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What I Learned in South Africa That Matters in Alabama

February 2, 2010 | Tags: rigorous standards & expectations, guest blogger
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By Betsy Rogers
Guest Blogger

I recently had the opportunity to travel for the fourth time as a People to People citizen ambassador. This time our destination was South Africa -- a country I had longed to visit – and the experience was more powerful than I could have ever imagined.

If you’re not familiar with People to People (PTP), the program was founded in 1956 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower as part of the U.S. Information Agency. The purpose has always been to enhance international understanding and friendship by promoting the exchange of ideas and experiences directly among peoples of different countries and diverse cultures. It’s important that Eisenhower, one of the great warriors of the 20th century, offered this explanation for his support: "I have long believed, as have many before me, that peaceful relations between nations requires understanding and mutual respect between individuals."

My PTP focus, as you might guess, has been around education. I love the description you’ll find on the Education page at the People to People website. It reads:

Teachers become students as they step into a classroom in a distant land. For education professionals, lifelong learning is the key to excellent teaching. Educators share that common bond with their colleagues around the world.

It’s so true. And I encourage anyone who has the urge to meet colleagues in other lands to find out more about this great program.

What we saw and learned

Often in our previous PTP trips to other countries, the actual school visits were limited to a select few. This trip included many large-group visits to what we in the U.S. would call “K-12 schools.” I commend the South African government for being so open. They allowed us to see schools of every variety, down to those that are challenged in ways beyond the conception of most American educators and citizens.

On my third day in the country, I was in the hotel gift shop when the shopkeeper asked me if Africa was what I expected it to be? I really did not know how to answer the question. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but what I had seen after less than 72 hours had been life changing.


Our first visit to a public school was on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city and one of the 40 largest urban areas in the world. The school served grades 1-4 and housed 2,500 children in temporary classrooms that resembled large plywood boxes. The students and teachers have survived in this fashion for 13 years. Each classroom had a ratio of 60 students to one teacher. There were electric cords running along the buildings outside, but there were no fans, even though it was a very hot day.

The need for restrooms was met by a large number of portable toilets. In a small tin building we found two mothers cooking lunch for the children while another woman was washing the students’ soccer uniforms in a plastic tub and hanging them on the fence to dry. Although the school is open to both sexes, there are far fewer girls, who are often kept home to care for siblings. In the classrooms there was little or nothing in the way of resources. Most of the children enter the school speaking one or two of the city’s many different languages and dialects. Yet, in a city where only 20% of the total population speaks English, by third grade the teachers are able to deliver all instruction in that language.

As we walked through the complex, I was amazed at all the teachers were teaching and the children were learning in such sparse conditions. In one grade we observed each teacher, in their separate plywood cubicles, teaching the same telling-time lesson on the same day, offering evidence that common lesson plans and/or curriculum standards were in place.

We should be ashamed

For the past 6 years, I’ve worked as a teaching consultant with low-performing Alabama schools in the state’s “School Improvement’ classification. I chronicled some of my journey in a blog called Brighton’s Hope, named for the K-8 school on the outskirts of Birmingham where I began this phase of my teaching career in 2004. Most recently, I’ve been working in several different high schools in Jefferson County that are in School Improvement, as we strive to close the achievement gap so often found between our “state averages” and our minority, poverty, and special education subgroups.

As my visit to South Africa drew to a close, I began to reflect on what I had seen in that bare-bones Johannesburg elementary school. I considered what the educators in that school were managing to achieve with little more than faith, hope and occasional charity. And then I thought about the resources we have in our own first-world nation and the lack of achievement evident in many of our schools. We should be ashamed of ourselves, both as Americans and as Alabamians.

I am not trying to diminish the challenges we face in many Alabama schools with large high-needs populations. I have spent my entire career here working in Title I schools. However, there is no excuse for the lack of student performance I see and live with every day. Often, in discussion with teachers, I hear that “these students” will not do their work, that they do not listen, and that the parents do not care or lack the skills to support the school. These are often valid observations, but I look at other high-poverty schools in our state where children ARE achieving and I often feel compelled to ask: “Are you saying poor children of color cannot learn? Do you believe it is all about them and nothing about you?”

To me this is the heart of our struggle. And if we fail to act, it will only get worse. A new report from the Southern Education Foundation tells us that the South has hit “a demographic turning point” in the last several years, “becoming the first U.S. region in which both low-income and minority students constitute a majority of public school enrollment.”

It’s all about teaching quality

During my time as National Teacher of the Year, I spoke all over the country about the need to recruit our strongest teachers to our most needy schools. I saw this as a solution then, and after working for nearly six years in my own district’s lowest performing buildings, I still view this as our greatest need.

The quality of the teacher is critical. How I long for the accomplished teachers of America (and we have hundreds of thousands of them) to take on our most needy schools. While there are high performing schools in many high poverty areas all across our state and nation – led by highly effective principals and teachers -- there are still many, many other challenged schools performing at very low levels.
Daily in my work I observe outstanding teachers who are devoted to the students they serve, but I also see teaching gaps that are alarming. I am convinced that we have the resources to make this right for all students, if we get our priorities in order.

Meeting the needs of the diverse learners we serve is the hardest work I know about.
  • Our schools need schedules to guarantee this collaborative time.
  • Job-embedded professional development is a must for teachers so they have the opportunity to observe and replicate model lessons in consultation with their professional peers.
  • Use of technology has to be a standard practice not an option.
  • Conversations need to take place that are honest and support teachers as they reflect on the effectiveness of their practice.
  • It requires time for planning and collaboration with colleagues and our special education experts.
This is not about punishment, it’s about all of us getting better. All that we do every day has to be driven by the age-old educator’s question: Are the students learning? And if not: What are we going to do to ensure learning is occurring at an appropriate level and pace?

I learned from my South African school visits that we have to maintain faith that ALL children can learn. We have to realize, as the South African teachers have, that education is the only hope for many of our children to break the chain of generational poverty.

It was quite evident that the educators I met in South Africa believed in what Nelson Mandela has said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

Dr. Betsy Rogers is a former Alabama Teacher of the Year and the first Alabama teacher to serve as National Teacher of the Year (2003). She chairs the Governor’s Commission on Quality Teaching and is a past director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. A four-time graduate of Samford University, Betsy has spent more than 30 years working in high-needs schools.

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