Why Teach in South Africa?


Steven Le, 2010 Teach With Africa Fellow, wrote this feature article for South Africa: The Good News about his experience teaching in Cape Town at the LEAP Science & Maths School.

The numbers were staggering. Of the 43,953 learners who wrote the National Senior Certificate exams in the Western Cape province in 2008, only 3,801 passed both mathematics and science at the 50%+ level. When John Gilmour, the LEAP Science & Maths School founder, listed this statistic my pen stopped moving.

Encouraging was the fact that 19 of those students came from LEAP. Since 2004, LEAP has served as a private school for black students from townships. It now has three campuses in Cape Town and Johannesburg, with more schools on the way. LEAP has graduated 142 students in the last 3 years—126 of whom are currently enrolled in university or other tertiary study programs.

The students, teachers, and administrators of the LEAP Schools have begun a movement, and their monumental efforts have produced impressive results. But the work that remains seems improbable. What difference can an outsider, from the US, make when he is on the LEAP campus for only eight weeks? What could any outsider do to augment the work of locals? This is how I came to South Africa with a nonprofit organization called Teach With Africa.

Teach With Africa (TWA) seeks to partner with schools by sending experienced teachers to Africa, and by bringing students and teachers from those schools to the United States.  In addition to exchanging learning and teaching approaches, TWA fellows participate in outreach projects in the surrounding underserved communities. In its third year, TWA works closely with LEAP and is developing partnerships in other countries in Africa. I joined the 2010 TWA team as an English teacher from Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, California.

In talking to Americans before I left, I learned Africa holds a kind of power for many. “I just know I have to go to Africa”, they would say. Many are naïve enough to think all of Africa looks the same, perhaps misled by the satellite picture of the world at night showing Africa as a continent with the fewest lights. The “dark continent” stirs sympathy. Some feel compelled by guilt associated with America’s history of slavery. Still others see Africa’s poverty as an incubator of terrorism in which young men without jobs and money turn to religious zealousness for pay and pride.

Whatever the reason, Americans seek passage to Africa. I did. I can’t say my reasons for going were original or exceptional. In reflection, my reasons were murkier than all of the above. I have seen that satellite map, but I figured some cultures value darkness just as much as electrical lighting. I share no guilty feelings, as I was born in developing-world Vietnam, yet I do think poverty and a lack of government infrastructure can lead to violence. Reports have indicated many coastal dwellers in Somalia picked up arms and became pirates because they had no other way of earning an income.

But I went not to resolve any of these issues. I came to build relationships, hoping I could bring these back to my own classroom and share them with students and teachers in my own community. Reading that the South African government had identified education as a top priority fueled my interest. After my time at LEAP and learning from John Gilmour, I know South Africa’s education system will change significantly in the next ten years. LEAP and similar school efforts, and the important conversations about them, will lead to permanent and systemic change.

Teach With Africa places the most value in the least important word in its name. The word “with” signifies that we, the American visitors, were not simply “in” Africa or teaching “for” Africans; and, ideally, we were not there to “teach Africans”. We were collaborators. We were mutual learners and teachers.

Back in United States, I am now able to introduce some of the South Africans I met to my students and larger school community. My students are eager to begin conversations about their course readings on post-apartheid South Africa, augmented by personal narratives and insights.

I am working with TWA to bring teachers from the LEAP Schools to my own, so they can sit in our active classrooms during their summer holiday. I will then take students from my class to Cape Town at the end of our academic year, so my students may complete the circle…and begin their own.

Steven Le, 2010 Teach With Africa Fellow, co-directs the US-based nonprofit Omprakash, which connects education, health, and environmental projects in developing countries to volunteers and classroom resources. He teaches English at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, California.

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