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Tom Bartlett - General Teaching Projects in South Africa

"There you go Tom, this is your class, good luck" and with that, Jane, the teacher of the neighbouring Grade 2 class, was off. This I was not prepared for! Twenty or so 10 year-olds, all staring right at me, waiting for me to make the next move. Any illusions I might have been under that I was here in a supplementary capacity instantly disappeared; I was to be these kids' one and only teacher for the next six months.

To begin with, the task facing me seemed hopelessly daunting. I had been plunged in at the deep end, assuming the role of full-time teacher, responsible for the education of two dozen 10 year-old children. What meaningful difference could I, a solitary student with no formal teaching qualifications, possibly make to the development of these kids?

It was only when I had listened to some other volunteers and local teachers talk about the problems they had been faced with and how they had overcome them that it dawned on me; the main reason I had volunteered to teach in South Africa was to challenge myself and this was as tough a challenge as I could possibly have asked for. I had the support of others in a similar position and using the advice and encouragement I received as a result of our conversations, I quickly became more confident in the classroom and very soon I was revelling in the responsibility that came with teaching my class.

Teaching is a highly rewarding job. It gave me as sense of fulfilment the like of which I had never felt before. To bring smiles to the faces of so many children when they understand a basic concept in English or when they successfully write out their 8 times table is a truly wonderful experience. However, even this paled into insignificance compared to the time when one of my pupils, who until recently had a very limited grasp of English, walked up to me at the of the lesson and exclaimed "Tom, today was nice."

Volunteer teachers are most definitely making a difference to the kids here at Reahlahlwa school. A shining example of the positive impact volunteers are having came in November, when volunteers from Reahlahlwa and the nearby Lapalala school, Refhihle, arranged to play an inter-school football match. This was the first match Reahlahlwa had ever played and the arrival of the other school's team was greeted by wild cheering and singing as nearly two hundred children, of ages varying between 6 and 16, raced towards the school gate to greet the visitors. The match took over an hour to get underway as everyone wanted to play and team selection was a long, slow process, but once it got going, singing and cheering could be heard all around as the entire school converged on the football pitch to roar on their team. Reahlahlwa won the match 1-0 and for a week afterwards the talk at the school was all about that match, one that will live long in the memory of all those who watched it.

One of the principle benefits of the volunteer scheme here is that it gives the children a glimpse of the world beyond the isolation and deprivation of the township, filling them with excitement and injecting into them a sense of desire and ambition. Last month I threw an end of term party for my class with music, chocolate and sweets, amongst other things. Several of my class had never experienced such treats and the broad smiles on their faces indicated their delight. Afterwards, their appetites well satisfied, several of the children ran up to me, proclaiming; "when you go to England, Tom, we go too."

Personally, I am certain that there are several kids in my class with the potential to achieve great things in their lives. The excitement they exhibit when given the chance to read and write, coupled with their unflappable determination to finish any task they are set fills me with confidence about their future.

Admittedly, their eagerness to learn and make progress can make it hard to be certain that pupils have properly understood a particular concept. Initially, I found it easy to lapse into speaking too quickly, meaning that I often failed to make myself absolutely clear. Yet, each time I tried to ascertain from the class whether they had understood something properly, I would be met with rows and rows of nodding heads and calls of "yes, sir". Poor test results showed me that a more thorough approach was required.

During my time at Reahlahlwa, I have found that practice does indeed make perfect. While repetition may be dull and boring, it is vitally important that the class is made to write new English words down several times, and also to repeatedly identify these words from amongst a group of similar words. Games such as word-searches can be useful for doing this as they test pupils' understanding whilst maintaining their interest.

Overall, during the six months that I have been teaching at Reahlahlwa, all the permanent teachers have noticed a marked improvement in the quality of both the written and spoken English of the majority of the children at the school, particularly amongst the younger ones. This bodes very well for the future and with the establishment of a regular stream of volunteer teachers to Reahlahlwa over the next few years; I believe we can build further upon the significant progress already made.

Tom Bartlett

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