Sara Thorne is a first grade teacher at P.S. 29 in Brooklyn, New York. In the summers of 2013 and 2014, Sara traveled to East London as a South Africa Partners Teacher Fellow. The Teacher Fellows worked directly with teachers and children at Pefferville Primary School, an under-resourced public elementary school that serves children from the township area and informal settlements west of East London. The Fellows were chosen for their experience and expertise in primary literacy. They had a great deal to share with their South Africa colleagues and the students at Pefferville. As Sara discovered, they also had a great deal to learn.
Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Truly speaking, it was after I went to South Africa that I became what I am now.” His words certainly ring true for me and I only have South Africa Partners to thank. My last two summers have been highlighted with life-changing trips to South Africa. My colleagues and I traveled to South Africa with the intention of sharing best teaching practices but little did I know that my experiences there would lead to learning best life practices. From the moment we entered the country, we were greeted by gracious host after gracious host. Smiling faces soon became new friends and colleagues. And every visit always included tea!
I’ll never forget my first visit to Pefferville Primary School. We all sat in a circle, South African teachers and American teachers, side by side. Before I even had time to read the temperature of the room, Kathy, a veteran Grade 1 teacher, stood up to speak. As the unofficial teacher ambassador, she made it clear that we were welcome. She told us about the staff and the students. She told us about their strengths and struggles. We made connections and she made us feel at home.
That summer we spent time in their classrooms. We saw teachers that loved teaching and students that loved learning. We talked with the teachers about having too many students and not enough resources, something we all knew too well. We shared ideas about teaching phonics with the students’ names and reading with songs. I even introduced the second graders to The Beatles. We taught the teachers and students how to turn and talk. This way, all 50 students would have a chance to hear their voice and share their ideas throughout the day.
We also spent time at Pefferville outside of the classroom. We were able to watch students eat lunch, play and socialize. This was eye opening. The students were on their own and independent and everything was okay. It made us wonder about the constant supervision our own students receive.
The idea that South African children are very independent was immediately confirmed on a trip to Future Leaders, an Early Childhood Development Center. There in the 2- and 3-year-old room, I witnessed a 2-year-old open the straw from her juice box and put the straw inside the tiny hole of the juice box. She then proceeded to open the Tupperware that held her lunch. This is a task that I often see my first graders struggle with every day! I wondered, “How was this possible?” and “How can my students become more independent?”
While spending our days with teachers and children, we were able to experience the many cultures of South Africa in the evening. From visiting different neighborhoods to going to the local restaurants, shops and beaches to enjoying a traditional meal at the school principal’s home, we enjoyed every minute of it. Everywhere we went the people we encountered were kind and generous and welcoming.
Before I knew it, our trip was coming to an end. In just under three weeks, I had had a lifetime of experiences. I saw South Africa’s history documented in museums. I saw the many ways that South Africans live. I saw the beauty of the land and its animals. But most importantly, I met educators and students and men and women that put all of their love and energy into making South Africa a better place. I came to realize a few things from the people that I met along the way that have contributed to what I am now. South Africans and Americans have more in common that we realize. Be grateful for the resources that you have every day. Your life is not measured by how much you have, but what you do with it. American children can be more independent. And every conversation is better with tea!