Teaching in South Africa: Welcome to Port Elizabeth – Part 1

I wrote a number of reflections on my time teaching at Pearson High School in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and have decided to now publish my escapades here on my blog. Over the next few weeks, I will be publishing a blog post once a week about my time teaching in South Africa. This is the first one!

Being my first time leaving the country, I did not know what to expect from teaching abroad. I did not really know how to mentally prepare and I was anxious as to what I would experience during my 24 hour flight to Port Elizabeth, South Africa. During my first three weeks I have begun to get an understanding of South African culture, albeit still a very limited one.


Getting ready to leave on my first international flight.

I arrived on a Thursday evening, and my lovely Greek host family of Maria, Jimmy, and Greg helped me to adjust by showing me around Port Elizabeth. In many respects, South Africa – or at least the parts I have experienced – is not that different from the United States. There are fast food chains everywhere, Port Elizabeth is a fairly modern city with access to things like internet, and American music and television penetrates the media scene here. My second night in Port Elizabeth I distinctly remember going out with my host family and hearing a musician cover songs by American artists like Jack Johnson and Dave Matthews!

The drinking culture is something that has also struck me about South Africa. For one, the drinking age is only 18 in South Africa – though the legislature is keen to change it to 21 soon – and it is quite common to go out to bars when you are under 21. And while high-risk drinking certainly exists in South Africa, it is much more common for citizens to go out and just have a casual drink at a bar. Myself, I have found that the Dutch-influenced Afrikaans culture enjoys a good Amstel, but a “brandy and coke” is a classic South African beverage. Interestingly, alcohol education is a still a major component of the schools as I witnessed an assembly discouraging students from drinking under 18.

After adjusting to the time difference, it was time for me to start teaching at Pearson High School on Monday. I discovered many of the students were already familiar with American culture to some extent because of the media, but consequently I had to dispel some rumors about America. It is common for students to ask me how close I am to one of three places: New York, California, or Texas. When I tell them that I rarely go to any of the aforementioned states many of the students are surprised and want to know where Ohio is. The stereotypical American accent impersonation has been a Texan one. I have also had to confirm several times that I have not met any celebrities.. Dispelling myths and teaching students that the United States is a large and diverse country has been my way of reintroducing students to my home culture.

A view of Port Elizabeth, my home for 4 months

A view of Port Elizabeth; my home for 4 months.

One aspect that has bothered me is that I feel like I have only been exposed to a small part of South African culture. Summerstand – the suburb I am situated in – is very white. For a country whose white population is only about 10 percent I seem to be surround by them. At Pearson High School there appears to be a little better of a balance in terms of diversity among the students, though the majority are still white. The teachers however are all white, except one who teachers the native South African language of Xhosa. Despite the end of apartheid is quite clear that divisions of race and inequality still remain. In the coming weeks, I am planning on venturing outside Summerstrand more to get a better feel of South African culture.

Compared to American schools I have been in, there are definitely some stark differences in schooling. The teachers and students do not have as wide of access to technology as many American students and Pearson is even regarded as one of the top schools in the Port Elizabeth area. It is considered technologically advanced to have one SMART Board in the building and one computer lab (on a side note, I think SMART Boards are a waste of money). However, this does not seem to drastically effect their learning. though this may be more of a result of American students not appreciating or fully utilizing their resources. The desks and chalkboards also seems to be older, but they are more than adequate for students to learn. One thing that did surprise me was that Pearson did still seem to have incredibly nice sports fields for rugby, hockey, and soccer.

They had prefects at Pearson. Yes, the exist outside of Harry Potter.

They had prefects at Pearson. Yes, they exist outside of Harry Potter.

The students are also different from American students, but not drastically so. These students – or “learners” as they are called at Pearson – are still very much high school students, but they tend to award teachers more respect than my typical experience with American students. When I enter a classroom, students are already preconditioned to stand and wait to sit down until the teacher has greeted them. Students frequently greet me in the hallway with a “good morning sir” and even when I see them at the mall. Students still talk in class, misbehave, and forget to do their work, but they always address teachers with respect which is a refreshing change from my perception of the self-entitled American student.

I wouldn’t describe my experiences so far as “culture shock,” though I am still taking in all that Port Elizabeth has to offer. I have yet to step outside my immediate sphere of contact, but with 12 weeks still to go I have every intention to get outside Summerstrand in the near future. So far, I love Port Elizabeth, the people I have met, and the experiences I have had.

Even the plane ride.

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2 thoughts on “Teaching in South Africa: Welcome to Port Elizabeth – Part 1

  1. Reblogged this on ynot and commented:
    I find it completely fascinating to read about the experience other students have had in P.E. While I won’t be teaching in a high-school, getting some understanding of their high-school experience will help understand them as college students.

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