On the sunny morning of Friday, January 8th, Ms. Caccamise’s Social Studies classes were graced with a foreign presence. Dani Cooper, a history teacher in Pretoria, South Africa, visited classes and discussed life on the southern tip of a vast continent.
Born in 1989 in Johannesburg, the business center of South Africa, Cooper was raised amongst a progressive family that strictly opposed apartheid, with no recollection of a time when she was separated from people of color in any way. Apartheid, an unjust system of separation between white people and those of color, was officially put to an end in 1994 but still persists in everyday life for progressive people like Cooper. “As I have grown older I have become aware of deeply ingrained divisions in society,” Cooper said in an email, “which are very slowly improving.”
In the meantime, Cooper is going on her fifth year of teaching at Pretoria High School for Girls. She hadn’t planned to stay for as long as she did, but it being the only concrete job offered at the time in which she was looking, and after finding that she loved the school, she decided to stay continue teaching there. While visiting Wilson during her time in the United States, she noticed some differences among schooling styles. “One thing I noticed is that co-ed schooling is very much the norm in America…and [this makes] for a different dynamic, among the students themselves but also for the teachers in terms of how we [approach learners].”
As for the students, Cooper also noted differences in habits and norms. “I found American learners to be quite confident in expressing themselves in class, whereas in South Africa students are perhaps more reluctant in that regard,” she continued. She has found that in her experience in teaching in South Africa, schools in the country tend to be more “traditional and formal”, while her impression of schools in the D.C. area were that of “more casual”.
Among students Cooper also gathered that both American and South African students faced similar challenges, many of which stem from the pressures of dawning adulthood and growing up in nations that still reel with racial tensions and sensitive histories. These difficulties included “constructing positive perceptions of themselves, transitioning and exploring different facets of their identities, enormous pressures to be successful”, as well as more commonly discussed and confronted ones, such as “drug and alcohol abuse, unprotected sex, [and] teen pregnancy”. “I think it is also relevant that [South Africa] and the [U.S.] are both deeply unequal, racist societies and young people have to negotiate their position[s] in these societies,” she added about the challenges students face in the vast countries.
Similar to Wilson, Cooper noted that the student body of Pretoria High School for Girls “also faces issues of self-segregation”, which in turn “exacerbate[s] underlying tensions which already exist in society as a whole”. In her experience, she has also found that the separation of teenage girls from teenage boys has proved to be helpful in “creating a more nurturing environment”, especially when her students face insecurities with regard to appearance.
While American and South African students have similarities in the challenges they face and in where those challenges stem from, Cooper was able to identify differences in student resources and the academic climate. “…[From] what I’ve seen of American schools, they are better-resourced and present students with more opportunities, such as practical courses as well as academic ones,” Cooper continued in her email. As a result, Cooper hopes that time will allow South African schools the chance to improve and to obtain the ability to offer their students more. “I hope schooling can become more consistent and equal in South Africa, and that the standard of South African education improves significantly,” Cooper said of the future. “I also hope that South African teachers regain their social standing in society and become more well-respected, better paid professionals. I hope that good quality education in South Africa becomes accessible to the majority of the population and not just a select few.”•
PHOTO COURTESY OF JULIE CACCAMISE