The exciting work of Axium Education is made possible by our diverse and dynamic team. Meet Gene McAravey who is our Masakhane (grade 6-9) program manager as well as our Ekukhuleni (grade 10-12) English teacher. She is passionate about the English language and finding ways to strengthen teaching and learning in rural South African schools.
Gene, tell about your journey before Axium and how you landed up working for an education organization in the tiny rural village of Zithulele.
I was born in Johannesburg but my family moved and eventually settled in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape, where I finished primary and high school. I then went to Stellenbosch University where I studied a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics for 3 years and then a BPhil in Journalism for 1 year. While at university, I became involved with running competitive debating leagues and tournaments in the schools around Stellenbosch as well as coaching the learners. That was my first experience of working in schools and I really enjoyed it.
After graduating I decided to work and travel to see more of the world and so I applied to become an English teacher in Japan, a country I had long wanted to visit. I got accepted into the JET Programme and spent the next three years working as a high school teacher in the small coastal town of Nishiarie in Japan's Nagasaki prefecture. I really enjoyed teaching and living in Japan but all the time I spent working in Japanese schools made me think a great deal about the education system in South Africa. I was constantly contrasting my own schooling experiences with what the teachers in Japan were doing and analysing what I thought we did well and where I thought we could learn from their system. I started to develop a desire to get involved in schooling in South Africa to learn more about how our education system was managed and also to see if I could apply some of the things I had learned while in Japan. Upon returning home this led me to apply for the post at Axium Education, and now here I am.
How would you explain your (very busy) role and the work that you do for Axium?
So my official titles are English Language Leader, as well as Programme Manager for Masakhane. I'm responsible for overseeing all aspects of English Education at Axium. This includes Gr6-9 classes at Masakhane (our junior learner support programmer) and Gr10-12 classes at Ekukhuleni (our senior learner support programme). Axium is also hoping to move towards providing English support for the earlier grades, especially 3 and 4 where learners are meant to be transitioning from using their Home Language (isiXhosa in this part of South Africa) as the Language of Learning and Teaching to using English, so I'm responsible for looking into ways that we will be able to do that in the future.
On the Management front, I coordinate the Masakhane programme, which, in addition to English, involves after-school lessons in Maths and Science as well as other fun, stimulating activities for learners. Masakhane also has a school engagement component, where the team members regularly visit our four partner schools in order to learn more about the rural education context and to partner with them to help learners.
You have already been living in the rural former Transkei and working with Axium Education for a year now, what has been your greatest learning experience during your time here?
The more I work in this area, the more I become aware of the sheer scale of the problems and challenges faced by learners and teachers in rural communities. It's one thing to read a newspaper article about the poor matric pass rate or how South Africa is lagging behind other countries in international student assessments, and then bemoan the shocking state of education over a cup of tea in your lounge. It's another thing to sit in a run-down staff room, in a broken-down school that's only accessible by dirt roads, watching overworked, underpaid teachers at risk of being buried beneath the mountains of workbooks awaiting marking, tell you about how the Department of Education shows no signs of filling the three teaching posts that have been empty for more than a year.
Or, better yet, to try to convince a classroom of 90+ 14-year-olds, crammed four in a desk, most of whom haven't eaten breakfast, and had to walk several kilometers to be at school, and who struggle to hold a casual conversation with you in English, that they really need to know the difference between alliteration and assonance, or how to conjugate verbs into the past perfect continuous tense. Rural teachers are being asked to achieve the impossible. No one can teach or learn effectively in these kinds of conditions, and South Africans and the government need to rally behind these schools and support them, not criticise them.
Teaching in a formal school setting in Japan must be a huge contrast to a less-scripted after school English programme in South Africa. What have you enjoyed about this transition?
I love working with South African kids, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds. Although there are many challenges, the learners are so full of potential and drive and dreams for their future that it makes teaching them incredibly rewarding. I love creating a space where they can feel safe and important, where they get exposed to new ideas and information and where the priority is not on them passing a test but on them enjoying learning. There is a great deal of freedom in my job, especially among the younger learners, to do whatever I think will benefit them most. It is a creative, interesting and challenging space that pushes me to experiment and grow and learn as well.
What have you found challenging about this transition?
I thrived in Japan's highly structured and regimented work environment, where roles, procedures and expectations were all clearly defined and everything ran like clock-work. Working at Axium has forced me to step outside of my comfort zone and learn to accommodate different ways of achieving goals and different work philosophies. Axium also works in an experimental and multicultural space where we are still trying to determine how our programmes and staff can be most effective and what our ideal support role looks like. We are also largely at the mercy of schools that do not, to put it mildly, run like clockwork, which has been challenging.
You are someone who continually thinks about the ‘bigger picture’ of education in South Africa, even while teaching English prepositions in your rondavel-classroom to energetic 13 year olds. How has your time with Axium influenced your perspective on the current curriculum and state of schools in South Africa?
I believe the Department of Education needs to be more pragmatic and realistic about what's achievable in rural communities with limited staff and limited resources. While we can and should continue to focus on improving the number of teachers, the quality of training and the remuneration teachers receive, it might be worth considering taking other steps. While others might disagree, I feel like the it's absurd to expect rural schools to complete the same curriculum at the same pace as former model-c schools in wealthier urban areas. I believe allowances need to be made, and perhaps even the subject areas reduced to ensure that students master core educational areas like literacy and numeracy before proceeding to subjects like technology or arts and culture. While all subjects have value and merit, the reality is that South African learners are failing to master the basics. We do these children no service by ignoring that reality. Exactly what such changes may require or look like in practice is up for debate, but we need to start by recognising that perpetuating the status quo helps no one.
Looking forward to your next year with Axium, what are you most looking forward to? (does not have to be Axium related)
I have one American friend and one British friend who were fellow English teachers in Japan who are coming to visit soon. I am looking forward to seeing them again and showing them the beauty of South Africa!
Gene, you are an asset to the Axium team. I hereby grant you 3 wishes…the first of which cannot be 'world peace' and the last of which cannot be used to ask for more wishes. What are your 3 wishes?
1. A better public transport system in South Africa. Affordable, reliable trains and buses that run to the majority of towns and townships, better transport within major urban areas and TAR ROADS for all rural communities.
2. A highly capable, efficient and ethical bureaucracy working in all of the government's departments and offices.
3. A well maintained library in every school with a passionate librarian/teacher managing it, stocked with fun engaging books for all levels of readers, some in English and some in all the local language of that area (like isiXhosa in the Eastern Cape), where kids can learn the joy of reading for pleasure.
P.S. What is your favourite kind of pizza?
I'm not sure if there's a special name for it but pizza with salami and black olives is my favourite.
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