Saturday, February 4, 2012

An American High Schooler's Thoughts on Teaching in India

Over the course of these few weeks attempting to teach English and Math to Hindi speaking children, I have come to greatly appreciate preschool and elementary school teachers.  We help to teach a government school in Katputali Nagar, an urban slum.  Mud, dirt, fields of trash with pigs and goats scavenging for food.  Dirty kids squatting in broad daylight.  One day a beggar girl asked for some water, and strangely the students urged me to say "no".  I felt awful, not because of the beggars but that after shaking hands, I would need to sanitize back at Idex.  It just felt insensitive as the first thought to pop in my head.  We heard some of the beggars here have "pimps", and when offered food they decline and ask only for money.  But every time we climb out of our auto rickshaw kids run up to try and shake our hands, saying "hello" and "how are you".  For many of these people, we are probably some of the first white people they have seen, not to mention Americans.  
The school is fairly large, with kids both younger and older than the ones we teach in 2nd and 3rd grade, our class averaging around 20-30 students.  The school attendance fluctuates because of family or even religious duties, so some students may not come to school for 5-6 days at a time, where we will need to visit their family.  Then some days students will not be in school because they are flying kites instead, so the rules for coming into school are not nearly as strict as in the States.  One day we visited some of the families, and the kids were so excited to drag me by the hand towards their family houses in the back alleys of their neighborhood.  They seemed so comfortable, knowing every turn and climbing on roofs, jumping around to take shortcuts.  Expecting to see glum, morose faces, everyone looked very happy and intrigued to see us.  We heard about the puppet making traditions of the parents, but that because of television the job is becoming less and less supportive.  Though passed down through generations, the parents recognize that their children should not become puppet makers and instead enforce the importance of schooling by having some children attend extra classes.  I learned recently that they all go to school through Saturday too!  I did not expect to hear that at all.  One man in the slum mentioned that he had been to Spain, and even spoke Spanish!  The slum looks desolate only in appearance, not character or intellect.
            Learning about liberating education in our seminars has made me question my own education as well as the way I approached education in the slum.  One of the first impulses that struck me when I saw the kids was the yearning for order, for discipline as they ran around and tried to shake our hands, grabbing and clawing for attention.  I knew that I shouldn’t want to place myself above the students, but in that instant I realized how easy it is to do.  Easy for control, and as the teacher, older and physically bigger, I thought I should have authority in order to teach.  That though I wanted to be the students’ friend, I also needed to exercise authority.  What also struck me was the difference in sound between classes outside and our own- kids outside were silent, slaving in workbooks while the teachers supervised silently, while ours yelled and ran around the room. 
Over time I began to realize that I had to cater my teaching style to multiple abilities and learning styles, every day an experiment for the one worksheet or activity that would work for everyone.  I discovered there was none, that one of the best activities for the class was “Boom Chicka Boom”, and that was not a lesson.  Every worksheet had a takeaway, every lesson a plan, every activity a guideline.  One day the leaders challenged us to use no worksheets for two days, and over those days I discovered how much we relied on them.  But thinking of fun, engaging activities made their learning much more fun, though it did not help to calm them down.  Their sheer amount of energy and vigor drained me every day, excited to leave the chaos for a quiet group lunch back at Idex.  Often I woke up unmotivated or felt weighed down by the challenge of our own lesson plans, but now seeing them progressing and becoming more confident in their learning I don’t want to miss a day.  Ironically, I have found that often the less control I impose on their lesson, the more they discover and learn for themselves.  They learn more when I am not a teacher but a facilitator, when resisting my urge to give the answer becomes incredibly challenging. 
            A recent remark one of the leaders stressed was that these programs, our work is not meant to create meaningful change, that our six weeks here give us a service learning experience.  I find it strange that volunteers from everywhere come searching to make a difference, but yet as teachers we have no experience and do not even know the native language.  The kids learn from us, but we have no training.  I’ve found the nature of volunteering here absurd, that students or other volunteers can come to India and not even know the project they will work on or the nature of the work.  As part of development, working on a project to make change without even knowing its nature or the credentials astounds me.  And our leader, Kayce, is right—this work gives us an experience, for our benefit as well as that of the students.  Yes, we do make a difference, but changing the world takes an incredible amount more of commitment.
            I’ll end with a story.  One day we were trying to catch an auto rickshaw to go to work and though many pulled up to offer rides, they gave prices much too high because we were foreigners.  After walking away from multiple drivers, bargaining down to a fair price, one driver finally agreed.  Expecting him to be frustrated at our bargaining, I smiled when he called us “intelligent” instead.  Contrary to my belief, though the drivers may try and rip us off, many remain good hearted and want only to test our cultural intelligence.
            Very little time remains in India, and in the whirlwind of media project work and IST, wrapping up with teaching and seminars, I have had little time to slow down and enjoy each moment.  In the bustle of cars and motorcycles and beeping, India continues to drive on, and in less than two weeks we will be on a plane to China, our last core country before returning to the US.  The world tour is sadly winding down.     


  1. Tom, what a wonderful post. I'm glad that you address the difference between 'service' and 'service-learning'. Ultimately, if volunteers don't understand who, or how, or why they are providing 'service' in the first place, you have to wonder what their motivations are. No doubt most volunteers have good intentions, but these are seldom enough to guarantee the success of any given project.

    Looking forward to your next post!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this, Tom. I LOVED reading your insights on teaching. I forwarded this to a few teacher friends who I know will enjoy it, too. These are the challenges every good teacher faces. The teachers who don't face these challenges, who just pursue power and control in the classroom, never face this challenge head on, and ultimately don't end up being very effective as a result.