Brian Vedder - Teaching English & Other Subjects in South Africa
I am currently at the University of Vermont in the United States studying to become a High School English teacher. I got the idea to travel abroad during my summer months from a presentation regarding a different program during a Psychology class of mine. One of their destination options was South Africa. Immediately, I knew that was the location I wanted to volunteer and teach abroad in. I yearned to travel to the most remote, differential location possible. The financial requirements for this volunteer organisation proved much too steep; I then stumbled upon Projects Abroad.
Though it took months and months of preparation, multiple changes in programs and flights, and many scholarships, eventually, I found myself on the twenty-hour set of flights to Cape Town, South Africa. Prior to this trip, I had never left the country; I was preparing for one of the biggest culture shocks of my life. I had no idea what the classroom dynamics, academic curricula, reward and punishment systems, or types of entertainment would be for these children. In addition, I had barely any teaching experience, outside of a few service-learning classes back at the University of Vermont. Regardless, I had an attitude and a dedication to give these children the most of my teaching abilities.
My Teaching Placement
The school I taught at, Hyde Park Primary, was one of the most enlightening institutions I had ever encountered. The mornings were hectic; students filtered in and out of the yards playing with footballs, tennis balls, skipping ropes and each other. Despite the cold, bitter beginnings to the day, students had ecstatic smiles and constant laughter in these minutes before classes. The second I whip out the camera to catch a few shots, students sprint to my general area, shouting “Mr. Vedder, take a picture, take a picture!”. It seems that many of the students do not receive the attention they require at home or in the classroom, immediately responding to the emotional availability of the Project Abroad mentors.
My classroom teacher gave me insight into the home lives of some of these students; many suffer from parental neglect, food and financial struggles, encounters with gangs, violence and drugs. Coming from such a sheltered home environment, I had never considered these sorts of external factors when designing lesson plans. Understanding where some of my students will have to go home to is crucial to comprehending what sort of tactics will work in the classroom. After the bell rings, students automatically begin filing into respective classroom lines in front of the classrooms. Morning prayers ensue, and five minutes later, students separate into their rooms. This, alone, was a drastically different start to the school day than anything I had experienced in the United States.
The curriculum focuses on English and Mathematics, leaving Social Studies and Science on the backburner. Teachers teach to the state exams, trying to ensure that their classes can meet the high expectations that few students in Hyde Park Primary can reach. The academic intensity of the classrooms reaches far beyond anything experienced in my American classrooms. A large portion of my time spent in South African schools involved inspiring, motivating and encouraging these students. In the chaotic educational environment, I found that, sometimes, these students lost the reason for pushing themselves academically. Project Abroad volunteers, coming in with excitement, emotion and determination, were ideal for this aspect.
South Africa was the solidifying experience for my pedagogical aspirations. I knew, completing my four weeks abroad, that this was the exact field for me. Each student in my sixth grade classroom had a special spot in my heart, even the ones that gave me headaches on the day. When other professors were absent, I would take on those classes for the day. This became the most challenging aspect of my teaching placement in South Africa. Teenagers at Hyde Park Primary knew that I was not the most experienced, prepared instructor and, at times, took advantage of that. Although this gave me the most strife and self-reflective confusion, these are the moments that triggered my pedagogical characteristics the most.
In moments like these, my innate leadership qualities came to the forefront. I had to push myself and take control of the classroom in situations that would challenge any educator. In addition to this unique experience as an instructor, I grasped cultural norms and differences that, otherwise, I could never have understood. Exposing future educators to contrasting international systems of education is vital to creating personal classroom qualities and pedagogical interpretations.
Without a doubt, these short few weeks spent in South Africa was the most transforming, educational experience of my life. I will never forget my students, my classroom, my fantastic teacher, the country of South Africa, my teaching blunders and moments of strength, and the tension of departing from my comfort zone. This is my first trip of many; I must throw myself at international opportunities and continue putting myself in demanding, academic circumstances to grow as an educator.