From July 18 to August 8, 2015, I had a wonderful opportunity to work in South Africa as an English Language Specialist. My host was Molteno Institute of Language and Literacy. The assignment was to share classroom instructional techniques with Molteno’s public school curriculum trainers. Mostly we worked on ways to heighten student engagement and develop classroom strategies to improve literacy. Our three weeks together were productive and packed with insights.

Three-hour workshop PPT reduced to a 7-minute video. Original PPT here – SA ECL project PPT.

The project allowed me to see South African life in four cities, three regions, and a dozen township schools. Specifically, I saw Polokwane in northern Limpopo, Johannesburg and Pretoria in the more central Guateng, and Port Elizabeth in Eastern Cape. Though distant, these communities shared a common culture of immense pride for the socioeconomic progress of post-Apartheid South Africa.

The reasons for South Africans to feel proud were understandable. The cities are beautiful, growing and increasingly diverse. Nationwide countless major corporations and brands have established businesses. The middle-class has expanded and prospered. People from all walks of life display genuine grace and kindness. Feeling optimistic in this bustling country made sense.

Despite metropolitan successes, the black townships I visited remained impoverished. One township school lacked the funds to purchase enough chairs so, daily, three students had to sit on carpet.

PE Chairless Kids

Carpet lottery in Port Elizabeth (August 5, 2015).

One Port Elizabeth school had a looming sewage problem that meant complete closure in the coming days. Rainfall with no drainage left another Port Elizabeth school with standing water that created mud, insect and other unpleasant issues. All of the schools I saw had at least a few broken windows and generally weak security. However, the universal concern was large class-sizes, since 70 students to one teacher was not unusual.

Crowded Port Elizabeth classroom (August 5, 2015)

Crowded Port Elizabeth classroom (August 5, 2015)

The list of needed improvements for township schools was long. Though, as bleak as I may have made the situation sound, all was not lost. One thing certainly did not need to change: The collective sense of discipline students exhibited.

At all ages kids appeared to have a sense of discipline. In other words, they were naturally attentive with self-control. This was not the result of punishment or a show for visitors. It was just the way of behaving in a classroom. I was impressed. Even the pre-kindergarteners sat focused, ready to learn, and indifferent to the presence of strangers.

Focused students in Port Elizabeth (August 5, 2015).

Focused students in Port Elizabeth (August 5, 2015).

The apparent self-control was an encouraging sight and common in all township schools. I say encouraging because classroom learning and socioeconomic improvements take discipline. Consider how reading and writing necessitate discipline with each word read or written.These acquired and practiced skills require methodical control and focus. A child’s ability to exercise self-control in a classroom is fundamental for academic success and therefore a valuable ability that transfers to society as a whole.

I asked township teachers how it was possible to achieve such disciplined behavior. None had a clear answer. But one teacher suspected my answer was in Nelson Mandela’s decree that, “Discipline is the most powerful weapon to get liberation.” I had to agree and was heartened to see the value of Mr. Mandela’s words redeemed in South Africa’s township students. Indeed, “No country can develop unless its citizens are educated.”

Pretoria township students (July 2015)

Pretoria township students (July 24, 2015)