Reflections from a Teacher in South Africa


In this article, Shirley picks the mind of Benita Swanepoel, a teacher at Ntaba Maria Primary School in Grahamstown and finds out what it is like to be a teacher in South Africa.

Today is World Teacher’s Day so let’s take time to appreciate the teachers who are shaping South Africa’s future leaders.  Being a teacher in South Africa is full of challenges and blessings. It is a profession which is critical to the development of many of South Africa’s younger generations and a profession which is fraught with trials. In this article, we get to pick the mind of a young teacher, Benita Swanepoel, working in a rural school in the Eastern Cape.

Tell us a bit about yourself 🙂

I am currently a public school teacher at Ntaba Maria. I am an intermediate phase teacher, qualified (with SACE – the South African Council for Educators) to teach English, Afrikaans, Mathematics, Social Sciences, and Life Orientation to children from Grade 4 to 7. 

How did you decide to go into teaching?

I went to university hoping to become a psychologist, only to find that it was not what I wanted to do. I ended up doing an Honours in Applied Theatre at the Rhodes University and discovered that my passion was to work with and empower groups of children through education.

I then decided to study a PGCE at the Education Department at Rhodes University. I was pushed into the deep end and worked long hours trying to improve my teaching methods and I eventually obtained my degree.

By the end of the year, I had fallen in love with teaching and the rewards of teaching that motivated me to continue with it as my life-long profession. 

What are the highs and lows of being a teacher in South Africa?

Like most people, I always feel it is necessary to contrast and compare the negatives and positives in a specific field. Only this time, I would have to narrow it down to the field of primary school education.

When I first started thinking of a classroom situation from a wide-eyed and naive perspective, I was calmed with thoughts of happy children singing along to a teacher who is strumming a score from the sound of music with her guitar.

This scenario, dear readers, is nothing but an illusion.

Often, naive and wide-eyed graduates walk into teaching with the perception that life is a Disney fantasy or a classic musical; it is not!

Let’s Change the Entire Scene

That same classroom takes a hectic turn. The teacher comes to class and notices that little Sipho and little Alex are having an argument with one another.

Amidst this chaos, little Lulama comes to you in tears telling you that someone took her pencil off her desk. You hear that the principal has called in a student’s guardian because he has not done his homework for any of the other teachers for the last two weeks and he needs your undivided attention immediately.

Your mind is continuously bombarded with questions such as ‘Will the curriculum’s expectations of teaching content be in a creative way so that the children will enjoy and understand, as well as be fulfilled?’, ‘Will I get a nasty report from the department of education?’, ‘How many children will pass my tests/assignments and understand the content?’

After a terrible spot test, you realise that many of the children in your class have serious language barriers. Many of the children in the class come to school hungry and tired.

Many of the children come from homes run by their grandparents or extended families.

Back to Reality

It is very scarce that a teacher in a township school will only have one child in her classroom facing these situations.

A teacher is not just a teacher. A teacher is also a remedial expert, a therapist, an after-hours caretaker, a mother/father, a nurse, a during-hours caretaker, a peacemaker, a disciplinarian, an organiser and most importantly: a superhero. You can change the futures of these children.

You can bring hope and happiness to these children. You will realise that not everything is about you, your paycheck, or your lovely comfortable and convenient bed waiting for you at home.

You realise that you would rather choose this challenging job over being some popular actress. Without these children, your purpose would not be fulfilled and your life would be incomplete.

What is the best part of your day?

The best part of my day is always the end of each lesson because as it is with an artist, it is always lovely to step back midway through his painting and to see which improvements have developed from his hands.

In the same way, it is interesting to evaluate my lesson and see what improvement has plotted out towards the end. It is refreshing asking questions after a difficult session and finding that many of the children enjoyed and understood the lesson and that they can now apply it to their lives. It gives you a sense of self-worth and it confirms that your work has not been done in vain.

Any advice you might have that may inspire students or scholars who hope to go into teaching?

Teaching is not an easy profession and teachers face many struggles along the way. You need to prepare yourself for the fact that there will be obstacles, but remember that no goal is reached without a struggle.

You will struggle, but you will also feel the rewarding feeling of having changed lives and reached young minds in a way that only you can.

Being a teacher also comes with a set of skills which you will obtain along the way. Always make sure that you are prepared for your lessons and for meetings. Make sure that you are professional at all times.

As teachers, we cannot force children to behave and to act in a certain way or to do what we tell them to do. We can only influence them into doing it by being good examples, ourselves.

Opening the Doors to Learning with Open Learning Group

If Benita’s story sounds like a passion you wish to pursue one day, consider studying through Open Learning Group. The Open Learning Group (OLG) is a fully accredited, private education institution and an effective distance education option. OLG supports the teaching and learning journey for education institutions.

You can view all the options here.

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As Benita highlighted in her teaching scenario, teaching can be a profession which is important to South Africa. Being a teacher means you will need to commit yourself to hard work and various challenges. It is however, a deeply fulfilling and humbling profession. Contact OLG to find out more about their Education and Teaching Programmes.

Watch this video to see more of the challenges faced by teachers in South Africa:

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