Today marks two weeks since I began my first official day at Zwelibanzi Highschool. When I arrived that first morning, I was surprised to learn that Mr. Sithole, a slightly reserved and middle-aged mathematics teacher who I was set to shadow for the day, had decided that I was ready to teach in the classroom by myself. This surprise news presented itself in the form of Mr. Sithole hurriedly handing me a tattered algebra text book and a broken piece of chalk with roughly forty-five seconds remaining before first-period bell would sound.
"...Where should I sit for my observation?"
I asked him in the hopes that his hasty gesture was not implying what I feared it may be. He waved at his freshly printed copy of the day's class schedule and mumbled about an error in the schedule that listed him as teaching in two separate classes simultaneously for the period. It was at that point that I realized every block of seating real-estate in the cramped classroom was occupied by seventy-four learners with seventy-four pairs of eyes glued directly onto me. Mr. Sithole must have noticed the deer in high-beams gaze on my face because he quickly scribbled down some review problems for me to share on the chalkboard to buy me some time while I collected myself. Earlier on during a morning assembly, Principal Maseko heralded me to the entire staff and student body as "The Wizard of Mathematics" and proclaimed that I was here to solve everyone's problems in math. I was flattered by our principal's confidence in my ability, but I am afraid there's a chance that unfortunately hyperbolic introduction may have influenced Mr. Sithole's decision to leave me unsupervised with the grade ten students while he attended to his grade twelve calculus class.
Have you ever noticed that when you're in a new place, your brain will persistently be scanning your environment for familiarity? Almost like the needle on a compass reorienting itself northward, your mind is constantly on the hunt for patterns that it recognizes. Before my first day teaching, I had yet to experience the culture shock that everyone I talked to who had spent significant time in other countries warned me that I would surely encounter. Sure, life is different here, especially in the township I am teaching in. Yet, my mind had done a fantastic job of adjusting to my surroundings and making sense of my experience so far. Honestly, the thing that made me feel the furthest from home throughout my first two weeks in South Africa was looking up at night expecting to see my favorite constellations and instead being greeted by their southern hemisphere neighbors. I was overly optimistic to think that I was familiar enough to get off to smooth start. Sure enough, my first day teaching brought a continent-sized chuck of cultural adjustment challenges hurtling my way.
I greeted the class with my severely limited Zulu vocabulary, "Sanibonani! ninjani?" They all chuckled at my poor pronunciation, but I hoped I had earned some credibility for at least making an effort to speak in their primary tongue. However fortunately for my sake, mathematics are taught in English in township high schools so I had more than met my foreign language quota for the day. I glanced at the curriculum schedule for the class and began to come up with a structure for the lesson in my head. I asked if a volunteer could come up to the board to attempt the first review problem. My question was met with no words and no raised hands. I waited few seconds and then asked them again while scanning the sea of students for some kind of response. Finally, a bite
"Teacher, we cannot do this one,"
I was informed by a young girl who was in obvious need of some motivation. A pet peeve of mine is when the word "cannot" is used in reference to attempting anything mathematics related. Often that response will spur me on into a rant about how utterly disappointing it will be denied the deep rooted joys of Descartes, Euler, and Fourier simply because you think you cannot do math. This time however, I decided that a simple invitation to not give up so easily would prove to be a little more well received. The students sat mostly in silence with perplexed facial expressions, while a few remained strong in insisting that what I was asking from them was impossible. Trying to error on side of strictness instead of friendliness, I told them something along theme that they should be ashamed for not being able to factorize a simple trinomial after just recently studying that topic. I was fairly upset until I suspended my frantic mental lesson planning and actually analyzed the problem for myself. I discovered that somewhere along the notebook to chalkboard transcription process a minus sign was exchanged with a plus sign and that I had just spent a large helping of our initial time together commanding the students to factorize a non-factorisable trinomial. My first act of math wizardry was to make algebra slightly more confusing and I think some of the class wished my second act was to bring their real teacher back.
I was frustrated to be abandoned in the classroom so quickly and having to learn a lot on my own, but I knew it was not the direct the fault of the teachers or administrators. Zwelibanzi Highschool is a beacon of educational excellence in the local community and as result it would be a severe understatement to say they have an overflow of students seeking to attend the school. The staff at Zwelibanzi hates to turn students away from enrolling so they do the best they can to accommodate a very large population of learners. There over 1300 students enrolled this year, but only 19 classrooms! To prevent a potential apocalypse of foot traffic, the students are required remain in the same classroom for most of the day while the teachers scramble to travel from room to room while following a daily changing schedule and sometimes hopping back and forth between two classrooms during the same period when their itinerary demands it. The days are long and the classrooms are crowded and boiling hot, especially in the summer months of January and February. This is not education for the faint of heart. And yet, everyday the understaffed team of educators somehow manages to offer of a well-rounded school experience for their students with minimal resources.
I finished teaching the class on my first day wondering if I would be taking on those students for the rest of the year. I secretly hoped that I would be placed in different classes and have a fresh start with a new group of students after floundering my way through our first period together. As it would turn out, I am responsible for instructing two sections of grade ten math (Or maths, as they call it here); one section is the class I got off to the shaky start with and the other is a section with eighty-one students in it! (I am also assisting some of the English teachers with various lessons by adding an American perspective in class, which has been interesting as well as humorous so far, but that's a story for another time). As a recovering perfectionist, I am learning to accept that this year may take me far from where my idealistic ambitions anticipated. After many stumbles, I am slowly starting to adjust to the rhythm of teaching at Zwelibanzi. The more time I spend at the school, the more I appreciate what an incredibly unique and beautiful institution I am working at. I do not believe I could have chosen a better placement than Zwelibanzi. Instructing here is going to be more of a challenge than I expected and my experience will certainly be chaotic at times, but I am finding it hard to remember a time when I have been more excited to teach.