Each morning as I drive down to St. Leo’s Primary School, I listen to calming music and mentally prepare myself for the inevitable chaos that will greet me upon my arrival. When I arrive, I am ready for battle. Armed with pencils, paper, books, and most importantly – patience, I weave my way through a sea of kids and make my way to the classroom. When my first class begins, the students are overflowing with energy and enthusiasm. I try to harness this energy and use it to help them learn something. The students are constantly trying to push my buttons while I try to push them to learn English.
From the beginning, volunteering as an oral English teacher at St. Leo’s has been a struggle for me. Coming into the year, I had little teaching experience and didn’t know what to expect from a school in rural South Africa. However, I have come to realize that my battle to maintain order in the classroom is insignificant in comparison to the struggles that my students have been fighting against all their lives. My students struggle to get enough food to nourish their bodies; they fight against racism and discrimination which are still ever-present in aspects of South African society, and they battle to survive the onslaught of AIDS as it continues to destroy their communities.
Unfortunately, it seems that we are constantly fighting an uphill battle. At St. Leo’s the students are crammed into overcrowded classrooms and the work ethic of the teachers is appalling. Generally, the students are way behind where they should be and they score extremely low on national standardized tests. As a whole, the South African educational system is failing them.
The situation is dire, but my students are extraordinary. They are forced to overcome so many obstacles in their lives, constantly facing trails and tribulations that no one should have to bear. And yet, each day they come to class excited to learn and hopeful for a better future.
For a long time, I have been pessimistic about St. Leo’s state of disarray and find myself losing hope. However, I have come to appreciate the victories in my classroom. I am optimistic these small steps forward will gain momentum and eventually they will receive the quality education that these kids so very much deserve. In the meantime, the students and I will fight together for their brighter future.
Durban, South Africa 2011