5 Things You Should Know Before Teaching in South Africa

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The South African classroom is like no classroom you’ll find in any other school anywhere in the world. Perhaps I am a little biased, but as a result of extenuating circumstances, most of which are not particularly pleasant, you’ll find special children who are most appreciative of dynamic and motivated teachers in nearly any classroom in South Africa. Therefore, the kind of teachers who really want to be there, who want to inspire, and who want to make a difference make the best volunteer teachers in South Africa.

things to know before teaching in south africa

On a daily basis, the things you say and do during your teaching job in South Africa will undeniably leave a lasting impression on at least one of your students. Between your positive energy and unique motivation (because, let's be honest, these are the traits of anyone who chooses to become a teacher abroad), you will be inspiring young people, instilling in them the confidence and a belief that they can be or do anything they want to. This is a noble and valiant purpose that you should always keep in the forefront of your mind as a teacher in South Africa, or anywhere for that matter.

No matter the challenges you face in the classroom, your teaching job in South Africa will truly leave positive impacts on your students, their families, and their future.

South Africa is a country of dramatic change and optimism, and these notions are clearly reflected in the schools and their children. The schooling system in South Africa is extremely diverse, with prominent and expensive private schools on one end of the spectrum and run-down, understaffed, poorly resourced schools on the other. There is a demand for volunteer teachers and assistants to help students at the latter schools in particular, which tend to be located in South Africa’s townships and rural communities that face an array of different challenges. Therefore, every teacher should know the following things before they find teaching jobs in South Africa:

1. Educational resources (including teachers) will be limited. 

teaching in south africa
Don't expect a treasure trove of crayons and markers to greet you in your ESL classroom.

The student per teacher ratio is generally much higher than any teacher would hope for; with overwhelming numbers, like 45 to 60 students to one teacher, it is easy for students with difficulty reading and writing to not receive the attention they need to progress. Unfortunately, the reality of South Africa’s education system is that some schools have a literacy rate of less than 50 percent. Additionally, the number of students per teacher can easily double on days when teachers are absent, which is sadly a frequent occurrence.

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Depending on the school where you teach in South Africa, the number of desks and chairs are often less than the amount of children enrolled in the class, resulting in students sitting on the floor, on desks, or sharing chairs with one another. Textbooks and stationery materials can also be limited, or in a relatively bad state, so lessons and the completion of assignments or tests can often take longer than expected.

Before applying for teaching jobs in South Africa, you should know that the circumstances won’t be perfect, and be prepared to get creative and innovate when resources are slim.

2. What happens outside the classroom won’t always stay there.

fisherman in africa
Families will have different livelihoods, cultures, backgrounds, struggles, and more.

It doesn’t matter where in the world you are teaching, this is a universal fact; however, it is important to understand that students attending township schools  usually come from very low socio-economic backgrounds, often struggling with poverty and poor home environments. As a teacher within this context, you will need to be prepared to deal with a range of consequences and impediments to learning.

For example, students will often complain of hunger, because they didn’t eat breakfast that morning or dinner the night before. Fatigue as a result of poor eating habits and living conditions, causing them to lose sleep at night, is also not uncommon. Not to mention, students often travel long distances to attend “better” schools, and end up traveling for hours each way just to receive a good education.

[How to teach English abroad — insights from the experts]

There is well-known anecdote that I personally liked to recall when teaching in these types of settings, especially when I found certain children acting out, misbehaving, or not completing their homework:

It is often the child who deserves your love the least that needs it the most.

3. Students will come from different backgrounds, both cultural and educational.

young ghanaian boys
Don't confuse some similarities for homogeny.

South Africa is a melting pot of different people and cultures, and it is this fact that makes it such an exciting place to teach abroad. Students may view things differently and respond to certain situations in an unexpected manner.

The key to making the most of your teaching experience in a rural school in South Africa is to embrace the new sounds, sights, and opportunities (I will never forget the first time I sat down in the staff room for lunch, when a fellow teacher offered me a chicken’s foot to eat).

[Get free advice on how to teach in South Africa]

It’s also important to remember that while English is the official language of business, politics, and media in South Africa, it isn't the first language of many people there. In fact, it actually isn’t very commonly used in townships in comparison to indigenous languages, such as Xhosa or Zulu. Though you may be teaching English in South Africa, you will likely need to work on expanding your language skills to be a successful teacher in South Africa.

4. The people from the community will be warm and welcoming...

girl watching sunset at lionshead
Cherish the relationships you build within the community.

There is often a negative perception of the colorful characters you may meet on the streets of a township; however, this isn’t always true. The community respect and appreciate volunteer teachers and professionals who give tirelessly to help improve the conditions of their communities and give their children a better education. 

Prepare for late night braii invitations, colorful small talk with your favorite shopkeeps, and giggles and squeals from children. Commit to becoming part of their communities. Sit through the awkward silence. Smile and talk about the normalities of your day. Enjoy raw companionship and simpler living. By challenging yourself to partake in the community rather than witness it, your experience will grow and evolve into incredible depths. We won't give away all of the fun, but we have a hunch you're going to fit right in.

5. ...and, most importantly, the work will be incredibly rewarding.

two young african girls
You are very privileged to experience life as an ESL teacher in South Africa.

Despite the daily challenges of being a teacher in South Africa, the pros definitely outweigh the cons. The light bulb moments, when you start to see the results of all your hours of hard work, will be worth it. When students start to understand the lessons you’ve been teaching, you’ll realize how much you’ve really taught them.

But even more than the academic achievements will be the personal ones; the relationships formed, the bonds created, the mutual respect shared, and the moments of gratitude and appreciation, or the way faces light up when you walk into a room. When you start to recognize the difference you are making in the lives of these incredible little (or big) people, those are the moments you’ll treasure and the faces you’ll remember long after your teaching job in South Africa ends.

[Download this checklist to ensure that you are prepared to teach abroad]

Are you ready to teach in South Africa?

Armed with a solid grasp of past-present participles, your TEFL certificate, and a sense of adventure, your love for teaching will quickly transform into a love of teaching AND learning. Learning through new relationships, conversations, questions, insights, and a commitment to intentional, thoughtful living like you've never felt before. What are you waiting for?

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This article was contributed by GoEco, an organization dedicated to providing affordable, ecologically minded volunteer programs related to community development, wildlife conservation, and environmental preservation. Join GoEco as a volunteer teacher in South Africa and make a difference in the lives of local children.