The Students Teaching and Education Programme (STEP) is a project run by university students for high school students…
On Friday night I could not sleep. The next morning, Learn and Teach magazine was sending me back to school! It is many years since I was last a high school student and I was nervous…
I pictured myself in the English class, with the teacher asking me: “Now, can you tell us something about Romeo and Juliet?” I couldn’t bear to think about the embarassment I would suffer in front of all the other students — the only thing I know about Romeo and Juliet is that William Shakespeare wrote it!
I saw myself half-standing, half-seated, my eyes opened wide, like a lion caught in a trap. I could see my mouth hanging open — as wide and hollow as a deep, dry donga in a rural village — and no voice coming out.
I could hear my “classmates” bursting into a roar of laughter: “Waa…!” With these terrible thoughts in my head, I went to sleep…
FREE TO QUESTION
The next morning came — as it always does. I woke up and got ready for the journey to the University of the Witwatersrand, where the classes were being held. I felt sick with fear.
But I was in for a surprise. When the lesson began, I realised that this was not the classroom I remembered from my own school days. For one thing, the teacher was not as bossy as my teachers were. He listened carefully to what the students were saying. He even encouraged the students to argue with him if they did not agree. And the students felt free to ask questions when they did not understand.
This was not Bantu Education! These classes were organised by the Students Teaching and Education Programme (STEP).
At lunch time, I told my English teacher, Reginald Nxumalo, that I was not really a student, but a writer from Learn and Teach magazine.
Reginald is a second-year Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) student at the university and one of STEP’S subjects co-ordinators. He told me that STEP grew out of a Winter School that was organised by the Medical Students’ Council in 1983. Students who were studying to be doctors gave the classes in the winter school holidays.
By 1985, the tutors realised that their classes were so popular that they should take place every week and not just during the holidays. They began to teach every Saturday. The Saturday classes grew and grew until STEP was formally launched in February 1986.
In that year alone, over 200 Wits students offered to become tutors. Over 1500 black high school students from the townships registered as students. But then came a year of boycotts. High school students decided not to go to school until the education system changed. The STEP tutors did not know what to do — whether to continue with the Saturday classes or not.
“This was when we started working closely with the National Education Coordinating Committee (NECC) and other community organisations,” Reginald said. “The NECC in particular gave us direction. They organised a National Education Conference in Durban. At the conference, students, teachers and parents decided to go back to school. STEP also began its classes.”
A NEW EDUCATION
Reginald’s comrade, Trevor Selebi is STEP’S Project Co-ordinator. Trevor told me about the aims of their organisation. “In the short term, we aim to help black students get a matric certificate, even if the Bantu Education system is rotten. But in the long term, we are working towards establishing a people’s education for people’s power in a new South Africa.
“To achieve these goals we teach differently from most DET schools. For example, we try to arm our students with confidence and with freedom of thought. We encourage questions, discussion and debate. STEP tutors see themselves as learners too, not “know-it-all” teachers. That’s why we call ourselves tutors, not teachers.
“We also offer lessons in subjects that are not in the DET syllabus. These include Drama, Art, Street Law, African literature, township poetry, study skills, career guidance and video films.”
STEP also organises workshops on political issues. They invite leaders to come and address the students. For example, in August, on Women’s Day, comrade Helen Joseph spoke to them about the role of women in the struggle.
The organisation also has a Media and Publicity Committee that makes posters, T-shirts, banners, pamphlets. They write a magazine called STEP FORWARD where students can express their bright ideas and creative writing.
But STEP is not only about serious study. “They say ‘all work and no play make Jack a dull boy’,” Trevor laughed. “So we avoid that by organising trips and social events such as jolls, picnics and theatre evenings.”
THE WORKING GROUP
It is not just in its teaching that STEP is so different to the DET. The organisation is also run in a very different way — democratically.
Reginald explained that all the activities of STEP are co-ordinated by a central body called the Working Group. This body is made up of seven members. The seven are elected at a general STEP meeting every year.
The Working Group is helped by eleven subject co-ordinators who are also part of the Group. STEP students are not left behind in the running of the organisation. They are represented on the Working Group by their own SRC. They make sure that decisions are always made with the students’ interests in mind.
FULL OF PRAISE
I had heard what Trevor and Reginald had to say about STEP. Now I wanted to hear what the students thought about it. So I left the lecture rooms and took a walk around the campus with the two co-ordinators.
Outside there was a group of students enjoying the warm sun during the lunch break. I went over and asked if I could speak to them. Before anyone else could answer, young Laura Bogoshi jumped up and said: “Let me speak to you!”
Laura is seventeen years old, and is a matric student at Daveyton High School. At STEP she is studying Mathematics, Physical Science and Biology. Laura is full of praise for the STEP courses. “I have gained so many things here,” she says proudly, “especially things that I could not understand at school. STEP tutors try very hard to make sure that we understand.”
Another student, Johannes Tshabalala, spoke next. Johannes is a Standard nine student at Morris-Isaacson High School in Central Western Jabavu, Soweto. He is studying history, geography and biology at STEP.
Johannes told me that he wants to be an historian. “I have learnt so much in my history class at STEP,” he said. “At school, we study history in a very narrow way. Here, we learn living history. We talk about what has happened in the world and what is happening now.”
The students say that they have only one problem — getting to class. “Sometimes my parents do not have enough money for transport,” says Laura. “Many other students have the same problem. And I feel sorry for those students who want to come to STEP classes, but can’t because they have no money at all.”
Trevor also spoke about another problem: the programme does not have enough space for all the students. “This year we had to turn away more than 4 000 students. We just don’t have room for them. I would like to challenge the Wits administration to be more generous and allow us to use more venues.”
“Another big problem is time,” added Reginald. “The programme starts in March and closes down in October, so that the tutors can study for our own final exams. We also close for four weeks in June and July because tutors go home for the winter holidays. So we do not teach a full year.”
Lunch break was over. I went back to my class and tried to participate as best 1 could. It was not hard because all the other students were helping and encouraging me. I even learnt a bit about the sad story of Romeo and Juliet!
But as we worked, my mind kept taking me back to my own school days in the bantustan where I grew up. I thought about the hundreds of thousands of school children all over the country who still face this same kind of education.
Then I looked at my STEP “classmates” and thought about how lucky they are to be part of a programme like STEP. I understood just what a difference a good education can make.
Learn and Teach supports the ideals of STEP and all the other education programmes that are trying to build a new kind of education. We invite all students, teachers and democratic forces to step forward, as STEP is doing, in the struggle for a better education, until “the doors of learning and culture are open!”