When the Students are the Teachers

by m.rigsby / 25. April 2012 11:30

There are days when the kids drive me crazy.

I’m a full-time teacher at St. Leo Primary School in rural South Africa and, while I love my job, I have to admit that there are days when I don’t. There are many issues to confront when teaching English to those who barely speak a word but the most difficult has been bridging the uncertain waters of the culture gap. I come from a family that recognizes the importance of education and a society whose school system enforces the structure and discipline needed to ensure that educational goals are met. The transition to a remarkably different culture – one in which any structure is an exception to the rule and in which parents disagree on the value of any Western education at all – has been tough.

In the beginning I was frustrated with myself for not getting through to the students. That feeling subsided, giving way to a weariness with my classes for simply not “getting it”. The third phase of my blame assignment focused on the teachers with whom I worked. Working, I decided, was an English word they had not yet understood. I found it difficult to make a steady lesson plan because each week brought a new excuse to close the school. From union strikes, to state department visits, to memorial services for distant teachers neither named nor met, school was closed for business. Volunteers have a reputation for landing at a site with dreams of remaking the culture in their image. How quickly reality can awaken even the most ambitious dreamers.

I realized very soon in my service year that I would receive very little help from the teaching staff at St. Leo: a curriculum was nowhere to be found; a schedule and class list were nonexistent; and all too often my morning drive would end in a U-turn at the closed doors of a school whose students’ potential was being strangled by a culture born out of a struggle not to learn and achieve, but simply to exist.

And there’s the point: I am inextricably bound to my native culture as the Zulus are to theirs. I have arrogantly walked through the doors of a school and concluded the staff was lazy. I have been frustrated by students who fail to study or do homework. I have questioned why no one here seems to care in the same exact way I do. And now, though it took me far too long, I have realized the bitter shame in judging another person whose culture I never took the time to truly understand. The Zulus are a people who lived for too long under an apartheid system that subjugated the tribal religions, cultures, and social order they regarded with honor. The oppressive Bantu education system was an important tool in apartheid tyranny.

The cycle that began in these schools continues. Those that I teach with were at one point students of apartheid. It’s no wonder they don’t share my enthusiasm for educational development. But some of my students will grow up to be teachers themselves. It’s in this dream that I can help shape a new reality. At St Leo, I’m fortunate to spend every day with these children who are willing to teach me the importance of educating myself before trying to bridge the culture gap alone. Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t trade these days for the world.


Matthew Rigsby

South Africa 2012


Internationals 2012

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