WARNING: this is long! And probably not interesting if you are not a teacher or in my family :)
I have spent four weeks working at Sitintile High School, in the township of Kanyamazane, Mpumalanga, that goes from grades 8 – 12 (Years 9 – 13 for the Brits). Before I arrived I had heard and read about the maths education being pretty poor in South Africa. I had been forewarned about large classes and a lack of resources, and on my way there in the car, was told that it is quite common for teachers not to go to their classes. Despite this, after four years of teaching in a place where the biggest gripe can be that the air con is too cold, it was an interesting experience to walk around Sitintile on that first morning.
Initially I was struck by the smart appearance of the students. They have bright blue uniforms that stand out against the dusty ground, and you can often catch students polishing their shoes at the end of the lesson. The pride in their appearance is in contrast to the battles about uniform I remember from St Leonard’s. The fifty or so teachers share a staff room, and often desks. There is a relatively well resourced library, one classroom for each class, a computer room with thirty or so computers (of which about twenty don’t work), and a science lab that is barely resourced for any experiments. Each class stays in their own classroom, and each row of rooms is used for a different grade. Class sizes can vary hugely, with most having around 45 – 55 students, although I was aware of a grade ten class having around 70.
Effectively I was assigned a teacher to shadow by the Head of Maths. She had recently been working with another volunteer, a student from Exeter University. I was a bit concerned when she introduced me and said I would be taking over from where the previous volunteer left off, as given all I had heard, I was worried I might end up doing her whole timetable.
Despite the warnings, I was surprised to find one of the Senior Leadership Team telling the staff off for not going to their lessons, either at all, or on time, in my first morning briefing. This is partly why when you walk around the school during lesson times, there are students everywhere. Later on, I would have a conversation with a teacher who wanted to know if we had a similar problem in the UK. I wasn’t brave enough to tell her that if the teachers were there on time, took attendance and followed up on those absent, it probably wouldn’t be much of a problem. Especially given that I found the majority of students are well behaved and have an interest in learning.
That first day I spent my time observing Mmeme’s grade 9 and 10 classes. The lessons seemed to always follow the same structure. It starts with students doing corrections to the previous day's homework. This involved two or three students writing their solutions on the board (black with chalk) whilst the rest either ignored them or feverishly copied down the work they were supposed to have done. Then an example of the work, followed by ‘do you understand?’ and a nice class chorus of ‘yeeas’. (I had to write it like this – it was very long and drawn out.) The classwork followed, and given the students penchant for underlining titles despite only a few rulers circulating the class, it would take a while for most of them to get started. And given the lack of understanding in the majority, most students would not complete the work. Homework is then set, ready for the whole process again tomorrow. It had been explained to me that many teachers might not necessarily have been that well educated themselves due to the ‘Bantu Education Act’ that was in place during the apartheid, meaning that black children did not receive the same quality of education as white children. However, in general I found her knowledge of maths and notation were good. It was more a case of not thinking about the best way to explain something to a large class of mixed ability students, many of whom will have failed maths in previous grades.
As you can imagine, I was itching to do some teaching after that day. It was planned that I would take over one of the grade 10 classes as they were a better class in terms of both ability and behaviour. I was told to review volume and surface area for one lesson, before moving on to statistics. I planned a lesson focusing on the nets of solids to help students remember and understand where the surface area formulas come from, as this is often more challenging then volume. As it turned out, we barely got past a cuboid. I couldn’t believe that many of the students could not tell me how to find the area of a rectangle, and if they could, they probably couldn’t do the calculation without a calculator. Although it had not been what I would call a successful lesson, I was gratified to see that Mmeme saw the value in trying to get them to understand where the formulas come from, as she copied the whole lesson for the other grade 10 class. So much for reviewing the topic in one lesson. That evening I planned a much simpler and more successful lesson, focusing on areas of rectangles and triangles, that I taught to both grade 10 classes.
The first couple of days quickly introduced me to the main problems facing the learners; firstly, the appalling standard of numeracy. Most could not be asked the simplest of sums without reaching for their calculators. Initially I thought they were being lazy when typing in things like 3 x 2 and 28 – 18, but I quickly realised they could not do it without. They simply did not have any techniques or real understanding of what they were doing that they could apply to the problem, such as repeated addition for multiplication, or thinking about a number line for addition and subtraction.
With a lack of structure over what I was going to be doing during my time at Sitintile, an interest in seeing some grade 12 classes and a wish to start a maths club at lunchtime, I thought I should see the Head of Department. He was quite a hard man to track down, and despite agreeing I could run the maths club, he did not really seem interested in what I was going to be doing. Over time, I saw the Heads of Departments were more like a mix of Deputy Heads and Exam Officers, and didn’t seem to have too much to do in relation to creating a strong, organised department.
In general there is a lack of planning and organisation. During frees, teachers would chat and read magazines. Several times as we were walking to a class, I was handed the chalk and board rubber by the teacher and told to take the lesson, as she had to go to a meeting. My favourite instance was my suggestion that I take out small groups from the grade 9 classes, either the strongest or weakest students, so they could get support for the work they were doing. Most teachers I know would instantly have an idea of who would benefit, who they will send. However, we arrived in class and the students were just asked who wanted to go with me. I ended up with almost half the class.
After the first week I felt my role to be more clearly defined. I was teaching both grade 10 classes. It was only supposed to be 10F, but since I had the lesson planned and I usually arrived on time, I would start and usually continue the lessons with 10E anyway. With grade 9 I was working with 8 – 10 students in the library during each class, and at lunchtimes I was running Maths Club, where we did games, investigations and puzzles (read Nrich problems!) I also got students coming for extra help when their graded assignments were due.
With grade 10, I generally tried to pitch the lesson at a simpler level than the curriculum suggests. I definitely put more focus on explanation, and tried to teach understanding rather than rote learning. I got to complete a whole unit of statistics, which was nice. My style of teaching is obviously very different to what they were used to; all closed questions and agreement. I like to play on students tendency to agree with you, which is much stronger here than I have experienced before. I ask, ‘is this the right answer?’ and they chorus their group agreement. When I then said, ‘no it’s not, why not?’ the cognitive conflict was too much for many students. I spent a lot of time waiting for them to think through an idea and come up with an explanation, something they are unused to doing. I was pleased at the progress I saw in 10E. In their final lesson they were either the manager or the trainee at a mobile phone shop, and had to calculate some statistics from the data I had given them. They then had to argue to either sack the employee or keep their job. Whilst not many gave their conclusions backed by the correct choice of statistic, most were making a genuine effort to give reasons for the answers, which was a big step up from a couple of weeks earlier.
With Maths Club I was incredibly surprised at the lack of ability to apply any logic to a problem. Problems I have done with grade seven previously, could not even be started by the grade ten and eleven stunts that came to the first session. Over time I got a group of core students, one of whom had come second in a local maths competition. They tried, and sometimes used some good logic, but they generally just didn’t know how to approach anything different from what they had seen before. Again, no techniques or methods that could help them. This is an area that has really helped me improve my views on growth mindset. I knew you could improve students problem solving, but I had no idea by how much. These students have just as much potential as any other set of students I have taught. So the improvements they could make if they had some quality instruction would be huge.
Whilst I was there I found lots of things that I wanted to change, but I am not very brave at speaking up. If I had been given more of an official role in terms of improving the maths education then perhaps I would, but I felt a bit rude as a volunteer. Even so, I felt it was important to get my thoughts and opinions across. I therefore asked the head teacher, Mr Gondwe, for an opportunity to speak to him about it, as I know he is looking for improvement. I find speaking off the cuff on important topics quite difficult. I always forget something, or more often back away from an important point. Therefore I spent time at home writing up my thoughts, and I ended up with an actual document to give the school listing my three main concerns and the suggestions that I had for their improvement. I have mentioned those concerns already above. The lack of numeracy, the lack of understanding and recall of previous knowledge, and the inability to problem solve. I was glad I took the time to write this 3 page document, as Mr Gondwe seemed pleased with my efforts and appreciated the suggestions I had given. At home, Esther (my home stay Mum) also read it, and wanted to take a copy for her primary school. This is great, as if they really want to improve the problems in the maths education – especially the numeracy – then it needs to begin in the primary schools.
Everyone at Sitintile was incredibly kind and generous on my final day. During lunch some of the staff put on a goodbye event for me and the two UK student volunteers. There were speeches by us, and the students and staff, and presents very kindly given. It all felt a bit much given I had only been there four weeks, but in general I found this in Kanyamazane. People wouldn’t say much or go out their way to speak to you and see how you were doing, but then they would do or say something incredibly kind. My conclusion was that a lot of the people I worked with just don’t know what it is like to be somewhere in a foreign place by yourself, whereas I would make an effort to talk and check on someone in that situation, because I know what it is like. So I really appreciated their well-wishes and thanks.
Overall, I am incredibly glad I came here, so my thanks to Karen Niedemeyer and Liz Macintosh for doing their part for setting up this opportunity. Four weeks sounds like a long time when it is the number of weeks until half term, but here it went very quickly, and in many ways I wished I could stay longer in order to feel like I had made more of an impact on the students. A few things really stood out for me. I always had my red pen on me in lessons, and as the students realised that I went around checking and marking work, they would call me over in order to show what they had done and get a big tick. On one of these occasions a couple of weeks in, having given some ticks to the work they had been doing, some girls showed genuine excitement at getting their work correct. This was some of the first positivity I had seen in a maths lesson. My final memory is of one of the boys who sat at the back of 10E, looking for all the teachers in the world like the group of naughty boys in the corner, standing up to give his own thank you speech to me after the class representative had done his. He thanked me for explaining things well, he thanked me for taking the time to re-explain if they needed it, and he thanked me for showing them that they could understand and enjoy maths. And though other students had said this, given the interactions I had enjoyed with these particular students over the last few weeks, I felt like this was genuine and true.
Many teachers and students asked if I would be coming back to Sitintile. Although it seems unlikely, it would also be great to go back to see if any changes had been implemented, and to stay for longer to see if I could affect more.