How does HIV/Aids affect your teaching?

Statistics repeatedly tell us that HIV and Aids are affecting the lives of millions of South Africans—an estimated 5,7-million in 2009—the majority of whom are involved in the education system as teachers, parents or learners.

What the statistics don’t tell us is how the average teacher and learner are affected on a daily basis. Warnings about the potential effect the pandemic will have on the quality of education somehow do not capture the real trauma and despair of teachers who have to deal with severe emotional, financial, social, psychological, health and pedagogical challenges.

Although the negative effects of the pandemic put additional pressure on an already depleted and struggling educational system, educators have an important role to play in both the prevention of HIV infection and the care and support of those already infected or affected.

The problem is that few teachers have been trained to cope with the educational, social and psychological consequences of HIV and Aids. This article will give some pointers on how to begin to do this.

You need to make sure that you know the correct facts about the virus and how it is transmitted.
To see if your knowledge is up to scratch, take the tests.

You need to know not only the HIV facts, but also about condom use, pregnancy and other sexually-related issues. This may mean that you have to become comfortable with talking about these subjects—not an easy task when we have been culturally conditioned to avoid them.

There is a lot of information available, so you should be able to make sure you know the facts. If you don’t, you risk spreading myths and false information that could lead to stigmatisation and other negative consequences.

Teachers in all learning areas (not just life orientation) need to be able to facilitate responsible decision-making with learners and should be comfortable about integrating life-skills education into their syllabuses where possible.

To be an effective HIV and Aids educator is to be aware of your own values, beliefs, feelings and behaviour, because what you believe, feel and do in the classroom will convey either a positive or negative message around HIV and people living with HIV and Aids.

The exercise below will help you to clarify how you feel and highlight what you might need to do to improve your teaching about HIV and Aids.

Think about the following questions — your answers will be important in helping you to tackle HIV and Aids in your teaching:

  • How do HIV and Aids affect your teaching?

  • How do you feel about teaching learners who may be infected/affected?

  • Do you feel able and equipped to integrate this topic into your teaching?

  • What do you still need to learn or change to be an effective HIV and Aids educator?
  • Once you are aware of your own attitudes towards HIV and Aids and those infected or affected, you will be able to make sure that you create a safe and supportive school and classroom environment that will encourage learners to share with you any problems that might be affecting their ability to concentrate and learn.

    HIV and Aids exacerbates already existing problems, such as poverty, and often the teacher is the only person a learner can turn to for help.

    Some ideas that might help you to create a supportive environment for vulnerable children include:

  • Involve the community in setting up a feeding scheme and/or a vegetable garden;

  • Form personal relationships with specific social workers at the department of social welfare and/or non-governmental agencies to ensure the basic needs of children are met and that social welfare can be accessed;

  • Set up a clothing exchange whereby uniforms can be donated or swapped; and

  • Hold regular information meetings for parents and caregivers about how to reduce the vulnerability of children.
  • In addition to these practical actions, the school should try to create an environment in which children feel loved, secure and valued. This will help them to learn and develop holistically.
    Something as simple as smiling and greeting each learner by name can make a tremendous difference to their lives.

    Professor Lesley Wood has written a book titled Dealing with HIV and AIDS in the Classroom, published by Juta Academic, as well as articles on this topic in various journals. She is an associate professor in the faculty of education at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University

    Dos and don’ts of of HIV/Aids education


  • Use the personal approach: Invite HIV-positive people who are of a similar age and background to the learners into the class to chat to them. Use stories or case studies of real-life people to illustrate that one can live positively with HIV.
  • Be culturally sensitive and age-appropriate: Choose your material carefully to respect the cultural beliefs of your learners and the community they live in. Be very careful to choose age-appropriate material.

  • Use the correct language: Think about how you speak about HIV and Aids—referring to it as “that disease” or to people living with HIV/Aids as “victims” may send the wrong message. HIV and Aids are not the same thing, and someone can be HIV-positive without having Aids, so be careful not to use them interchangeably. Using the wrong words can increase stigmatisation.

  • Make your classes interactive and participative: There is material available to help you with this—young people learn more when they are engaged, involved and having fun. You also need to make sure that you are able to talk comfortably about sex amd sexuality with learners.
  • Do Not

  • Moralise: Linking HIV infection with “immoral” behaviour increases stigmatisation of those who are infected. Many people are infected through no fault of their own—for instance, through rape or mother-to-child transmission.
  • Bombard with statistics: This depersonalises the problem and helps to “other” it. Overuse of statistics can lead to learners becoming immune to the severity of the pandemic.
  • Use scare tactics:
  • Threatening learners with death and dire consequences if they “don’t behave themselves” can lead to the stigmatisation of those infected and may cause undue anxiety and false beliefs among learners (for instance, that all people who are HIV positive will die soon. What would this do to the mental health of learners whose parents are HIV positive or who may be HIV positive themselves?

  • Link HIV with specific sectors of the population: this can lead to stigmatisation and discrimination. Suggesting that the disease is more prevalent among black Africans, the poor, the uneducated or women can lead to learners ‘othering” the problem and not realising that they are just as much at risk.
  • In spite of the added stress and challenges that HIV presents for education, it also presents an opportunity to rethink your approach to teaching and learning.

    Teachers can take the chance to integrate life-skills and sexuality education into the curriculum, to talk about safety and gender issues, to encourage a greater level of caring and empathy at schools and to bring back the nurturing element of education.

    HIV and Aids could be the catalyst we need to humanise teaching, to make sure education contributes to developing learners who will be compassionate, caring, responsible and HIV-free citizens.

    Sources: UNGASS (March 31 2010) South Africa UNGASS Country Progress Report. Wood, L. 2008. Dealing with HIV and Aids in the Classroom. Cape Town: Juta

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