Richard Welsh is a Year Two teacher at Ark Conway Primary Academy, who graduated from the Ark Teacher Training programme in 2014. He has recently returned from a two-week visit to South Africa as part of the Ark Global Teaching Fellowship.
The first thing that struck me about visiting Cape Town was the huge divide you sensed between the rich and the poor. Driving through a township on my way from the airport, I was able to see skyscrapers in the distance, as we drove through endless streets of corrugated tin roofed shacks. Stray dogs wandered around, barking for attention.
I was in South Africa as part of the Ark Fellows programme. This is a two-week working trip to schools that Ark collaborates with in Africa and India. When I met teacher colleagues that work in township schools, I didn't know what to expect, but they were all really enthusiastic and friendly.
The township schoolchildren surprised me even more. I was greeted with huge, unwavering smiles as 1,000 children arrived on time at 8.30 in full uniform – they all seemed to want to find out who I was and what I was doing there. It was immediately clear that, whilst these children live in a completely different context to the children in my school back in London, their needs, requirements, problems and smiles are no different.
My time in the classroom there was mainly centred around supporting the local teachers through observation, feedback and team-teaching exercises. There were some amazing moments that showed we could make an impact - even in such a short space of time.
Teaching techniques going viral
One morning, I was walking around a school called "Happy Valley" with Marie, the Deputy Head. We observed teachers teaching with zeal and vigour, implementing new techniques that we had just taught them. As we walked past the classroom of a teacher we hadn't met with or trained yet, I heard a very clear and concise ‘3 step instruction’ being given - a technique we had just taught to other teachers. Later, I asked the classroom teacher where she had learned that technique. ‘From Mrs Ntombekaya next door, she’d told me how well it’s worked in her class and so she taught me. It’s ‘lekker’ (brilliant), the kids just get on and do what I tell them now.'
Marie was astounded, and she asked a few other teachers in the school that hadn’t attended the training days. It turned out that they too were implementing techniques from training sessions they hadn't attended.
Another day, I was in a Grade 3 handwriting class, and a boy named Guzzo was disrupting it by walking around, pushing people’s books on the floor and trying to get attention. The teacher told me that ‘That’s just what Guzzo does, Guzzo doesn’t speak English and he’s not very clever.' We then spoke about implementing a positive narration technique. Immediately she tried changing her tone and then praised all the children that were working hard, so as to detract from Guzzo’s negative behaviour. ‘Great’ we thought, but what about if he doesn't understand what's being said? Without a second thought, out came the teacher's non-verbal praise, including thumbs up to the well-behaved children, winks, and a shoulder squeeze. Suddenly Guzzo was sitting back down. I asked her what she would do now. ‘Praise him of course, he’s now doing the right thing,’ so off she went armed with a shoulder squeeze and wink for him as well. Guzzo beamed - he finally got the attention he wanted.
The next day the teacher told me that she has a new star pupil who is trying incredibly hard in all lessons despite the language barrier – Guzzo! I’m so pleased for the teacher that she was able to use these new skills effectively, but I’m more pleased for Guzzo, he has a brighter future than he previously did simply because of some positive reinforcement.
What I found surprising throughout our whole visit was this abundant openness and desire for change. I remember learning many of the techniques myself – I had been a trainee teacher just a few short years ago. I was so pleased to see other teachers develop their confidence and skills to become more successful.
When we left the township schools at the end of the programme, I could see happy teachers, a happy leadership team and more importantly, happy children that were much more engaged in their education. It was the most rewarding experience of my teaching career so far.