Teaching in South Africa: what is it really like?

Date Posted: 30/09/2015

In STO we focus on the benefits of getting pupils away from their desks. In this feature we look at what happened when a teacher got out of his own classroom and headed to Africa for two weeks. 

In April, we drew attention to a competition launched by volunteer travel company Real Gap Experience and British Airways, which aimed to give UK teachers a chance to win an experience teaching abroad.

This week we caught up with competition winner Brett Robinson, a Secondary school Science teacher from Birmingham, who gives us an insight into his experiences and how teaching in a different country has made him appreciate the importance of LOtC.

1. Why did you enter the competition to work abroad?

I had previously completed some overseas volunteer work in Kenya in 2007. This was before I had entered education and was a period when I was trying to work out what to do with my life.

As part of my work I was given the opportunity to teach some lessons at a small rural Primary school, and despite some initial hesitancy I found I absolutely loved it.

Up until that point I’d never really considered teaching – I thought I wouldn’t have the patience – but that experience changed my outlook and my life. I returned to the UK, qualified as a teacher and haven’t really looked back since.

Now, as a much more experienced practitioner, I felt a sense of almost paying back Africa for the experiences I had gained back in 2007 and to be able to offer my skills again in a volunteer capacity.

2. What did you do while you were there this time?

I began by assisting a newly qualified teacher with his Grade 2 class. I’m a Secondary school Science teacher, used to ages 14 to19, so working with seven to eight year olds was a shock to the system at first. But I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it!

I was able to offer plenty of support and advice to the newly qualified teacher, and later in the placement I returned to my comfort zone, teaching Science to Grade 9 (16 year olds).

3. What educational resources did you have access too?

Not many unfortunately. In both Grade 2 and Grade 9, lessons were mostly taught straight from the textbooks. I had bought my laptop and a number of my teaching resources with me, and tried to deliver lessons that used as little of the textbooks as possible. The kids responded amazingly.

Brett Robinson

4. What is an average day at school like for pupils in South Africa?

At the school I was based in, the day begins for all students at 7.45am. Many of the students didn’t live nearby and so had to travel long distances across Cape Town to make it in on time. Some leave their homes at 4am and have to catch multiple mini-taxis (small buses) to arrive on time.

At Primary level, students tend to study different subjects in blocks, perhaps spending the morning studying Maths and the afternoon studying English or one of their many other subjects.

At Secondary level, students alternate between subject specialists, spending one hour per lesson in each. So in this regard it closely mirrors schools in the UK.

Younger students are then dismissed at 2pm, with the older students leaving around 3.30pm.

5. What are the main differences between teaching in South Africa and teaching in the UK?

I think the way education is viewed by the students in South Africa is often different. Among the students there, there seems to be a much greater recognition for the value of education and the life-changing prospects a good education can provide.

Unfortunately, the standard of education the students receive and the resources they are able to access are not yet comparable to that of the UK, although there are signs this is changing and that education is certainly moving forwards.

However, many of the most striking things I observed were the similarities, particularly in the children’s motivations and personalities. They all love praise for a job well done and hold a sense of pride at recognition of their own accomplishments and achievements.

In this way, the children of South Africa, Kenya and the UK, and indeed probably the entire world are at heart the same. This makes teaching such a universally rewarding job.   

6. What was the best thing you experienced?

I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent working with a boy in the Grade 2 class who had recently arrived from Zimbabwe. Academically, he was obviously behind most of the other students, but he had a willingness to learn and was over-joyed when he learned something new.

I would often sit with him and help him learn to count, to add, subtract and divide and to help form simple sentences in his written English.

Through his own hard work he made a lot of progress, especially in Maths and it made the whole experience seem so worthwhile. Without the continuing help of the volunteers he would not receive the additional one-to-one support he so desperately needs.

In South Africa, students who don’t make sufficient progress are often made to repeat the year. Even small interventions can help and my time spent with this young lad had a big impact on me.

7. Has your time away made you consider teaching abroad for a longer period of time?

Teaching abroad has always been something I have considered. Right now, I’m committed to the students I teach in Birmingham. But in the future, who knows?

8. What did you learn there that will affect your teaching here?

I have a much greater appreciation of the difficulties some students face in their lives. Many of the back-stories of the students I taught in South Africa were quite unpleasant.

Unfortunately many students in the UK have similar problems in their own home lives and my experience allowed me to reflect a little on their circumstances. School for all of these children is often a refuge and a place to feel safe.

Learning about English, Maths and Science is often only a small part of the support a school provides in preparing young people for life. Not all learning that takes place happens solely in lessons.

9. Is there anything you will change with your teaching methods now based on the experience?

I think it’s important that students have a world-view no matter how much they are able to travel in life. It’s important that they learn about different cultures and people and the hugely varied circumstances they face.

There are real-world implications for everything a student learns and I think it’s always important to put any lesson into a real-world context and allow students to discover why the specifics of what they are learning are so important.

10. What advice would you have for other teachers considering teaching abroad?

Go for it. Not for a second do I regret giving up part of my summer holiday to do this. I have memories I will keep for the rest of my life. I have insight and knowledge in to the lives and education of children in another country.

Most importantly, I feel I have been able to contribute and to help where it is much needed. And that is most important of all.

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