Interviewed by Lillie Marshall from Around the World “L”
Stephanie Convicer is a fourth grade teacher at John D. Runkle School in Brookline, Massachusetts. With the encouragement of a colleague, she decided to join South Africa Partners’ 2014 Educator Tour to Johannesburg, East London and Cape Town. Following is Stephanie’s interview with Lillie Marshall for the “Around the World L Travel Blog,” which you can read in full here. Stephanie reflects on her travel to South Africa and the lessons she learned.
A: My travels have certainly impacted me as a teacher. Showing teachers in South Africa different teaching strategies re-invigorated me to use more strategies in my own classroom and to explore newer strategies. My time touring the different schools and educational programs in South Africa also re-ignited my appreciation of the importance of education and the value of what I do each day in my career.
Beyond that, showing my travels to my class has added a powerful layer of thinking more globally about other cultures and children around the world. We even had a couple of opportunities to Skype with the class and teacher I worked with in East London. It’s been impactful not only for me as a teacher, but also for my students, in sharing this travel experience.
John Padula is a middle school social studies teacher at Boston Public. Through Fund for Teachers, he was able to travel with South Africa Partners’ 2013 Educator Tour to Johannesburg, East London and Cape Town. Read an excerpt of his interview with Lillie Marshall for the “Around the World L Travel Blog.” For the full article, visit Lillie’s blog here to hear more about John’s experience in South Africa.
Interviewed by Lillie Marshall from Around the World “L”
A: All the arrangements for the tour were handled through a group called South Africa Partners (SA Partners). This is a non-profit organization whose aim is the “development of long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships between the United States and South Africa in the areas of health, education, and economic development.” They offer yearly tours of South Africa, and the theme of our tour was “Overcoming Apartheid’s Legacy: Education Reform in the New South Africa.” We traveled for two weeks across most of the coast of South Africa, from Johannesburg to Cape Town, examining local schools, universities and key sites and landmarks from South Africa’s turbulent history. It was truly a tour made for me! SA Partners offered this tour for just under $5500 and the FFT grant covered $5000.
A: During our tour, we visited schools where there were not enough desks or books, and where sometimes there were over 50 students in one classroom. It has definitely made me appreciate all the resources we have here in the US. On the other hand, talking with students who walk for miles, just to go to a better school – and who are happy to do it just so they can have a better education, has made me put an even stronger value on a good education.
I feel the images, interviews and experiences I returned with have definitely enhanced my lessons in both World Geography and Civil Rights.
September 3, 2013
This summer was an extremely eventful one for me: in between vacationing in Maine, driving to a wedding in Chicago, and buying my first home, I participated in a two-week education tour of South Africa this past July. I first want to acknowledge two fantastic organizations that made this trip possible: a Boston based organization called South Africa Partners and a national organization called Fund for Teachers. For BTR residents who are beginning their journey as teachers, you will find that one thing that Boston does well is to provide unique opportunities for professional growth. Fund for Teachers contributes up to $5,000 – $10,000 for individual teachers or teacher teams to design and conduct research projects. The goal of these projects is to participate in a dynamic learning experience that you can bring back into the classroom in order to enhance the learning of your students.
The purpose of my trip was to explore the experience of students and educators in post-apartheid South Africa so I could deepen my understanding of inequity in education. As a civics teacher, I struggle internally with teaching my students about the importance of the Constitution, equal rights, and justice when it is obvious that de facto racial segregation still exists in our schools. How do you inspire students to believe there are no limits to what they can achieve while at the same time explaining to them that the cultural assumptions of success and opportunity in this country were built to exclude them?
One way my curriculum attempts to address issues of inequity is by actively engaging students in the process of having their thoughts and ideas heard by the power structure. The culminating project for my class is a Participatory Action Research (PAR) project. For the project, students identify an issue in their community they are passionate about. They then partner with a community-based organization to research the problem, interview key stakeholders, design surveys, and present recommendations for the best strategies to address those issues. My trip to South Africa was an effort to replicate the PAR project—in essence to make a living, breathing “teacher model” of what it should look like. (FYI new residents: if your BTR experience is anything like mine, you and PAR will be the very best of friends by the end of the year!)
During my trip, I was able to interview many students, faculty, and education officials from a wide range of schools in South Africa. From a bird’s eye view, the equity issues in South African education look very similar to ours. Some progress has been made, but economic and social alienation of students of color leave many unable to access a truly equitable educational experience. The frameworks of institutional inequity also look very familiar. Many high schools in South Africa walk and talk like your typical suburban school. At a school I visited, Stirling High School in East London, the majority of students are white (in a country where 80% of the people are black) although the school does have a substantial population of black and multi-racial students. An abundance of school clubs, sports teams, athletic fields, and good technology is followed by the implicit assumption that all students will score high enough on their matriculation exams (matrics for short) and attend the best universities. Contrast this to the high school located near the poor township area in East London. John Bisseker High School is the quintessential inner-city high school: sprawling and under-resourced, the vast majority of its students are of color, the classrooms overcrowded, the resources and technology very limited.
One point of difference (sort of) between the United States and South Africa is how de facto segregation is achieved. In the United States, public education is universal and free, but both where you can afford to live and the abundance of private school options serve as major causes of inequity in access to schools. In the South African context, education is also universal, but each school charges fees because limited government funding for schools is spread so thin. School fees are an understandably thorny issue in South Africa. While it is illegal to deny admission to a student based on inability to pay, the registrars of schools with higher fees are very savvy at figuring out who can afford them. The best resourced schools charge the highest fees, and the under-resourced, overcrowded schools attended by the majority of township students charge lower fees. Thus, many people view fees as a discriminatory practice, as they are a way to severely limit access to well-resourced schools for poorer families, which are disproportionately black. Fees at the best-resourced school are affordable for a middle to lower middle class family, but an unemployment rate of 40% in South Africa makes our hemming and hawing about the unemployment rate and the erosion of the middle class look ridiculous.
The inequities spill into higher education as well. At historically black Fort Hare (the university Nelson Mandela attended) there is a huge emphasis on human rights, community service, and teaching. However, this comes at the expense of school funding and research dollars that go to more historically advantaged white universities such as University of Cape Town. At Buffalo City College there is a more “practical” approach to education. The school provides career training and night classes for a population of mostly poor, mostly black adult students. Their facilities have been greatly upgraded due to the government’s push to create more jobs in engineering fields, but the courses are very under-enrolled because there have been educational gaps for so many of the students.
I realize I am painting a bleak picture about the inequities we all see in our schools, but so many South African students expressed to me optimism about the future. I’ve heard a million times the BTR mantra about great teachers being a major factor in reversing the achievement gap, but that is also exactly what I heard from so many students. Great teachers do matter. I asked an entire classroom of seniors at Bisseker High School how they managed to make it through their senior year despite all of the personal struggles they had faced. I thought I would hear a lot more about family involvement and other factors, but the universal answer was how great teachers at Bisseker were. For them, it wasn’t just about the pedagogy or the lessons; more than that, it was simply the fact that they felt the teachers cared.
As I reflect on the new school year and how my South Africa experience can create new learning for my students, I keep coming back to the idea that BTR blogger and Cohort 11 Resident Leaf Elhai recently wrote about so eloquently: the stark contrast between the educational equity we are striving to provide all of our students and the reality that inequity is an enormous problem we face in Boston. When friends and family ask me about South Africa, I jokingly say I don’t want to give them the cliché answer that the trip “changed my life”—but something really did happen to me over there.
South Africa has motivated me to think more deeply about the entire system of education in our country, about privilege and opportunity, to acknowledge the complexity of the issues and to struggle—really struggle—with my assumptions. I think much of our crisis in education fundamentally boils down to the fear of otherness and the educational choices people are making for their children. Sadly, I feel that too many people look at urban public school districts like Boston and say “not for my child.” They hear the language we use to talk about the “achievement gap,” “low expectations,” “turnaround schools,” “under-resourced,” “bad teachers,” “gang problems,” “disadvantaged.” Many are sympathetic, but at the end of the day, our society continues to reflect a very fractured and segregated system.
I’m at the point in my life where I’m watching the children of people in my cohort grow up on Facebook. I myself am hoping to embark on the journey of parenthood soon. The question that I’ve thought a lot about since I’ve been back is: As a teacher who is intensely aware of the achievement gap and all of the challenges my students and the Boston schools face, would I be willing to send my children through Boston Public Schools? I realize that this is a very personal decision for many parents. Everyone wants the very best education for his or her child, yet not everyone has the privilege to make a decision between what is offered and what can be accessed via financial means. South Africa helped me to realize that attaining true educational equity will necessitate that more of us let go of our fears and perceptions about “inner city schools.” That many more of us embrace the challenges our communities face, work together to solve them, and proudly send our children to public schools that we’re collectively invested in seeing successful.