Wednesday, September 28, 2011


"Education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that a son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another."
Nelson Mandela

One of the emerging themes in my Masters research has been the idea of the “opportunity-to-learn” in a classroom setting. This relates to how time is used in the classroom and how learning happens in the reading lessons I’ve been observing. It is also about how to assess the extent of learning in any given lesson: how do teachers know when learners have sufficiently learned something?

The question of the expectations teachers may have of learners is also pertinent: if a teacher has an hour to teach something every single day for a week, how will they be satisfied that learning has taken place? I’ve watched and replayed lessons where teachers spend hours teaching children about reading and writing but the children fail to meet the competencies that are expected of grade 1 learners in this country(and generally everywhere in the world). The irony here is that, the opportunity-to-learn has been created because a teacher comes to school, teaches within a given time and may even provide homework, but learners still battle with learning. If learners do not achieve anything in a given time, does that mean that the teacher has failed? Does that nullify the opportunity that has been created for learning to take place? Obviously, I’m writing this within a context where the teaching of reading and writing has become a very complex process in poor classrooms in this country. Teaching in South Africa has become very complex (and this would require a blog post for further explorations).

While ploughing through the data and trying to make sense of the hours of observations I have done in the past two years, I have also spent some time reflecting on my education in relation to the word opportunity. I went to a school that was pedantic about time (and thanks to my Grade 1 teacher I still keep a diary and wear a watch religiously). I have always been conscious of the opportunity of being at school and took for granted the importance of being in a productive school where there were results for all the time we spent in class. The experiences of being in a school like mine (which would also require another blog post of its own), I have realised that the opportunity-to-learn that was created in class for 12 years without fail has been a project that has ensured that my education allows me further opportunities in the world.

The simple “opportunity-to-learn” created in my education has allowed me choices...Because I can read, write and think, I have many options of who I can be in this single lifetime...I could change my career path when I’m 30 and do something completely unrelated to my current interests because I know I can and I have the capabilities to do so. I have opportunities beyond my own imagination. And that’s mindboggling given that the opportunity-to-learn in the classroom is something some learners can only imagine. When I think of opportunity, I think of change and how education is a tool for creating a space where learning is meaningful after the many years of learning...that education can and should be a tool for personal development, but sadly in many classrooms, this is not the case. What a travesty!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

body politics:my skin

I am fascinated by my skin. I think it’s my favourite part of my body.

My fascination began when I was very young and someone told me I was black. It had never been a problem that I was black (in fact I saw myself as umXhosa and not black, but that was not the most important thought when I woke up in the morning). What became a problem was when someone attached a value judgement to the pigment of my skin. We had just moved to the suburbs (an area with more white families than black families at the time) and my sister and I were looking for friends. We approached girls who were our age and applied the same rules we used on the school playground when you wanted to spark conversation with someone, “can we play with you?”. The little girls were startled by the request. One of them ran inside her house and emerged quite soon after with a response “my mother says we cannot play with black children”. Crestfallen, I began to understand that there was something wrong with being black, if it meant people didn’t want to play with you.

I’ve carried my race with me the same way I have carried my skin; it’s not the most important part of who I am but it has helped form the perceptions people have of me. Being in my skin has meant that I’ve been labelled as black and female. Both seem to be a matter of biology but because of the world I live in, being black and female are not innocent labels. They are loaded with bitter-sweet stories.

One of the mantras I have used trying to describe my short journey of becoming has been “I am growing into my own skin”. This has helped me understand the importance of owning my body and the person within this body. This has been a tender balance between narcissism or self-indulgence and appreciating that I am not my skin, there’s more to me than the tangible attributes that people see with the naked eye.
Part of growing into my skin has been appreciating my growing body. A friend and I were recently commiserating about the struggle of finding magazines that speak to our experience as women (for her, a career women-mother-wife in her 40s and for me, a student in her 20s). One of the reasons I battle with magazines is the front cover: both the written and the graphic text of a magazine speaks to who the target market is. Yet even when the “cover girl” is black, there’s always something that says “this is not for you” because after the make up and photoshop, the woman looks like plastic. I think I would have related to “cover girls” like Dolly Ratebe on DRUM magazines in the 60s! The body of women in magazines is always reduced to weight and how to control that weight or how to make our skin lighter, rather than simply appreciating our health. A prime example-adverts about getting rid of stretch marks: surely I can’t be expected to have the body of a 12 year old as some who is 24, it’s just not practical for someone with my genes!

Another fascination with my body has been watching the scars from childhood wounds disappear. Every scar on my body has a story. The stories I have made up in my head have been confirmed by what I see on my skin, but growing older the skin changes, but what of the memories in my head? I recently noticed that a scar I had when I was 12 has completely disappeared but the memory of the burn and the healing process is still in my mind. There are also other scars I can’t explain, mostly because I don’t wish to replay the memory in my mind.

The healing process of the skin became more pertinent when I cut myself while playing chef and cooking dinner for friends recently. The small cut on my finger seemed to bleed endlessly and watching it heal could be a metaphor for something...perhaps life. The skin started healing itself without much of an effort (the plaster I put on obviously helped). Perhaps that’s part of what growth and healing are, simply letting things fall into place and watching them grow rather than being flustered by the blood and the pain that are always a part of the process.

Friday, September 9, 2011

the real diva

I woke up missing Bhele today, my granny. In spite of having a few memories of her, those I have are profound. The last time I saw her was last year, two weeks before she passed away. We had a date, which really means I just spent the afternoon in her room with her as she was already bed-ridden. A date with my gran usually meant chatting with her while people came in and out of her house. She would often boast about her granddaughter from Rhodes coming to visit her. Many people would be stunned as they last saw me as a toddler.

The visit also included digging around for pictures and memories in my gran's room. Above her bed there was always a picture of her in her 20s,looking beautiful and still, as well as pictures of her son and her grandchildren wearing their school uniforms. A picture of me in grade 1 was placed above her mirror opposite her bed. It always made me feel special knowing my picture was in a position where she could see it every morning when she awoke.

We had a great conversation about her experience of raising 6 children in the 1960s and being uprooted from her community to a new place eMdanstane(a township in East London). She was financially independent as a seamstress in town; she never married and became part of a growing and struggling community. She admitted that she was not politically active nor was she religious. Being the daughter of a strict Baptist minister, she was a peg in a round hole. She never conformed to what was expected of her as a woman of her time.She was educated and was later able to open a small business where she sewed clothes for many churches and people in her community.

She has always been a symbol of what is possible for women in spite of the limited choices and oppression we often face. I am always suprised when people say that men are the head of households and women submit to their husbands. In my granny's case, she was her own head. She has always been fondly called Bhele (her clan name) instead of Bhelekazi(which is the female version of the clan name). This has always interested me given the obsession Xhosa people have with the names and titles for the purpose of differentating gender roles.My gran broke many rules and she survived in spite of what society does to women who break the rules and upset social norms of what it means to be a man or a woman.

Some friends often refer to me as a diva. I always laugh at this because I can't help but think of my gran,the real diva in my life. I haven't broken many rules as a growing woman and I often think I should, I think it would make Bhele smile,wherever she is.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

To be or not to be [a teacher]... that is the question...

Last week I had an interview for a teaching post at a private school. I applied because I could and I didn’t think I would get an interview because I don’t have experience teaching in high school. When I was informed I was selected for an interview I had a pseudo-melt down...why had I applied to a private school in the first place?

I decided I wanted to be a teacher when I was 18, in 2005. The decision was based on the belief that being a teacher was a guaranteed opportunity to add value to someone’s life (assuming the job is done correctly). It was also part of a reflection I had been going through at the time seeing as I had been at the same school for 12 years and had great teachers throughout that period(not to deny the fights and tensions with some of the teachers). What I didn’t appreciate fully at the time was the fact that the education I had received was not the norm in South Africa.

Moving to Grahamstown and volunteering at a school in Joza meant coming face to face with the ugly reality of education in South Africa. I never knew that school could close down because toilets had not been fixed. Learners would miss school because of SADTU meetings during school time. Learners were expected to learn in classrooms that had no windows. Resources didn’t arrive on time in order for learning to take place at the beginning of the year and teachers could decided willy nilly whether they were going to arrive at school and teach or not. I met learners who could not read and write in high school because they had floated through a system that didn’t ensure they had the basics to move onto the next grade. This was anomalous with the education I had received and I was infuriated. I began exploring the idea of being a teacher in a school unlike the one I was raised within. I decided I would become a teacher in a township school and be the change I wanted to see in the world. I was not going to reproduce the system by going back to my alma mater and I definitely wasn’t going to teach at a private school and be complicit in the social inequalities as they are played out in education.

The decision to teach has always been coloured with ethics because I see teaching as a tool to be part of transforming South Africa. But being an aspiring teacher and witnessing the level of dysfunction in some schools I have had to consider making a selfish decision: whether to teach at a good school where I can gain experience and knowledge in an environment where teaching is valued as a profession or to be a martyr in a school where the government treats teachers as though they were doing society a favour by being teachers. The schools I have observed in led me to wonder about what change a new eager teacher like me could make in a culture that reproduces and entrenches the lack of opportunities for working class children. It has become the norm to give working class children a bad education in spite of the expectations in the curriculum and the constitution about social justice and equality through education. I still wonder whether a new teacher like me would survive in an environment of chaos, where teaching and learning are compromised daily, not only at a school level but at district, provincial and national level.

Should I be unselfish and enter the second tier of education because it needs good teachers in spite of the reality of the challenges that teachers are facing? I have had numerous conversations with teachers asking me what I want to do after the Masters is complete. They have all been dumbfounded by my consistent reply that I want to be a teacher. The obvious irony is that unlike them, I have options and made the personal choice to consider a career in education that may not necessarily limit me to one classroom for more than 20 years.

In contemplating what teaching and education have come to mean to me, I find that I’m in a rock and a hard place: to take a risk in a school where there are no guarantees for supporting new teachers or a school with a historic and present privilege in a society with a widening gap between the rich and the poor. And whether I decide to teach at a private school or not, I might need to consider the bigger picture rather than the immediate decision of where to teach next year. I don’t have to worry about the outcome from the private school just yet, but simply keep my heart open to any opportunity that will add value to my journey as an aspiring teacher.