Work in Progress - Among the most Inspiring Months Of My Life

Mary Sanders returned to the UK in September 2004 from a year’s teaching at the Russell High School for Girls in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. Her visit was sponsored by the ERT, and she was the third ERT volunteer to teach at the school. She is now taking a post-graduate teacher-training course at the University of Roehampton.

The 10 months I spent at Russell High were among the most inspiring of my life.

When I arrived in November 2003, I was given a registration class of 36 teenaged girls. I would also be teaching English, History and Geography, Drama, Arts & Culture and Philosophy to a range of classes aged 13-18. Being new to teaching, this was a tremendous challenge at first, but with the help of the other staff I began to find my feet, and before long I loved it.

The ‘Russell Family’, as the staff term the school, is a lifeline for many of the children, and the most stable and secure environment they know. It is a disciplined school, so no matter where the children are from, they are expected to be immaculately turned out and well-mannered; but it is also a tangibly supportive and happy place. For these children, who live life ‘on the edge’, education represents an escape from poverty and the key to a better future, and they value it. It was great to work in an environment where teachers are so respected, and where education makes such a clear difference to people’s lives.

Many of the children in my class lived in nearby townships and a few came from local children’s homes; many had lost one or both parents to AIDS; most would be the first generation in their family to complete a school education. Like all energetic teenagers they were sometimes quite a challenge, but their warmth, humour and openheartedness ensured that very soon I grew absurdly fond of every one of them. Whether making masks, being giraffes or pondering the deeper questions of life, the intelligence, spontaneity and creativity of these children were fantastic.

And I can’t forget the singing: these girls can sing like nobody else. Music and rhythm permeate their lives, - if you leave them alone for more than two minutes, some of them are bound to start dancing. When they sing, the sheer volume is incredible, and the sound goes through your whole being. Their real spirit shines through – courage, warmth, strength and beauty – and the impact is stunning. I challenge anyone to listen to their Lord’s Prayer in Zulu without getting goose-bumps and a lump in their throat.

The girls are staunchly Christian, yet in their first philosophy lesson they told me that what they most wanted to learn about were the cultures and religions of other countries, and I found this outward-looking approach very encouraging. Philosophy, with its emphasis on what is common to all human beings, and on what unites rather than divides, could not be more relevant than in South Africa.

The biggest inspiration for me was the Russell High staff. These teachers are second to none. Teaching is not a job to them; it is their life’s vocation and passion. Hard-working and dedicated, their standards of teaching are excellent, but their role goes far beyond getting children through exams. They genuinely care about the well-being of the children, spending their breaks and spare hours working as counselors. They give their all, with humour and compassion, and became real role models to me as the kind of teacher I aspire to be.

In the second term, a couple of fifteen-year-olds asked me if I could be their ‘other mother’. “I can’t be that old!” I thought, shocked. But though I hadn’t expected it, that’s exactly how I had come to feel about these children. At Russell I was able to experience what it really means to be a teacher: not just an imparter of knowledge, but a mentor, a guide and a friend. Needless to say it was almost impossible to leave.

South Africa is an extraordinary country, and has come so far since the ending of apartheid 10 years ago. Despite its violent history, its poverty and the AIDS epidemic, I found a remarkable absence of bitterness. Instead there is a positive, vibrant energy, a hope and pride in the country, and a determination to make it a better place. To me, Russell High is a symbol of this hope.