This blog post discusses my experience visiting a local high school. In addition, I will touch on two topics that are particularly important to me: special education in Swaziland and corporal punishment in the school setting.
As a PCV in Swaziland working in Youth Development, I will be spending a large amount of time over the next two years working with Swazi youth in the local schools. Recently, we went to visit and observe class at the Mbekelweni High School. This was an exciting and eye-opening experience from the beginning. I will give you the rundown of the visit, but first, here are the stats of the school:
The school has 488 students and 45 teachers. The average classroom has 40-50 students. The school has 132 Orphans or Vulnerable Children (OVCs). This means that the child has lost on or both children or is at risk of being an orphan. All classes are taught in English besides the one class a day that they learn their native language, siSwati.
The school day began like any American school day would, with daily announcements. The difference was that the announcements were in the form of an outside school assembly in the central lawn. The announcements were done in siSwati. I essentially understood nothing said. At one point I could hear the teacher talking to the students when she began reading off a series of numbers like “65385009.” We were told that the teacher was informing the students that several cows belonging to one of the student’s family had gone missing. The numbers were the identification numbers on those cows’ ear tag, and asked that students be alert for those cows. I don’t think I ever heard a morning announcement talking about lost cattle before!
The morning announcements continued with one of the most beautiful songs I have heard sang by an entire school, an African hymn. Something I have learned quickly while being in Swaziland is that the Swazi value singing. Without over-generalizing, it seems that nearly every Swazi I have met here sings and sings beautifully. I have been asked to sing by stranger children while I am just walking in my community. Unfortunately I didn’t inherit the singing gene of my siblings.
After the singing, all 18ish of the PCVs present went to the front of the student body to introduce ourselves…in siSWati. This was perhaps the most terrifying moment I have experienced since getting here nearly a month ago! While I am perfectly comfortable being in front of a large group of children, this was something totally new to me. Each PCV introduced themselves to the school, with the student body bursting into laughter. We didn’t know why but it happened each time. Were we butchering their language that much?! Later, I asked my language teacher why they were laughing. The reason wasn’t that our siSwati wasn’t good, it was the fact they couldn’t believe a group of Americans were actually speaking their language…a language that just over 1 million people speak in the world. Many students never saw an American before this besides on TV. It was a great moment, although still terrifying.
Myself, one other PCV, and our language teacher went to observe a Form 1 classroom (the youngest age of their high school system). It turned out to be much less observing and more talking to the entire class because the teacher didn’t show up for nearly an hour. We asked the students a bunch of questions about themselves then we opened it up to questions for us. Several questions were directed towards the other PCV, a female, who on several occasions was asked to marry them or adopt them. For me, one of my questions was which movie have I been in. My answer: all of the movies.
There will certainly be many more blog posts in the future about the education system in Swaziland from my experiences and observations.
Special education in the Kingdom
One topic that I will definitely be looking at in more detail is perception of special education in the country. Or lack thereof special education in the country. There are not any real services provided in public schools for children with special needs and only two schools in the entire country are specialized for special education. My understanding is that Swaziland is increasing its understanding and investment in special education but is still several decades behind where the US is.
If a child does not pass a class they must retake it. If a student fails three time they are forced to attend a different school, where they will likely have similar problems if there are no interventions in place for the student to succeed. For a child with special needs, the typical experience in school is that they fail out of school. It is unlikely the student will transfer to another school as they need to arrange their own transportation which means going to school can take well over an hour. Additionally, school is not free after a certain age and is rather expensive depending on the income of the family. As a child with special needs will likely continue to struggle if not given more assistance, most parents would be more inclined to pay the tuition of a typically developing child over one with special needs. Children with special needs are unfortunately the forgotten children, who end up spending their life in the house never to reach any potential.
It is my ultimate hope that I have some impact on these underserved and forgotten children.
The other last main topic that I believe several readers may be interested in is the form of punishment in Swazi schools, or depending on who you are taking to the currently lack of punishment. In just the last couple years, Swaziland has done away with its most common form of classroom punishment, corporal punishment.
Until recently, teachers were allowed to beat children in school whenever the teacher felt it necessary. Even though the classroom I observed still had a strangely fresh and green switch (thin branch) that clearly is used for beating, teachers say they no longer use corporal punishment. I truly don’t know if I believe this or not because I have had many children including my little brothers tell me they still have beatings in class. I further asked about this with my brothers, they said the teachers are allowed to beat them 3 times before it is against the law. I really don’t know what to believe it I can tell you growing up in a Swazi school is much different than an American education.
Regardless of whether or not a teacher still uses corporal punishment, teachers in Swaziland have a major crisis to address. Teachers were educated based on the old punishment; they do not know about positive reinforcement or other ways of modifying unwanted behavior. As a result, teachers don’t know how to address problem behaviors.
When a child misbehaves teachers don’t know what to do. It is like an American teacher who has been told that if a student is really bad you send them to the office to talk to the principal…and then you say the principal stops coming to work. Many of the typical consequences one would expect like having the parents come for a conference is not typical because most Swazi work in a job where if you don’t come for even a day you risk losing your job because 10 others are in line for it. The role on positive behavior supports is not one teachers currently understand and is something many PCV try to educate to teachers through leading by example and through educational conferences with teachers.
If you made it this far you clearly have extra time on your hands and I am grateful! If you have any questions please ask me through a comment! I will try to answer all questions!