2014 reflections: Andy Barnes

Mgudu week 1, grade 9

Mgudu is in the hills about 15 miles from Pongola, a farming community.  On the way up to the site, which is strictly accommodations for conferences, we passed vast cane fields.  Across the road from the conference center is a residence, but the sign “Crocodile Country Store” was still above the door.  A herd of cattle hung around when they were not coming up the road or wandering onto the conference grounds. We set up in different rooms for the 160 teachers who came for the week.  They averaged about 40 years of age and were supposed to be grade 9 teachers.  We found out that they had a minimum of 60 students per class, up to just over 100!  It was obvious that many had not gone to college, and we were told that some had not even finished school but had been teachers for decades already.  They were brought in during the severe shortage of teachers after apartheid ended.  Yunus told everyone we were making up for the 40 years that apartheid had prevented students from learning any math and science after grade 4.  The SA teachers’ skills and thinking were basic for the most part, though the younger ones were more educated.  When asked simple questions, like what is gravity, they were reticent.  Perhaps they did not want to risk an incorrect answer and embarrass themselves, or it was simply a question they had not considered or could answer in English. We encouraged them to discuss with each other at their tables but this was something new for them.  Slowly they opened up and by the end of the week, they were talking and had some good discourse. The evaluations were very positive, and indicated they got a lot of practical ideas.  However, with that many students in the class, some said it would be difficult to teach in the manner that we were modeling and maintain discipline.
Mtubatuba, week 2, grades 6-8

The township is leftover from the apartheid era when blacks were separated and “housed”.  The homes we saw are square, with a stucco finish.  They are painted in pastel colors.  Many had rooftop solar water tanks and all seemed to have electricity and indoor plumbing. Trash was everywhere; it became apparent there is no collection in this area or anywhere in the country that I could see.  Piles of garbage were picked at by goats, cows and chickens.  Garbage flew around in the wind, or was smoldering in unattended fires.  There were a few large community gardens growing huge heads of deep green cabbage and giant leaves of shiny green chard.  No grass, but dirt from the yards, added to the garbage flying about in the wind.  We passed many houses, some turned into small shops or services; several schools, a huge dirt soccer stadium, and arrived at our site.  The school was very simple; a toilet, one sink, a couple of water collection tanks, and the classrooms.  They were simple and worn looking, with concrete floors and walls, ancient chalk boards that remained white even after a water wash, and dirty windows.  The central courtyard was mostly dirt.  No playground equipment in sight. It was very cold in the morning and my feet were numb before we even started at 8:30.


Teachers began to trickle in and some had traveled far, others had family in the area so were staying with them. The principal lived across the street and opened/closed the building for us.  Teachers would wipe the dust off of the chairs before sitting.  We split the science teachers into two groups of about 22, and Veronica and I were in separate classrooms.  As in Magudu, we started with all the science teachers together in one room, spoke about the day’s schedule and asked them to start the day with a prayer.  We would wait, and very soon someone would start to sing.  Within seconds the room would be filled with a beautifully harmonized gospel, sung by all and usually led by a woman.  After several verses, they would stop, and someone else would say a prayer.  The song and prayer could be either in English or Zulu.


The Mtubatuba teachers generally were older, and most arrived by bus, walked, or were dropped off, unlike those in Mgudu, many of whom had nice cars and carpooled.  Like Mgudu, the Mtubatuba teachers were a little reluctant at first to talk with each other at their tables, and they seemed less educated.  By the end of the day, however, they were quite friendly and it became easier to elicit responses from them.  I was greeted by a little anger by a 4th grade teacher who felt she could not use my pendulum model in her class, but she returned and the next day said she could.  The workshops were supposed to be for 6th grade teachers, but some teachers had 4-6 grade learners.  It was easy to get attached to favorites, especially those who were really curious and participated fully in the activities I presented to them.  It seemed that the older female teachers were in that category, although a young math/science teacher was clearly the star and made the most connections between the concepts.  By the 3rd day, all of us were very comfortable with each other, and when it came time to say goodbye (we were transferring to Jozini and being replaced by Claire and Alison), I felt like a movie star.  Everyone wanted my picture with them!  They seemed to really appreciate what we had done for them and wanted us to stay or return during the next year.



We stayed on the mountain and the atmosphere was more rural.  On the drive out to the school, we noticed most of the cmu block houses along the highway had no electricity or plumbing, and  each had an outhouse.  There was no grass, cane fields, eucalyptus groves, or gardens.  Just goats and cattle along the road looking for food.  It was definitely more of a country feel than Mtubatuba.  The school had a totally dirt yard and behind it were outhouses. There were two for the girls; apparently when one is full, another is built. Off to the side was a pit for burning rubbish.  The principal was there the entire time, bringing water for the teachers and putting a table cloth on the water table in each room.  I think I may have insulted her when I told her I needed the table for my demonstrations and supplies, and removed the cloth.  She was certainly dedicated.  This group of teachers was very reticent, and it took two days before they opened up, even though they had been with Alison, Mike and Claire for 3 days.  The science supervisor for the area, whom we had met in Mgudu, came one day and said many of these teachers were unqualified to teach due to lack of education.  By the end of the second day, they were more friendly and very happy with the supplies I gave them (light bulbs, or globes as they call them, a paper clip, a paper fastener, a piece of cardboard and aluminum foil they had fashioned into electrical wire); when I announced that they could keep the AA battery they were using, a whoop went up, and immediately they asked for the scissors and tape, too!  All of the teachers we had met so far in all locations are in dire need of the most basic supplies; this group, along with the teachers in Mtubatuba, did not have timers, even on their cell phones, nor watches with a 2nd hand.  I had them counting their pulse, which was very inaccurate, and the graphs they made were difficult to explain.


Mgudu week 3, grade12

We returned to Mgudu and 140 math and science teachers converged on us.  They were grades 10-12 teachers for the most part, but some teach 8-12 also.  As a group, they were younger than we’ve had before, and some have a college degree.  They also tended to be more sociable with each other and have the best chance of mobilizing and networking.  In my sessions, many sat back and nodded their heads as I was going over basics in speed, velocity, acceleration, and freefall. Many were able to do the problems I presented, but for some, the content seemed like it was brand new.  When it came time to do the activity, all of them made the same mistake!  It seems they know theory, but not application and as in the previous weeks, true understanding of the concepts eluded them.  One teacher, probably in his 30’s, would not believe that an object of greater mass will hit the ground at the same time as an object of less mass when dropped, even when I showed him.  They certainly had some good discussions, I think, since they spoke in Zulu during those times.  At the end of the week, one of the administrators for the department of education said something that stunned us all: now the SA teachers learned that they do not have to ask the department for supplies since we showed them how to do activities that cost practically nothing.


Swaziland, week 4, grades 6-12

We worked in an all-boys school while the boys were taking exams in other classrooms. Unlike the previous weeks, the teachers who attended these sessions were not on their winter break.  The exams were in various subjects and required proctoring and grading only, hence the break the teachers got to attend. It was not organized by any department of education, but by a lovely lady named Ann Houseman, director of an NGO in the area.  The Swaziland teachers seemed more apt to talk to us in the sessions, and therefore we could glean what they knew, which seemed to be a little more than their counterparts in SA.  It was hectic, however, since we rotated 2.5 days with the lower grades and then the upper grades instead of an entire 5 days with one group.  I know there was much more that they wanted and needed, but they were grateful for what they received.  Especially since we were unloading most of the supplies we had used over the weeks.  One disturbing note was that Veronica and I were looking through items that were gathering dust in a storeroom behind the chemistry classroom we used.  There were boxes and boxes of unused, mostly new, science equipment.  There were balances, multimeters, voltmeters, pneumatic presses, steam engines, D cells, models of the eye and torso, 3D anatomy posters.  Stuff that any of us would gladly have in our own classrooms.  We figured they were donated but the teachers did not know how to use them, or did not have the time to use them.


I learned many things in the four weeks.  First, that I could spend that much time in very close contact with a group of people eating, sleeping, traveling and working together.  We had many memorable times, talking, arguing, discussing, and laughing together.  I used the soap Laurie gave me until I left SA a week later.  Tenzin and Aliya made lentil stew that finally got my bowels moving; Mike exploding balloons, the adjectives Veronica used to describe people, Nadia walking across the courtyard wearing short shorts when all the boys were assembled.  Claire, our pinch hitter and my roommate for much of the time, and her enthusiasm for all things.  Brad walking to dinner wearing his Punahou jacket, five-finger shoes and a head lamp, and his super-human appetite.  Thokuzani, the gentle giant and his love of meat, Jim’s obsession with math puzzles, and grizzly Carl the wise man.  I missed Alison’s calm demeanor.  Kelly’s experiences with the Peace Corps were reassuring for me.  The most amazing of all was Yunus, who never lost his cool despite the changes, delays, long drives, and stolen passport.  He not only took care of us, but took on the hotel union and the educational system of the country.


Second, I appreciate what I have in the US.  The system is flawed certainly, and not equitable for all, but even our public school teachers do not have to contend with 80 students in a classroom.  When I worked in one of the most notorious public schools in the state, I had resources and if I didn’t, I could buy them with my own money.  SA teachers do not have that luxury, and would have taken every last roll of tape, piece of graph paper and aluminum foil if offered.


Third, I learned a lot from my American teacher colleagues.  Their compassion, willingness to help others and work ethic is immeasurable.  We worked hard, and Allison and Veronica put in extra hours planning the schedules and grouping.  We didn’t have to go to the extent that we did with the SA teachers and we could have gotten by.  But I think we did it because we did not want to let Yunus down.  He trusted us and that gave us confidence.


I never knew South Africa would be so compelling and interesting.  The people we met were friendly, warm, and boy, can they sing!