I have seen so much of South Africa, learned so much about the South African education system, and met some incredible people over the last 10 weeks, and I cannot believe that it is suddenly coming to an end. I head back to the States on Monday, but I will forever hold these memories and the things that I have learned here close to my heart.
So, what have I done since my last blog post?
Sharanya and I recently spent a week in Polokwane working on an ECD project that focuses on providing workshops and school-based support for teachers in Grade R (kindergarten). During this time, we worked with a team of trainers to organize large files of quantitative data and prepare for an up-coming accreditation meeting. We then spent two days in the field observing school-based support sessions in rural primary schools. After each session, we observed the trainers conduct a debrief with the teacher, discussing necessary areas of improvement and suggestions on how to make these improvements. After the debrief, Sharanya and I talked with the teacher about what they believed was going well with the program, what areas they believed needed improvement, and what they hoped to learn or experience throughout the remaining workshops and school-based support sessions.
Upon returning to the office, Sharanya and I wrote a report on our observations, challenges, and recommendations for improvement, and we then presented to the team. The trainers expressed gratitude for the suggestions and seemed very receptive to all of our ideas. After this, the director asked that Sharanya and I return to Polokwane for an important meeting the following week. During this meeting, we listened to Department of Basic Education (DBE) employees, principals, teachers, and trainers discuss the program and share successes. However, the exclusive focus on the positive aspects of the project in the presence of the DBE (and no focus on challenges or areas of improvement) revealed the politics that are inherently intertwined with education.
In addition to observing the school-based support sessions and the principals’ meeting, I created another Pre-Grade R booklet, synthesizing and simplifying a Grade R training module into a smaller and more easily accessible booklet. The trainers will refer to this booklet during workshops and when coaching the teachers during school-based support sessions.
However, of course it is not all work here in Jo’burg! Sharanya, Aynur, and I recently headed northeast to Kruger National Park, and it was incredible! The terrain changes so quickly in South Africa, so there is always something new to look at on road trips. Also, Aynur has eagle-eyes, so luckily we saw SO many animals in the park! Fortunately for me, we did not see any of the numerous snakes that inhabit the park. I also successfully drove on the left side of the road for the first time!
What have I done over the course of the internship?
I have completed a variety of tasks over the last 10 weeks. Here is a brief overview:
- Created phonic cards to accompany a guided reading program in Isizulu, Sepedi, and Siswati.
- Created Pre-Grade R training module booklets for quick reference and accessibility.
- Created African language as a first additional language (AFAL) lesson plans for Grade 1.
- Researched and wrote a literature review on the need for investment in the intermediate grades.
- Edited and made suggestions on a bi-annual report for an ECD project, the National Reading Framework, a project proposal, and English as a first additional language (EFAL) lesson plans.
- Observed Grade R school-based support sessions.
- Conducted qualitative interviews on the successes and challenges of an ECD project.
- Analyzed and organized ECD data.
- Wrote a report detailing observations and recommendations for an ECD project and presented for local stakeholders.
- Completed a website evaluation and made extensive recommendations for improvement.
- Wrote a report on the purposes, benefits, and limitations of EGRA.
- Participated in a collaborative Youth Day literacy event.
What have I learned over the last 10 weeks?
It is hard to succinctly describe everything that I have learned in 10 weeks in a few paragraphs. In the beginning of my internship, the organization participated in a Youth Literacy Day, and it was during this time that I realized how little I knew about the South African education system. During a breakout session, experts from across the country discussed the current state of the system and brainstormed practical ways to create sustainable change. However, I was unable to contribute because I did not know the reality of the current situation beyond what I had read in academic articles. However, through intentional conversations with colleagues at the main office and the Limpopo office, as well as observations during school-based support visits, I feel as if I have gained a much more holistic understanding of some of the persistent challenges to improving student performance in primary schools across South Africa. Addressing educational inequalities requires addressing the complex issues that are contributing to the remnants of apartheid.
These experiences have led me to become more aware of my own privilege, as I was not aware of the reality that many teachers around the world experience. A couple of weeks ago, I met a 61-year-old teacher that had 52 five-year-old students in a tiny trailer with virtually no resources. Having been formally trained as a teacher, I was shocked to see that some teachers truly do not receive any support or the education necessary to effectively promote student learning, despite their good intentions. This experience was different than reading about it in an article. This was real, and the students were the ones suffering as a result.
In this moment, I realized how easy it had been for me to deny the power and the privilege that my education afforded me, as well as the “expert” status I had been assigned because of it. I left this visit very convicted. This realization of my own power and privilege led me to wonder how we can best empower these teachers. They know what they need, and their voices are essential if these interventions are to provide any value. I communicated the need for a participatory approach and intentional collaboration in my recommendations, and I am hoping that the trainers are able to incorporate these ideas into their workshops and school-based support sessions.
I empathize with my colleagues because I have realized how difficult it is to design high-quality materials for such drastically different contexts. NGOs require funding to operate, so they must provide resources that provide value to a diverse population. To accomplish this, stakeholder engagement, collaboration (I introduced the company to the power of Google Docs, which was a game-changer), and visits to “the field” are crucial. It is so easy to forget that the rest of the country is not like Houghton Estate, one of the wealthiest areas in South Africa.
Finally, I have realized that NGOs are far from glamorous. The perception that you will be in the field working with students and implementing incredibly innovative projects that transform education is far from accurate, and while I have done a TON of editing throughout my internship, I have learned to find value in the seemingly mundane tasks. Every task provides some sort of learning opportunity, and I feel as if I am leaving with a better understanding of development work, education, and South Africa than I had when I got here. For that, I am thankful.
Hamba kahle (goodbye or “go well” in Zulu), South Africa. I hope to see you again one day.
-N (my most recent office nickname)