Going into my second TABSA experience, I had a slightly better idea of what I was getting into than I did my first time, if only to realize that flexibility, empathy, creativity, and an indefatigable work ethic would be far more useful than any science textbook I could have possibly packed. Expecting the unexpected turned out to be a necessary survival skill, and I was fortunate to work with this year’s TABSA team, a crackerjack group who navigated logistical hurdles with grace and good humor. This was fortuitous, as our challenges were absolutely enormous: workshops with six different cohorts of teachers spread out across four towns and two countries, working with local teachers ranging from 6th to 12th grade, and my personal assignment including science workshops ranging from geology to organic chemistry to molecular biology to ecology to botany. In retrospect, our having pulled all this off feels like a minor miracle.
In some ways, being back in South Africa for the second time was more difficult than the first. It was sobering to return two years later and realize that not as much had changed as I’d hoped. Evidence of systemic improvement was difficult to find. Alas, I was hopelessly naïve. I was surprised to realize the extent to which the inequality and dysfunction I witnessed in Mpumalanga were also alive and well in Kwazulu-Natal. Somehow, realizing how deeply entrenched and pervasive the country’s biggest problems are made it more difficult for me to be optimistic about the nation’s future. The vast scope of need can be overwhelming. Still, there were innumerable small reasons for hope. A committed elementary school principal in Jozini who meticulously hand lettered posters to decorate her classrooms, a sidewalk being built along the highway outside Pongola to reduce pedestrian accidents, the Moya Center volunteers cheerfully providing tea and lunch for the teachers in Swaziland, a school counselor in Manzini who spends her own small salary to buy food for the orphans at her school when the government money doesn’t come through, a children’s home high on a Swazi hill where infant and toddler orphans were thriving, and the steady determination and commitment of hundreds of teachers who left their homes and families during their school holiday to attend our workshops.
We worked hard. We scavenged supplies everywhere we went, constantly dreaming up ways to work creatively with available materials. We hoarded bottles, cans, cardboard boxes, metal scraps, plastics with certain recycling codes, paper, toilet paper tubes, and so much more. We scoured the bushes in Mbabane to find leaves suitable for a photosynthesis experiment, and then had to defend that experiment from the goats roaming through the schoolyard during our workshops. We picked flowers at a bus stop in Mtubatuba and from a police station in Jozini for a plant reproduction lesson. We practiced hydrocarbon naming by building molecules with toothpicks and marshmallows. We modeled the rock cycle with crayons, studied mineral mining with cookies, and built replicas of the respiratory system out of discarded bottles. The teachers attending our workshops marveled at our use of trash. We aimed to instill creativity and empower the teachers to be resourceful. A plastic water bottle could become a beaker, a funnel, a lung, and even a rocket.
Doing hands-on science by using materials from the local environment was novel to many workshop attendees. At St. John Bosco School in Swaziland, a science teacher came up to me, wide eyed, after our flower dissection workshop and exclaimed, “I have been teaching plants for 21 years and I’ve never brought a plant into the classroom! I can’t wait to go back to my school and do it differently.” He began the workshop perfectly competent in the scientific aspect of the lesson, but he left genuinely inspired on how to invigorate and engage his students.
In some lessons, we could actively learn science without using any materials or equipment. I led the teachers in acting out organic chemistry reactions by using people as molecules. They acted out the formation of a polyethylene chain from ethene subunits and the crosslinking of a polymer. The teachers, in turn, taught me how to spice up these activities by singing, dancing, and laughing while acting out the chemical reactions. Their joy at learning through doing was infectious. I marveled at their willingness to act silly, to be vulnerable in admitting what they didn’t know, and to engage in the hard work that’s necessary to build genuine understanding. In everything we did, the South African and Swazi teachers were brave and trusting of this radically different style of workshop, despite their unfamiliarity with learning via active participation.
While discussing the differences between our respective countries, a chemistry teacher participating in our final week of workshops at Magudu Inn just laughed and told me, “You chose your parents much more wisely than I did.” His joke established a buffer from the weighty topic and helped maintain perspective. I was repeatedly amazed at how much the teachers would incorporate humor into their days, at their use of it as a way to connect with strangers and persevere through difficulty.
As our workshops ended, I couldn’t shake the overwhelming sense that our time with these teachers is only the tiniest fraction of what is ultimately necessary. South Africa and Swaziland are depending on these teachers to prepare children for the future. The teachers need support so they can be maximally effective. They need regular professional development opportunities, better facilities, appropriate equipment and supplies, smaller class sizes, and supportive mentorship from their supervisors, to say nothing of the dire necessity for a competent and effective Department of Education overseeing it all.
The uphill battle continues.