the Western Cape population.

Working as an English teacher in the township of Imizamo Yethu was not without its challenges.

1. School supplies are limited.

The public primary school where I taught was located in an impoverished, predominantly non-white housing development area (called a township, an officially designated and segregated housing settlement that was set up during the apartheid and persists today) in Hout Bay, a seaside suburb 20 minutes outside Cape Town. While the classrooms at the schools within Imizamo Yethu were clean and colorfully decorated, basic learning supplies like pencils, erasers, and sharpeners were hard to find and disperse to students.

There were between 30 and 40 children in each classroom, and that count doubled when classes combined due to absent teachers. Although the students had their own desk space and chairs, not every student had their own pencil. The pencils available to the kids were dull, chewed up, and sometimes no longer than an inch. There were usually only one or two erasers per classroom (called “rubbers”), so the students took much longer to complete assignments because they had to wait for the eraser to be passed around.

2. Students’ home life affects their academic progression.

Students from townships in the Western Cape usually came from families struggling with poverty. A handful of my students came to school every day complaining of hunger because they didn’t eat breakfast that morning or dinner the previous night. One student of mine drifted to sleep every morning in class because she had to share a bed with all her siblings and didn’t get much rest as a result.

The situations that occurred outside of the classroom were beyond my control; many students were distracted and aggressive as a result, often initiating fights or neglecting homework because they lacked the resources to complete it on their own.

3. Students have varying levels of English-language proficiency.

Though English is the official language of business, politics, and media in South Africa, it wasn’t the first language for many of my students and their families. It isn’t as commonly used in townships as indigenous languages are, such as Xhosa. While all teachers and students strived for advanced English-language proficiency, there were wide gaps in skill level even within the same grade or age group of students.

Some students were nearly fluent in English, while others were still grasping the alphabet. Well over half the students had parents who spoke no English at all, while others had parents who knew only a basic amount. Regardless of their parents’ English proficiency, the students who excelled were usually those who practiced English daily, either with siblings, parents, or friends.

4. Volunteering can be costly.

Because English is only one of South Africa’s 11 official languages, there isn’t as high a demand for ESL teachers as there is for science and math educators. Townships have the added constraint of limited access to native English speakers, as well as no budgets to afford ESL-certified foreign educators. The demand for unpaid ESL volunteers in these impoverished areas is quite high.

Travelers will pay almost $3,000 in volunteer fees to become an ESL teacher in these regions of South Africa, depending on the program and length of time (usually 2 – 4 weeks). This fee got me a comfortable apartment in Hout Bay, internet access, three meals a day, transportation to and from the school, teaching materials, and training and orientation manuals and supplies. However, I didn’t receive a salary or stipend for teaching.

5. The hours are long.

Even as a volunteer, I generally worked at the school an average of six to seven hours, five days a week. ESL teachers also tutor and lead after-school programs or HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention discussion groups for an additional two to three hours. This packed schedule, with 30-minute breaks for lunch and constant interaction with young students, was exhausting and required a great deal of patience and stamina.

Rewards

1. The people in my township were open and kind.

The South African teachers at the school where I worked were very grateful for my efforts and those of One Heart Source. They thanked us daily and invited us to their homes for dinner. I’ll never forget how they held our hands on Nelson Mandela’s birthday and included us in their annual song and prayer ritual to celebrate his life. Outside of the school environment, the South Africans I met were friendly and helpful. Food vendors became cherished acquaintances who greeted me and the other volunteers with hugs and discounted our meals. Hostel staff became other close friends who took us hiking and barhopping.

2. You connect with your students’ families.

One Heart Source does an excellent job of encouraging families to participate in their students’ academic work and personal growth. The other teachers and I had the opportunity to visit the homes of our students, meet their families, and answer any questions they had about the tutoring and after-school programs. We also held an end-of-program event at the school, where parents talked one-on-one with their child’s tutor about his or her academic progress, reviewed their child’s projects and test scores, and participated in fun group games. Establishing a level of comfort and an open line of communication between teachers, parents, and students was crucial in contributing to the academic growth of the kids and making sure they felt supported at home and at school.

3. The work is fulfilling.

Despite the daily challenges I faced as an English teacher in South Africa, the work was extremely gratifying. Academic progress varied in each child I worked with, but progress was always visible. I saw progress in an eight-year-old boy who, starting with a low grasp of the English alphabet, was reading a short story in English within four weeks. There was also the nine-year-old girl who stopped adding “ed” to the end of every past-tense verb and started correctly conjugating all her irregular verbs. And I’ll never forget the seven-year-old boy who went from struggling to count to 10 in English to volunteering every day to count to 100. When an eight-year-old girl went from missing class regularly to showing up on time and staying for one-on-one tutoring after school, none of the challenges I faced seemed to matter.

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