5 things to know about volunteer teaching in South Africa

The concept of volunteer teaching overseas is hardly a new one. People have jumped at the opportunity to live and work in a foreign country while helping the community since travel was made relatively easy in the 20th century.

People usually associate teaching in a foreign country with paid work, through programs like Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), or initiatives like the UN Peace Corps.

Both of these options need you to commit some time, and also require training. However, there are other options for teaching students, gap year students, teaching interns and other folks interested in travel and education. You don’t have to sign up to leave home for months. You can also volunteer your skills to help local teachers for a few weeks in a classroom overseas, while also enjoying the holiday of a lifetime!

1. Who should volunteer to teach overseas?

Simply, anyone can volunteer as a teaching assistant overseas – as long as you like the idea of volunteering your skills as an educator in a community that could use your help, there is an education volunteer project out there that will suit you.

The aim of volunteer teaching overseas is not to take over the functions of local teachers. The aim is to uplift the teachers with the exchange of ideas, expose them to international standards and methods, and to empower them to improve the quality of education on an ongoing basis.

Volunteers will assist local teachers with remedial teaching, help prepare lessons, assist the teacher with specific needs, give a lesson on the country they came from and so on. There’s much value in just allowing a teacher in what is usually a very overcrowded classroom to take a break to rest or study while volunteers entertain the children in a game or singalong!

2. Why should I become a volunteer teacher in South Africa?

South Africa is a fantastic country to volunteer as a teacher. Not only is it a beautiful country to explore before, after and during your time as a volunteer, but it really needs your help. The 2011 Progress in International Reading Literature Study (PIRLS) revealed that many junior school learners in South Africa have not yet acquired basic literacy skills. Therefore, despite the fact that the South African government has made 60% of schools free, and that nearly 9 million learners receive a free school lunch every day, the students are still not getting the education that they need in order to graduate high school, and get tertiary education or a decent job.

 In fact, less than 50% of children who start school in South Africa write their final high school examination! This isn’t a great outlook for a country where unemployment and poverty is rife. A proper education and teaching system is essential to overcome these challenges.

Since the end of apartheid in 1994, the number of children who attend school has risen sharply. But despite numerous initiatives, the education system still produces poorly prepared high school graduates and a high number of drop-outs. By the age of 8, 80% of learners in South Africa face a large learning deficit.

The challenges facing children in the education system are numerous and overwhelming. For example, there are many orphans and child-headed families in South Africa because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic – many of whom battle to go to school. Also, because of a corrupt and inefficient government, resources are often not distributed properly, or even at all! There was a case a few years ago where about 6000 textbooks were not delivered to the underprivileged schools expecting them – and they were then found dumped in a remote area! To date, no real reason has been given for this criminal behavior!

Students and learners in South Africa also have to face and overcome circumstances of abuse, poverty, and crime on a daily basis and without proper assistance. Teachers and principals also do not have the required knowledge for the areas in which they teach and are failing their students, through no fault of their own. Finally, many students live in rural areas or townships, and they come from families who have little or no education themselves and do not encourage their children to learn.

It all adds up to the fact that children are not being provided with a pathway out of poverty. By becoming a teaching volunteer in South Africa, you possess valuable skills that will empower these children and provide them with the tools they need to make it in life.

3. How can I help communities as a teaching volunteer?

As a volunteer teacher or education intern, you will have the opportunity to work alongside local staff assisting with the preparation of lessons, leading small groups in discussions about your home country and about their own country and customs, introducing modern methods to the teachers, and generally taking some of the pressure off overworked and underpaid local teachers.

Many teachers in underprivileged communities are a rare breed – despite having limited resources and a possible lack of training and skills of their own, they are selflessly dedicated to helping children to learn and grow. Khaya’s Izizwe Projects in the township of Walmer in Port Elizabeth is a great place to help the community and engage with the youngsters.

As a volunteer teacher, you can positively influence the community education system as a whole by helping to support these hardworking souls with your skills and knowledge, give them ideas on lesson planning and course materials, and many more. You will be much more important than just a foreign stranger appearing in a classroom. A great volunteer will have valuable input for both students AND teachers, even if it’s only for a few weeks.

More importantly than being a great or experienced teacher is  being patient and positive, being willing to offer plenty of personal attention and encouragement, and taking an interest in the kids’ and their families’ lifestyle and culture.

Kids need plenty of love and attention of their own families and communities - but it’s also inspiring to them to know that they matter in the bigger scheme of things – in a global society that cares about them, their education and their educators. You’re a part of that larger society, and you can help inspire them.

4. What should I bring to my volunteer teaching project?

If you’re currently or recently a student or a teacher, you’re probably used to high-tech modern multimedia teaching methods and aids at schools. These are pretty much taken for granted in modern schools and universities. As a volunteer teacher in a developing country like South Africa, you will probably have just a plain chalkboard and the sound of your own voice!

Visual aids might be limited to whatever you can find nearby. The best resource you will have as a volunteer teacher is - yourself. People around the world thrive on novelty, and kids raised away from the influences of iPhones and satellite TV are certainly no different. Be prepared to draw on your own experiences and interests to bring the lessons alive.

 South Africa has plenty of resources in less impoverished areas where you should be able to find and purchase material to educate and entertain your classes in the township. Most projects will not expect dnations , but it’s good to know your donations will be appreciated. Make sure you consult with your volunteer service provider first to make sure you know how and what to donate to a project effectively!

 Leave space in your luggage for magazines and comics, stickers, card and board games, and photos of your own family and friends if possible – these items won’t be too heavy, and they’ll be a huge source of interest to youngsters and their teachers that have little to no access to luxuries. Any materials you can provide will also be used by the existing teachers to complement their lessons, after you’ve gone.

5. Have fun as a volunteer teacher!

The prospect of volunteering in countries like South Africa that are undergoing dramatic social changes, can be pretty daunting. You will face challenges as a volunteer that will test you both as a person AND as a teacher. The most important thing to know is that there is an enormous spirit of optimism in these communities despite their lack of resources, and a lot of enthusiasm to learn. 

You’ll also meet incredible like-minded people and have fantastic experiences – volunteer teachers are allowed to enjoy their time off as well as students! Khaya Volunteer Projects has numerous volunteers in various fields from all over the world and our base in Port Elizabeth is a great place to enjoy some sightseeing on your time off.


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