By Ryan Schindler
My involvement with my Dad’s children’s charity has given me ample opportunities to interact with kids, so I thought I would be prepared for volunteering in a South African school. I was wrong. Very wrong. But I’m ok with this, for I have learned a lot from what my observations and reflections from working with these children.
The destroyed any assumptions about what students in a school would do. In a period of approximately 30 seconds, I saw cartwheels, wrestling, slam downs, and other actions that would be completely unacceptable in American and western schools. It would’ve been easy to judge the students, or even scold or correct their behavior, but I instead bit my tongue and observed as objectively as possible.
Unsurprisingly, the class’s experience in the township school was eye opening, but not for the reasons one would think. Bonding with the students seemed natural to most, but not everyone. For instance, those who weren’t blonde haired, blue eyed women didn’t receive as much attention from the kids. Likewise, on a personal level, I felt awkward around them; I didn’t know what to say or how to socialize with them. It wasn’t long ago that I felt that way around almost anyone, since my Autism Spectrum Disorder made learning to connect with people difficult and, even as a college student, not completely natural.
After becoming more comfortable, I talked, and even bonded, with several kids in the school. The way people bonded with the students also varied wildly. Most of the boys hung out with the kids by playing soccer, while a lot of the girls simply talked to the girls cheerfully. Mine were pretty random encounters; some compared me to Ryan Finger, while others got on my back and rocked me around. It resulted in teaching the words “up”, “down”, “left” & “right”, so that’s an obvious gain.
The true takeaway from this day was the insights that I gained, particularly about education.
First, good-hearted people who want to improve education must account for cultural differences. Behaviors considered intolerable in American and European schools might be normal or even encouraged in other schools, so disciplining students with a western mindset might be harmful. We can also learn from these foreign school environments and apply those cultural traits to schools back home. The key is to keep an open mind.
Another factor is with the teacher itself. He or she must be competent and comfortable around children in order to help effectively. The education degree you may have would be irrelevant if you know how to get through to your students. Likewise, volunteers and teachers need, and deserve, resources to help fine tune their skills and become better.
Finally, the differences between individual students has to be accounted for. A truly nurturing environment, a necessity for constructive learning, can only occur if the students feel validated and respected. Although many classrooms are overcrowded and grossly underfunded, I believe teachers have the ability to make a classroom a safe space for children to be themselves. And that, I realize, makes all of the difference.