by Véronique Brau, Upper School languages teacher
Véronique Brau was one of four Lakeside teachers who went on a two-week GSL experience this past summer, living, working, and sharing teaching practices with fellow educators at Ridgeway College in South Africa. Here, she shares some thoughts about what she learned.
When I learned about the opportunity to travel to South Africa through Lakeside’s GSL program and work with a partner school, it seemed like a wonderful opportunity to discover a new culture and to exchange ideas and best practices with colleagues who share a passion for education. It also seemed like a great way to re-energize and to look at my teaching practices through a different lens.
In the weeks preceding the trip, I read books and watched movies and documentaries about South Africa. I also put together material I could share with teachers at Ridgeway College, including activities and new teaching methodologies that had been successful in my classes. My initial email communications with them had focused mostly on syllabi content and getting familiar with their curriculum and the way their classes were organized (i.e., Form 1 is 8th grade and is the first year of high school; exams occur in Form 3 and 5, etc.).
My focus changed dramatically, however, after we all met on a weekend retreat at Leshiba Wilderness camp, a stunning mountainous area in the middle of the South African bush. Some of the most powerful moments of the trip for me happened on that first day.
Although both groups – teachers from Lakeside and from Ridgeway College – were initially a bit intimidated, a few ice-breakers relieved tensions and got us laughing and working as a team. Two ways we got to know each other were talking about “artifacts” – objects that were meaningful to us – and taking part in a storytelling activity. Through these exercises, we learned something about everyone’s story: what had brought us there, where was home, what had driven us to become teachers.
Our combined group represented a variety of countries, languages, and career paths. Yet our stories allowed us to find connections: the way food brings people together, the importance of family, how we celebrate milestones in life, the way we engage in politics. What stood out for me was the richness and depth of our conversations with a group of people who had been complete strangers just a few hours before.
When I think about typical professional development days, what comes to mind is a structured format with a list of thematic presentations or workshops that one may attend. I usually participate in as many sessions as I can, trying to cover as much content as possible. But that first day of the retreat in South Africa, we just focused on engaging in meaningful conversations. We took the time to listen to one another without any distractions and without any other goal than to learn about each other. By the end of the two days, these teachers and their stories had helped me come to a deeper understanding of South Africa and made me feel more comfortable in their country. It felt like we had bonded with each other and it significantly impacted the work that I did at school with the teachers of the Afrikaans language during the following week.
Much of what I had prepared in advance of the trip I ended up not using. Instead, the South African teachers and I decided to follow the students’ lead (at least during the first couple of classes) and to take the time to honor their curiosity. They were eager to learn about life in the United States – from school dances, celebrities, and iPhone plans to Donald Trump and racism. They were also eager to learn some French and to teach me some Venda and Tsonga – the most common languages from that area of the Limpopo province. I did not have time to teach them all the games I had planned or to show them as much technology as I had intended, but we took time to talk and connect. It made me happy and hopeful to find out that even after we left some students were still thinking about and discussing topics that were brought up during our conversations. The U.S. had become more real to them in the same way South Africa had become more real to me. Thanks to our conversations, our worlds had become a little bigger and a little closer.
As teachers, it can be easy to get lost in our busy schedules. We have a curriculum to cover and concepts and themes to present. But one of my biggest takeaways from my experience in South Africa - both from a personal and professional point of view - is to carve more time for me and my students to meet and engage with people from other cultures. These meaningful connections help us see the world through different lenses and can make all of our worlds a little bigger in an authentic way.