Every year in May a group of primary school student teachers from the University of St Gallen, a teacher training college in Switzerland, arrives in White River. Their training calls for three weeks practical work in a school where the medium of tuition is English. Unlike some of their less adventurous fellow students who choose to go to England, Ireland, Canada or America, the South African contingent is intent not only on fulfilling their practicum task, but immersing themselves in a completely different culture and exploring a different – very different – education system. As such, their choice of institution is one of the many schools based in KaNyamazane, Kabokweni and Masoyi that are part of this assistant teachership programme.
The first week is taken up with orientating and inculturating the students to prepare them for what lies ahead. Soon after they land in South Africa, they have a bicycle tour of Soweto, spend a night at the vibey and ever-hospitable Soweto Backpackers, and after a visit to the Apartheid Museum, they then wend their way to the Lowveld. Based for the next few days at that wonderfully tranquil and welcoming eyrie called Petra Mountain Retreat at the foot of Legogote, their time is taken up with lectures, a township tour (where they taste ‘chicken dust’ for the first time and get caught up in the passion of the Zulu dance with the Siyathokoza dance group and learn a few moves themselves), and a visit to Uplands Prep for a taste of independent school education.
Then, they are in for a three week roller coaster ride, working and living in the township: a myriad new impressions; the culture shock of large classes of children, many of them in survival mode, and limited teaching and learning resources; the Bushfire Festival in Swaziland; a weekend in the Kruger Park; exploring the Panorama route. This year’s group were exposed to teachers’ strike action. To their credit, and that of their principals and host teachers who guided them through it unscathed, they rose to the occasion and rolled up their sleeves to help. No sugar-coating of the challenges that we face – just real and raw South Africa in all her glory!
And the children! The students are amazed at their joy for life and the way they always find a reason to sing, dance and laugh – a Lebensfreude that is all too absent in European schools. Who could not be moved by a small hand slipping into yours and a shy “thank you for teaching me”; or a farewell note on a page torn out of an exercise book saying “when you guys are here everything is blooming flowers”? The impact the Swiss students make could (and without a doubt often does) ignite a spark in a child’s mind that inspires him to great heights and a potentially bright future.
The programme’s success depends on committed principals, welcoming staff and caring host families, dedication from the likes of Netto Maluka of Mbombela Tours who always goes the extra mile, and the belief by their university (especially Michael Wirrer) in the importance of exposure to different education systems to broaden the mind and change perceptions and perspectives. It’s a win-win situation all round!
It’s a programme that’s culture-bridging. It’s mind-expanding….and mind-boggling too! It’s frustrating and challenging. Its fun and adventurous, and so much more….. it’s life-changing.