Study Tour to South Africa 2011

Study Tour to South Africa 2011

Illinois participant Michael Levesque with a child at The Cotlands, an HIV AIDS center for children

Land of Contrasts, Land of Hope

Contrasts.  The four year old girl named Nonhele who is HIV positive; the learners using cell phones to talk with friends.  The incredible singing by the children in the classes visited; U.S. teacher response with mangled versions of the Star Spangled Banner and My Country 'Tis of Thee when the learners asked them to sing.   The high concrete walls and barbed wire that protect even modest homes in Johannesburg; the two men in Soweto who were sitting on stools in the dirt selling corrugated tin sheets that people use as the roof for their little shanties.  Giving lollipops to the desperately poor children of a Soweto shanty town; taking pictures of them with a $2500 lens before driving back to our fancy hotel.

A student enthusiastically answers the teacher's question.These are but a few of the contrasts noted by twenty-four U.S. teachers who spent ten July days in South Africa learning about the educational system, the culture, and – most importantly – how economics is being taught in South African schools.  The group was divided into two study tours, with one group going to North West Province, and the other to Gauteng Province.

The U.S. teachers were struck by the contrasts that exist in this incredibly diverse country.  While there has been much progress since the end of apartheid, there are still huge challenges.  The gap between rich and poor is immense; and while education is provided now to every child, and there is a national curriculum used in every school, there is still great disparity among schools in terms of the quality of education. 

Challenges facing South African teachers include classroom over-crowding (60 first graders in one classroom with one teacher!); lack of books and other educational materials; few computers (and seldom Internet connections); and lack of basic facilities (running water; electricity; heat).  Even more challenging to student learning is the fact that, on average, 20,000 teachers are absent from schools around the country every day, and they do not have substitute teachers. Teachers also often go on strike, sometimes for many weeks, and students are missing important lessons.

Econ Illinois President and Study Tour Leader Joanne Dempsey poses with a learner at Tarlton Intermediate SchoolHope.  In spite of these barriers to learning, some students are succeeding, and there is an incredible aura of hope and aspiration among the young people in schools. Many of these young people believe they will do better in life than their parents, and they see education as a key part of their future success. The desire to learn is strong, and helps overcome the lack of resources, the poverty at home, the threat of AIDS.

Among the teachers participating in the Gauteng Province group was Illinois teacher Michael Levesque from LEAP Learning Systems/CPS in Chicago.  Joanne Dempsey, Econ Illinois President, served as faculty leader for that group.  “Watching the classroom teachers perform their duties provided fantastic opportunities to see … caring teaching professionals doing what they could to impart hope, knowledge and skills,” said Levesque, noting the dedication of the teachers in spite of the lack of training and resources.  But, Levesque also noted a growing atmosphere of impatience among the young adults of South Africa, as they recognize the inequalities that still exist and grow frustrated with slow change.

Children in a Soweto Township shanty town eagerly wait for candy from U.S. teachersDuring the tour, the teachers met with education officials; visited a gold mine to learn about the role gold has played in the South African economy; visited the Apartheid Museum and Soweto Township, site of the uprisings that overturned the apartheid system; and spent an afternoon at a home for children whose parents have died from HIV-AIDS.   But the highlights of the tour were visits to schools, where they observed economics lessons being taught, visited with the students to learn about their interests and their lives, and met with principals and teachers to discuss the challenges and opportunities they see for their students.

Students at Morris Isaacson School listen attentively to the lesson.One teacher noted that since returning to the U.S., she has been in a “South Africa frame of mind” – she cannot get the images of what she experienced out of her thoughts.  She summed up the experience in these words:

The whole class at Tarlton School poses with a group of U.S. teachers.“Of course there were experiences outside of the schools that affected me immeasurably.  The little girl, Nonhle, at Cotlands, grabbed my heart and has yet to let go.  She makes me wonder what I can do to help children like her who have everything a child can want, except a family.  Walking through Soweto and being mobbed for a bag of DumDums by children who are so affected by HIV that they are often heads of households by the time they are 10 years old, made me wonder just how much we need to be happy.  Having conversations with South Africans we met in the hotels made me realize just how difficult their race struggles still are and just how far we have come in the United States.

A U.S. map helps South African learners understand where each of the U.S. visitors lives – and provides a new teaching tool for the classroom.

“I have challenged myself to not forget.  I want to continue to value what I have and how well off I am at home and at school.  I want to stay in this South Africa state of mind.”