AUSTRALIA-AFRICA: Tyro teachers try a new culture

In a first for Australia, trainee teachers at Monash University completed a teaching round in schools in South Africa. A few minutes drive from Monash University's campus in Johannesburg is a shanty town with 60,000 impoverished people whose children attend a local primary school that uses shipping containers as classrooms.

It was at the Zandspruit settlement school where the 10 diploma of education students from Monash's main campus in Melbourne first realised they were in a different world of learning, where the resources were minimal or non-existent, where a teacher might face 50 pupils with five to a desk; where the chances of the majority completing secondary school and going on to university were almost zero.

"The kids have such high aspirations to be doctors or lawyers but so many will never achieve that," says Peter Crowcroft. "And not just because it is difficult to get into the courses but because the opportunities in a class of 50, no matter that the teachers are inspiring and motivated, are just not there."

Crowcroft is one of 10 trainee teachers from Monash who spent three weeks in South Africa last month undertaking a teaching round in schools around Johannesburg. As he says, the experience changed their perspective.

"You go to a school where the classrooms are shipping containers and you look across the valley and there's a wealthy golf course resort. Yet I could see myself teaching in a school like that; it would be very fulfilling to feel you are helping students who do not have the same opportunities as others."

The diploma of education students spent a day at a combined primary-high school called Matla in a highly disadvantaged area 20 minutes from the Monash campus. It was at Matla where Amy Ogidn says she witnessed "the best teaching I've ever seen".

"It was a real eye-opener: classes with absolutely no resources, a chalk board, a piece of chalk, lucky if there was one chair per student if any chairs at all, but just incredible teaching.

"In the primary school, I saw one of the most inspirational teachers and her enthusiasm had every kid literally on the edge of their seats. It showed me you can have all the fancy technology in the world yet the quality of the teacher is the crucial element in a classroom..."

The Monash trainees selected to take part in the trial overseas programme are graduates in arts, business, IT, science and the visual arts. With financial assistance from Monash's study abroad programme, the cost including air fares and accommodation was only about A$2,000 (US$1,776) while the 'practicum' or teaching round in Johannesburg involved three weeks teaching in a state or private school.

"The students were grouped three or four to a school to encourage reflection and collaboration," says Graham Parr, a senior lecturer at Monash's faculty of education and coordinator of the practicum who went with them to Johannesburg. "The cultural orientation was a crucial dimension to the teaching round and the students had trips to Soweto, the Apartheid Museum, the Cradle of Humankind and the Walter Sisulu Monument.

"They also participated in community engagement programmes run by Monash South Africa student volunteers, such as an after-school homework programme at a community centre next to the Zandspruit settlement, as well as the Saturday morning school at the Monash campus for 150 children from disadvantaged communities. As you can imagine, this was a teaching practicum with a difference."

The students also went to a night time rugby game, visited a rooftop cultural market and spent a day on safari in Pilanesdorp National Park in an effort to get "a fully rounded sense of South African culture", Parr says.

For some of the Monash students, including Peter Crowcroft and Amy Ogdin, their teaching round took place in private schools that were highly privileged and in stark contrast to the settlement school or Matla.

"We were getting these glimpses of poor communities and learning opportunities there and then going back to our private schools or partially funded public schools and seeing this amazing diversity and observing these vastly different socio-economic conditions," Crowcroft says.

"The kids I taught were all very interested in Australia and one of them once asked me, 'Is it true you can sleep with your door unlocked in Australia?' In South Africa, everywhere you go you see homes with electric fences or surrounded by barbed wire..."

Amy Ogdin was based at a private school called Maragon - an international school with students from mostly white, wealthy families. It was, she says, "a massive contrast to the settlement school".

"What struck me was that the way we teach in Australia is really good! The things we are doing such as team teaching and inquiry-based teaching are really positive. I found the students at Maragon weren't used to having class discussions or sitting in a circle, or the teacher changing the classroom around.

"When I introduced those into the classes, the kids were blown away: they didn't know how to have a class discussion and they really loved it. 'That was really great, can we do that again', they said."

* See our feature "A jewel in Monash's crown"