Teaching the young ones

When Letta Sibiya began teaching in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township 15 years ago, she was a young single mother entering the workforce reluctantly, out of financial necessity. Over time, though, she discovered a passion and enthusiasm for working with children. Now a grade one teacher, Sibiya says that the benefits of teaching go far beyond monetary wages.

“The most important thing is that you must have love for the young ones and you must be committed,” said the 35-year-old Sibiya. “If you’re not, you’re doing this for the money. That’s not right, because you won’t be satisfied.”

Crammed in the classroom

Sibiya teaches Grade One at the Gordon Primary School, a government school in Alexandra that’s partnered with the Gordon Institute of Business Science to improve its teaching and learning programmes. Even with the school’s various initiatives, the environment is extraordinarily limited. In Sibiya’s classroom, 42 learners aged six to 10 are crammed in her classroom. There are only a few small windows, and in the summer the heat is unbearable.

“For us, in the townships, there is a shortage of classrooms and equipment we can use in education,” she told MyWage.co.za. “My class is like a storeroom. There’s no place to move, and there’s no place to group the children, because of the shortage of space.”

Working without adequate resources

More than a decade after the nation’s transition to democracy, South Africa is trying to shake the effects of the apartheid government’s segregated education system. The average teacher’s salary, including compensation and all benefits, is currently about R100,000 a year, according to Jon Lewis, spokesperson for the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union, which primarily represents teachers in what are now known as “previously disadvantaged” schools. But throughout the country, Lewis said many teachers still work without adequate resources, including books and learning materials. Many teachers also lack appropriate training and support, he said.

Burdened by HIV/AIDS pandemic

It’s a challenge that’s only bound to strain a system already burdened by an HIV/AIDS pandemic. Nearly 4,000 teachers in South Africa died of AIDS-related complications last year, Lewis said, while more than 12 percent of South African teachers are currently HIV positive. In addition, most teachers in government schools have had to cope with students who have lost a family member to AIDS.

“Many teachers don’t have the training or the strategies to deal with those kinds of things,” Lewis said.

Every week, Sibiya escorts scores of AIDS orphans to a nearby clinic for a feeding program. It’s just part of her job.

A Teacher’s Story

Sibiya grew up in Witbank, Mpumalanga. Her father worked for government, and her mother was a domestic worker. The fifth of eight children, Sibiya often stayed at the home of a neighbor, who also paid her school fees.

When Sibiya was 15, her older brother asked her to come to Alexandra, where she could live with his family if she agreed to baby sit his children. Eager to move to the big city, Sibiya dropped out of school and agreed.

“When I came here, I expected this to be glamorous,” she said. “So when we drove into Alexandra and I saw these tin rooms and shacks, I said, ‘Where are the houses?’ My brother said this is where we were living. Truly speaking, I wanted to cry.”

Sibiya stayed with her brother, his wife, and their two daughters in a room measuring four metres by four metres. It was tight and cramped, with the kitchen in one corner, the bedroom in another. Sibiya was miserable.

Riots broke out in Alexandra, and Sibiya’s sister-in-law encouraged her to return to Mpumalanga to finish her matric. Fresh from the big city, she felt like an adult.

“I saw that I was free now, so I was trying to experience everything,” she said. “But I experienced the wrong way.”

She got pregnant. Still in school, she hid her pregnancy under baggy clothes until after she graduated. She gave birth to a son. At 17, she was a single mother.

Young working single mother

With nowhere to turn, she returned to Alexandra, where she had learned how to navigate the crime and violence. She needed money, so she began teaching at the crèche for the Johannesburg Child Welfare Society. At first, she loathed her job.

“When I was in school, my whole life, I wanted to go to work. But when I started work, I just wanted to go back to school,” she said. But after the first few months, Sibiya began to enjoy the kids and the working environment. Still, being a single mother was tough.

“Every cent you earn, you don’t just use it on yourself. You share it, and you think of him with everything,” she said. “When you want to go out with other young people, there’s this hindrance of a child. Who’s going to look after him?”

Becoming a qualified teacher

At the time, in the early 1990s, Sibiya brought home R600 a month. She knew she could earn more as a qualified teacher, so she enrolled with the Johannesburg College of Education. She attended part-time for four years, paying R1,500 a year, until she got her diploma. She’s now working toward her Bachelor’s in education at the University of South Africa.

Today, with 15 years experience and full qualification, Sibiya earns about R5,000 a month, just enough to support both her and her son, now 17, who live in Alexandra’s Phase One neighborhood. But money is still tight in a single-income family; when her son was ready to start secondary school, she called all around Johannesburg to find the school with the lowest school fees. She pays about R1,500 a year to send her son to a school in Kensington, south of Alexandra.

Elimination of inequality

Sibiya hopes her son will be able to pursue his dreams, as the government seeks to eliminate the longstanding inequality among public schools.

“At least now, they are trying to make things to be the same. Before, the education they were giving to white was different than the education they were giving to blacks,” she said. “At least now, we have the opportunity to send our children to white schools.”

“These kids that are growing up now, they are luckier than us,” she added.

Text: Gretchen L. Wilson, November 2005

All reporting by Gretchen L. Wilson, © 2005

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